Vol. 2, No. 9 (May 01, 2009)

The South Caucasus has changed since last year, but Azerbaijan’s national interests remain the same

Vafa Guluzade
Former National Security Advisor
Independent Analyst

What happened in Georgia last summer, Turkey’s rapprochement with Armenia, and closer ties between Azerbaijan and Russia since that time have led many to conclude that there has been a complete redrawing of the geopolitical map of the South Caucasus and that Azerbaijan must recalibrate its approach.  But less has changed than meets the eye, and Azerbaijan’s national interests remain what they were, an underlying reality many more alarmist analysts have failed to recognize or to include in their analyses of what is likely to happen next. 

The events of August 2008 cannot be understood apart from what is taking place in the world and in Russia itself now.  At that time, Russia was very ambitious: the price of oil was high and Moscow expected it to remain that way.  Now, the price of oil has fallen dramatically, and Russia is having to recalculate its position.  In many ways, one can compare the impact of high oil prices on Russian thinking to the taking of a strong narcotic.  Having tasted high oil prices, Russia fell into a kind of euphoria and lost its connection with reality.

A year ago, Moscow began to talk about reforming and rearming the Russian military by 2020, about the reformation of the country’s nuclear arsenal and all the rest, despite the fact that some Russian analysts predicted that oil prices would fall, that Russia would have problems with food, that inflation would return and that the ruble would be devalued.  Instead, the Russian elite listened to those who said demand from China and India would push prices up to 200, 300, or even 500 dollars a barrel.  And that led Putin to deliver his anti-American speech in Munich and ultimately to send his military into Georgia. 
Now oil prices have fallen, and the Russian government is not in a position to talk about renewing the arms race or about confrontation with the West, since it understands that such links led once to the collapse of the USSR, although Moscow is still in a position to continue to talk about the return of the empire and of lost territories, and in this way, Russia has again converted itself in the eyes of others into a revisionist regional player, something that has had a most profound effect on the Europeans.

If before the Georgian war, Moscow had succeeded in using the gas weapon to split Europe and America, after it, the Russian government succeeded in eliminating its gains in that regard because the Europeans recognized that Russia might attack them and that they needed NATO and close ties with the American.  Indeed, one can say that Moscow’s attack on Georgia helped to promote the coming together of both NATO and the entire Free World, all of whose members understood as a result that although the Soviet Union had fallen apart, Russia nonetheless remains the heir of the Soviet Union.
Today’s Russia does not seem to understand that Russia must not enter into a confrontation with the US and the West and that Russia must be concerned about how to re-establish its economy or more precisely create an economy, something that will be possible only if Moscow cooperates with the West and does not threaten it.  Until Moscow understands that and acts accordingly, Russia won’t get the Western assistance it needs.
Of course, Georgia also suffered as a result of the August war.  Domestic forces there are using it against Saakashvili, although I personally believe that the Georgian president was absolutely right in what he did.  Those opposing him are not pro-Russian, as some suppose, but rather are engaged in a struggle for power.  It is possible that some new group will take power as a result of the street demonstrations, and for that reason, it is incorrect to consider that Georgia at present is a democratic country.  It is not, and one must not try to be a democratic leader in an undemocratic country.  A leader in such a country as Saakashvili heads must be an authoritarian leader and allow democracy only on a dose by dose basis in order to maintain stability.

Let us see how events will develop in Georgia.  The Russian-Georgian conflict will be resolved.  Abkhazia and South Ossetia will never gain international recognition either as part of Russia or as independent states.  The economic crisis is limiting Russia’s options and threatening the future of the country.  And therefore, because of the weakness of today’s Russia, the events in Georgia will not be repeated anytime soon elsewhere.  The balance has shifted, and Moscow was not able to get any of the three South Caucasus countries to refuse to participate in NATO exercises in Georgia in May. 

The second event that needs to be considered is the rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia.  Turkey has its own national interests.  It wants to become a member of the European Union, America supports Turkey in this – and without American support, Turkey cannot even dream about this as the major European countries are opposed to having Turkey in the EU.  At the same time, the US very much wants to pay back the Armenian diaspora which played a not so small role in the election of the current president and to which Barak Obama promised to recognize the genocide.
That promise of course was made during an election campaign, and Obama wanted to get out of having to fulfill it in an intelligent way.  Therefore, in my view, the entire peace process between Turkey and Armenia was calculated in order to give Obama an excuse not to recognize the genocide because he could point to progress in talks between Ankara and Yerevan.  But despite this progress, the time for a real peace process has not yet been reached.  That will happen when Armenia withdraws all its forces from out territory and then the border between Russia and Turkey will be opened.    

Turkey has become a powerful state.  It has grown both economically and demographically.  And Turkey naturally is playing and will play in this region a still greater role.  And as such, Turkey must have normal relations with all its neighbors, in particular with such difficult neighbors as the Armenians.  Difficult because they have active diasporas in all the developed countries of the world.  Consequently, Turkey needs to establish normal relations with Armenia.  This move will give Turkey the opportunity to influence Armenia, and Armenia will serve as a market for its goods, an opportunity that will allow Turkey to drive Russia out of that market.  For that reason as well as out of geopolitical concerns, Russia does not want to see a rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey or a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  

It is in the context of these two developments that the recent steps Azerbaijan has taken in its relations with the Russian Federation.  I look at all of these as absolutely normal.  The opening of centers of various kinds here and there does not mean much in strategic terms.  On the other hand, Russia remains a country with a great culture and great intellectual potential.  Consequently, in the future, cooperation with Russia in the areas of science, culture and language will bring only good to Azerbaijan. 
In the recent exchanges, Azerbaijan has made a large number of good gestures, but on the basic questions, Azerbaijan has adopted a principled position.  Azerbaijan has not given Russia all its gas, and the diversification of the export of energy is in our interests.  More than that, diversification is necessary.  And it is important to remember that Russia will not always be what it is today.  It is completely possible that in the future, Russia will become a liberal state and will then have relations of a completely different nature with its neighbors, not imperial and not driven by a desire to re-establish its military presence in Azerbaijan.  

As a result, I think that after the August events, nothing of principle changed here.  The Russian position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, for example, remains the same and is well known to all – the preservation of a state of neither peace nor war.  Consequently, Russia will not permit the conclusion of any agreement which will lead to the peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Indeed, I think it is fair to say that Russia has increased its imitation of activity in this regard, even as the US sincerely wants a resolution of this conflict.  We must remember that Russia is trying to slow things down even as it talks about making progress.  But at the same time, many in Russia know that destabilizing Azerbaijan would not be in Russia’s interests.  Until a resolution is achieved, Russia will be against us because that is the geopolitical logic of the region and of Russia’s historical animosity to Turkey.  

In this situation, Azerbaijan will keep on sticking to its independent, balanced foreign policy.  We are and will remain an independent sovereign state.