Vol. 3, No. 1 (January 01, 2010)

‘No ordinary year’ for Azerbaijan

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

There is a long-standing tradition in journalism that articles written at the end of a year list the achievements and the shortcomings of their subject and then talk about how the individual or country involved will build on the former and overcome the latter in the year ahead.  But as President Ilham Aliyev wisely pointed out this month, “2009 was not an ordinary year.”  And it deserves a special approach, one that focuses not on the mix of successes and failures in the usual sense but on new challenges that have emerged and the ways in which Azerbaijan has been working to meet them.

Of the many such challenges that have emerged over the last months, three are especially important because in each case they pose both new opportunities and new difficulties for Baku.  They are the continuing fallout – good and bad – from the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, the increasing independence of Turkey as it seeks to become a major regional power, and Azerbaijan’s own drive to gain a higher profile in international affairs, changing from a country on the margins to a major player in its own right and doing so during a worldwide financial crisis.  Each of these developments not only presented new challenges; they all both singly and collectively redefined many of the issues that have long been on Baku’s agenda.

The full implications of the 2008 war became apparent only in the course of 2009.  Not surprisingly, they were contradictory and continue to be subject to much debate.  But several consequences appear beyond dispute.  On the one hand, Russia’s actions by violating one of the rules of the game that the countries of the region thought they could count on has forced the countries there to focus on security questions in a new way, asking what their own capacity to defend themselves is and what new relations with other powers they should pursue – or, alternatively, whether they can make use of Russia’s actions either directly or as a model for their own national security strategies.

And on the other, Russia’s actions in Georgia had profound consequences for Russian policy in the region.  By cutting off its supply line to Armenia (which had passed through Georgia), Russia not only called into question the historically close ties between Moscow and Yerevan but virtually invited Armenia to seek a way out of that impasse, even to the point of exploring the re-opening of ties with its historical enemy Turkey, but also put Moscow in a position where, in order to recover some of the influence it lost as a result of the war, the Russian government wanted to appear as a peacemaker.  Where better to show that new face than in the “frozen” Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a dispute Russia has long gained from having a condition of “no war –no peace” but where that status is no longer working to its benefit.  

Thus, one of the most important consequences of the August 2008 war has been new movement toward the resolution of the long-running Karabakh conflict, movement made possible by changes in the calculations of both Armenia and the Russian Federation and, it should be added, by the skillful way in which Baku has suggested that its patience with the current situation is running out and that it is willing to use force to restore Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, a move no one wants.

The second major shift in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus has been the increasing independence of Turkey.  Disappointed with both its inability to gain membership in the European Union and the ways in which NATO commanders have from its point of view taken Turkey for granted, Ankara has sought to play a more independent role.  The August 2008 war offered Turkey a triple opportunity: First, it could present itself as a peacemaker with its offer of a security and cooperation pact for the entire region.  Second, it could explore relations with others, including Iran, that countries in NATO or aspiring to EU membership generally have to avoid.  And third, taking advantage of Armenia’s isolation in the wake of the Georgian conflict, Ankara could reach out to Armenia, a step that not only underscored its willingness to think what had been unthinkable only a few months earlier but also won points in Western capitals where Turkey is still campaigning against any official declaration about the events of 1915 in Anatolia. 

Each of these Turkish actions had profound consequences in Baku.  First of all, Turkey’s effort to be a new regional hegemon cast doubt on the assumption that the contest in the Caucasus was between Russia on the one hand and the West on the other, with Turkey playing a supporting role.  In fact, the geopolitical competition in the Caucasus has become much more complicated.  Not only is Turkey now playing an independent role but so too is Iran and China, and their entrance means that the old two-sided game has been replaced by a much more complicated mutli-sided one.  That in turn has forced Azerbaijan to pay greater attention to players it had largely ignored and allowed Baku greater freedom of maneuver to pursue its “balanced” foreign policy.

Second, Turkey’s willingness and ability to get involved with Iran has opened the way for Baku to do the same, not only by expanding gas sales to the south but also by allowing for a dramatic warming in ties between the two Shia states.  That has the effect of changing the image of Baku as inherently anti-Iranian given the problems of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran – the so-called “Southern Azerbaijan” issue – and gives Azerbaijan yet another way of exporting its oil and gas and thus reduces the pressures on it to choose between pipeline system that flow through Russia and those that avoid it.  Curiously but hardly surprisingly in the current circumstances, those in the West who most want to see pipelines bypass Russia are nonetheless horrified that Azerbaijan may arrange exactly that by going through Iran.

But if these two consequences have attracted some attention in Baku, the third aspect of Turkey’s new approach has been at the center of debate in the Azerbaijani capital.  Operating on the assumption that Azerbaijan and Turkey are “one nation, two countries,” Azerbaijanis had assumed that Turkey would never do anything with regard to Armenia that Azerbaijan did not approve of in advance.  The signing of the Ankara-Yerevan protocols that point toward the restoration of diplomatic ties and the opening of the Armenian-Turkish frontier calls that into question.

Baku has always insisted, and Turkey has generally agreed, that there can be no progress in Turkish-Armenian relations unless and until Armenia withdraws from the 20 percent of the territory of Azerbaijan it occupies.  Turkey broke relations and closed its border with Armenia more than 15 years ago to protest Armenian actions in Azerbaijan, and no one in Baku saw any reason for Turkey to change position now.
But that was to misread both Turkey and its specific, even unique national interests.  That Turkey sees Azerbaijan as its closest ally has not changed, but Turkey has other interests, including both preventing any country and especially major Western powers from making any official declaration about the events of 1915 in Anatolia and demonstrating that it can act as an important regional power in its own right.  Those interests are now at the center of Ankara’s policies, something that has infuriated many Azerbaijanis who feel betrayed, even though in the event Turkey has not moved as far or as fast on Armenia as many had feared or expected. 

(As some of the wiser heads in Azerbaijan have noted, Turkey’s rapprochement with Armenia could end by working to Azerbaijan’s advantage.  On the one hand, such ties will have the effect of seriously reducing the influence of the Armenian diaspora both internationally and in Armenia, a group that has been more hostile to Baku than have the Armenians of Armenia.  And on the other, an Armenia with an opening to the world through Turkey will be both less dependent on Russia as it was in the past and also less committed to a Masada-type defense of Karabakh).

The third challenge to Azerbaijan as a foreign policy actor is the unintended and largely unexpected result of its own efforts to assume a higher profile in international affairs at a time when, thanks to the international financial crisis, most countries are cutting back on their missions and other activities abroad.  Thanks to its careful stewardship of past earnings from the sale of oil and gas, Azerbaijan has not been hit as hard by the world financial crisis as most other countries.  And consequently, it has been able to pursue President Aliyev’s call for expanding its diplomatic presence and muscle around the world.

Over the last couple of years, the number of Azerbaijani missions has increased by 50 percent, and the number of Azerbaijani initiatives in bilateral and multilateral forums has gone up by at least that much.  All those steps have as intended increased Azerbaijan’s profile as a rising regional power, but they have had another consequence that should have been anticipated but that is in any case much less welcome: Azerbaijan is now subject to much greater scrutiny and criticism than it was in the past.

Government actions toward journalists and others have attracted a great deal of criticism from foreign governments and monitoring organizations.  Some of this criticism is inappropriate, some is informed by “double standards” of one kind or another, but some of it is quite valid and reflects the kind of examination that a rising power has to expect the international community will subject it to.  That does not make it easy to take, and Azerbaijanis have generally lashed out at anyone who criticizes what they do, failing in almost every case to see that this criticism is itself a mark of Azerbaijan’s rise in the world even if it is also an indication of some of the chances Azerbaijan is likely to have to make if it is to rise higher still at least among the Euro-Atlantic powers.

Indeed, one of the key issues of the coming months is whether the criticism Baku has received in this area will be the cause of a rebalancing of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy away from the West.  That would compromise both the country’s national interests and its proclaimed balanced foreign policy, but the level of anger about such criticism is so great that there is a danger of a new and different tilt, a possibility that those leveling criticism of Azerbaijan cannot fail to take into consideration. 

All of these factors are going to continue to play a role in 2010, a year which may see a partial settlement of Karabakh because of Russian efforts, a partial opening of relations between Armenia and Turkey, and a greater willingness of Azerbaijan to forge ties with Iran and China.  But because of the new complexity in the international game that 2009 brought, it is entirely possible than 12 months from now President Aliyev’s suggestion that this has been “no ordinary year” will be equally applicable at the start of 2011.