Vol. 2, No. 5 (March 01, 2009)

Eastern Europe as Azerbaijan’s bridge to the future

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy
No other region of the world has played a greater role in Azerbaijan’s foreign affairs than the states that some call the old Eastern Europe and others the New Europe – the band of countries between the Russian Federation in the east and the reunited Germany in the west.  That was not something either those countries or Baku expected a decade ago and it is not something that many in either place fully recognizes now.  But it is fair to say that in five important ways, the governments of this region now form an indispensable bridge to the future for Azerbaijan and her people.

First, because of geography and larger geopolitical interests, Eastern Europe represents the obvious transit route for the oil and gas that Azerbaijan produces and the petroleum products of the Caspian Basin and Central Asia that flow through its territory.  While that accident of geography is not the most important of the functions this region performs for Azerbaijan, it is the one that not only has sparked the reciprocal opening of embassies and visits but also increasingly frequent and high level meetings on energy issues and the political structures such as GUAM and its adjuncts like Poland and Lithuania needed to create the conditions for the transit of oil and gas from Azerbaijan to Europe a reality. 
In 1991, few would have predicted that Azerbaijan would have embassies in most of the countries of Eastern Europe and most of the East European countries would have missions in Baku, and even fewer would have forecast that there would be so many meetings of presidents, prime ministers, foreign and defense ministers, and other more junior officials, thus creating a network of contacts about energy flows and then other and ultimately more important issues.  Indeed, policy makers in both Eastern Europe and Baku and even more those in capitals further afield not only did not expect this development but have not yet taken it fully into account.
Second, again in ways few on either side expected, the countries of Eastern Europe have served as models for the transition from communism.  Most Western capitals assumed there was one model for how that should be done, and most people in Moscow assumed there was quite another.  But each expected Azerbaijan to follow one or the other path.  Eastern Europe showed that there are multiple paths, and its efforts both successful and less so to make the transition from communism to a more open political and economic system provided a kind of cafeteria from which Azerbaijan could and did choose.
Had there not been this range of routes offered by Eastern Europe, Baku would have faced a far greater challenge in moving from the past to the future.  But by picking up on the policies of Warsaw or Kyiv or Vilnius, the Azerbaijani government was able to craft its own approach, one that drew on the East European experience both because the peoples and governments there had experienced Soviet occupation and because they were not the old imperial center which many Azerbaijanis would and did distrust.

Third, and related to that, the Eastern European countries have provided a road map for how to develop relations with Moscow.  These countries recognized a fundamental truth early on: geography is congealed history, and none of them is going to move physically however much it may move psychologically.  That meant that these countries even before Azerbaijan did so had to develop relations not only with the West but with the Russian Federation, no easy task given the past but a balancing act that has made it possible for them to survive in one of the more historically difficult parts of the world.
Like his father and predecessor, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is very proud of what he calls his “balanced” foreign policy, one that seeks to carve out a place for his country not by linking its fate to one side in the geopolitical game but rather by tilting now in one direction and then in another in order to maintain a “balance” among these competing forces.  It is not an easy task, but it is certainly one that has been easier for President Aliyev because some of the governments of Eastern Europe pioneered that approach.

Fourth, East European countries increasingly play the role of spokesman for and even representatives of Azerbaijan in key European institutions like the EU and NATO, not because Azerbaijan is incapable of speaking for itself but rather because it may not ultimately choose to belong to either although it has obvious interests in both.  And Azerbaijan’s cultivation of these countries as its representatives and spokesmen has given it a boost internationally that many of the other post-Soviet states do not have.
In recent weeks, many people have focused on the role of intermediary that several East European countries have played for Azerbaijan with regard to NATO and even more have discussed the role the East Europeans are playing as interlocutors between Baku and the EU as that latter organization promotes its Eastern Partnership program.  But despite this attention, few have underscored that it is those countries which like Azerbaijan have experienced the communist past which are now in a position to help others complete the transition to the future.
And fifth, the East Europeans have – and this is far and away their largest contribution for Azerbaijan – redrawn the mental map of Eurasia.  Most East Europeans and certainly most Azerbaijanis in the past carried a mental map on which their country was located on the edge, in the East European case, on the far left side of the map, and in the case of Azerbaijan, at the bottom of the map.  Now, the East Europeans are reforming that mental image, with themselves not at one end of the map but rather at the center, between the West and Moscow, and following in their wake, Azerbaijanis too are coming up with a new map in which Azerbaijan is at the center of a world they define rather than at the edge of one others have imposed. 

With the opening of each new embassy and the conclusion of each visit in both directions, that shift in mental maps is becoming ever more obvious and important, forcing people in both Eastern Europe and Azerbaijan, on the one hand, and other governments East and West, on the other, to understand these countries not in terms of old maps but in terms of new ones.  And as the one and the other groups do that, the possibilities for Azerbaijan just like those in Eastern Europe will only increase, albeit with an increase in complexity with which all will be forced to deal.