Vol. 2, No. 2 (January 15, 2009)

How the US-Georgian charter will affect Azerbaijan

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy
Two “Georgian” developments in the last six months have profoundly affected Azerbaijan, but if the impact of the first – Russia’s invasion of Azerbaijan’s neighbor in August – has attracted a great deal of attention, that of the latter – the signing of the US-Georgian Charter on Strategic Cooperation – has so far not generated as much discussion, although even the briefest consideration of that document and the new security situation in the South Caucasus that it may help create suggests that the new accord, signed earlier this month, may ultimately have an equal if not greater impact on Azerbaijan and its foreign policy.
The full meaning of the document, of course, is unclear not only because of its general and symbolic nature but also because it was prepared and signed by the outgoing Bush Administration rather than by the incoming Obama government.  As a result, assessments of its general meaning have varied widely, with some dismissing it as an American consolation prize to Tbilisi after the US failed to secure the agreement of its allies to admit Georgia to NATO, and others celebrating it as a reaffirmation of an American commitment to Georgia’s security and to a continuing even expanded American presence in the South Caucasus.
However true these various assessments may be, there are three ways, some obvious and welcome and others less obvious but more troublesome, in which the new US-Georgia Charter is clearly going to have an impact on Azerbaijan.
First, the charter suggests that the United States – and in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine gas transit dispute – is focused on guaranteeing the security of gas and oil pipelines from the Caspian Basin to the West.  Georgia, as the events of August demonstrated, has always been the most troubled segment of these pipelines, and an American commitment to their protection obviously helps Azerbaijan.
On the one hand, this American umbrella, if the charter in fact means what it says, will allow Baku to have greater confidence that its bet on the two pipelines westward through Georgia was a good one.  And on the other, the protection of these pipelines will make President Ilham Aliyev’s decision to invest in the Georgian pipeline system even more wise than some analysts thought at the time.
And this protection of the pipelines in Georgia will reduce the pressures on Baku to explore north-south routes, through Russia or Iran, thus allowing it to continue to pursue what President Aliyev calls his government’s “balanced” foreign policy however much the new activism of Russia and Iran in the region have tilted that balance in another direction. 
Second, by signing this charter, the United States and Georgia have made it more likely not that there will be as similar accord between Washington and Baku but rather that Baku and other regional capitals will sign similar charters both among themselves and with outside powers.  As several Azerbaijani commentators, including Rasim Musabekov, have pointed out, Baku’s situation is very different than Tbilisi’s both with respect to Russia and to Turkey and thus an accord with Ankara is more likely than one with Washington or Moscow.
That tendency almost certainly will play into the Turkish government’s effort to promote a new security platform in the region.  Indeed, invoking the Georgian precedent, Ankara is now likely to pursue that goal by seeking the conclusion of bilateral security declarations with the regional states.  The first of these is likely to be with Azerbaijan, not only because of their traditional cultural and linguistic ties, and the pursuit of that goal almost certainly will be a major part of the Baku-Ankara agenda over the next three to six months. 
What will be important to watch is whether Turkey’s interest in such an accord will have an impact on Ankara’s warming relationship with Yerevan.  Baku certainly does not want to see that relationship take off unless it is part of a more general settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, something that at the start of 2009 appears just as distant as it was at the beginning of earlier years, the public optimism of officials and especially diplomats notwithstanding. 
And third, the US-Georgia Charter will have an impact on the actions of the two other major regional powers, the Russian Federation and Iran, each of which has already taken actions in the wake of the signing of the accord between Washington and Tbilisi, the ones that are already creating problems for Baku.
At the start of the year, Moscow transferred up to 800 million dollars worthy of military hardware to Yerevan, an action that strengthens Armenia’s position and one that the Azerbaijani government has protested vigorously given its impact on the security situation of the region.  Meanwhile, in the last week, Tehran announced plans to build a railway linking Iran and Armenia, a project that if realized would also reduce the pressure on Armenia to make any concessions in negotiations concerning the occupied territories.
How either or both of these efforts will play out, of course, remains to be seen, not only because they may prove less dramatic in their consequences than now appears likely or because other factors will intervene that will cause one or both of these actors to pull back from where they are now.  But these events, clearly responses to the US-Georgia Charter, not only highlight the ways in which actions by one or another party inevitably lead to responses by others but also to the importance of viewing any particular action not as self-contained but rather as part of a continuing process, however easy or even convenient it may appear to do otherwise.
That is the analytic and political message that the recent “Georgian” events have for Azerbaijan, and it is one that if acted upon could help promote an even more sophisticated Azerbaijani response in the coming months.