Vol. 3, No. 21 (November 01, 2010)

A balancing act within a balancing act: Promoting Azerbaijani national interests within the South Caucasus

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Speaking at an October 22 symposium on the South Caucasus, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said that “it is difficult to speak about cooperation” among the three states of that region because they are involved in so many conflicts both with each other as is the case with Azerbaijan and Armenia and with outside powers like Georgia and the Russian Federation. [1] But if finding cooperation across the three is difficult, working on it where possible is critical not only for maintaining a balance among them but also for positioning them relative to the outside powers who have their own agendas in the region.  And that makes Baku’s growing relationship with Tbilisi, the only other capital in the region that Azerbaijan is not locked into a military conflict with, especially important.

In his remarks, Mammadyarov argued that Azerbaijan and Georgia have already achieved “remarkable relations” both in the political and economic sphere.  They share many views about the world, a commonality strengthened by mutual visits of President Ilham Aliyev and his Georgian counterpart Mikhail Saakashvili and by their membership in GUAM and aspirations for closer ties with Europe.  And as the Azerbaijani foreign minister pointed out, the Azerbaijani oil company SOCAR is now “the very largest tax payer in Georgia,” yet another indication of the integration that has already taken place between the two.

Not surprisingly, such increasing closeness and cooperation has sparked discussions on occasion about the possibility of some closer political relationship, including even the formation of a confederal state.  But at least from Azerbaijan’s perspective, as readers of the chronologies in recent issues of Azerbaijan in the World know, that is more a rhetorical device to stress just how close the two countries have become rather than a road map for negotiations anytime soon.  Indeed, both Baku and Tbilisi have their own reasons not to take such a step lest the problems of the one become the problems of the other, something neither of these countries is interested in having happen. 

The Azerbaijani foreign minister in the same speech stressed that “Azerbaijan would like it if Armenia were to join in such regional projects,” but that is impossible until Yerevan changes course and agrees to the withdrawal of all Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani territories.  Once that happens, Mammadyarov suggested, Baku would welcome Armenian participation because “the foreign policy of Azerbaijan is based on cooperation with all neighbors and states.” Unfortunately, he said, “the only country in the region which rejects that approach is Armenia.”

A major reason for making progress on establishing a just and lasting balance among the countries of the South Caucasus, of course, is that outside powers continue to play on divisions among the South Caucasus countries in order to promote their own interests.  Indeed, much of the analysis both in the region and more generally over the last two decades has focused on the actions of these outside players, such as the Russian Federation, the United States, Turkey, the European Union, and Iran rather than on the actions of the countries within the region themselves.  But in recent times, the balance between these two balances may be shifting toward the inner wheel.  And what that means for Baku is that Azerbaijan must try to promote or establish relations among the countries of the region even as it works to balance the various outside powers interested in playing a role or even assuming a dominant position in the region.

That is an even more difficult task than building relations with Georgia.  Indeed, shortly after Foreign Minister Mammadyarov’s speech, Armenian media outlets immediately saw his remarks as part of a “Baku-Tbilisi-Ankara” axis that was not only directed against Armenia itself but also against Armenia’s efforts to maintain its close relationship with the Russian Federation and exploit its growing ties with Iran, a country which has become increasingly active in the region over the last six months.  And those Armenian articles represent a kind of invitation to Armenia’s supporters to become more active in order to prevent Baku-Tbilisi ties from becoming a greater problem for Yerevan.

This constellation of forces suggests at least three tentative conclusions.  First, the balanced foreign policy that Azerbaijan has pursued under both President Ilham Aliyev and his father Heydar Aliyev is something far more complicated than most analyses have suggested because it requires two balancing acts, not one.  Second, all the South Caucasus states have relationships with the major outside powers, and those powers can, even under conditions of diminished attention to the region, play on the internal balance even as changes in that balance force them to consider shifts in their own position.  And third, because of this complexity, the possibility for radical, even tectonic shifts in position is probably greater rather than less even though systems of greater complexity are often more stable than simpler ones.

For Azerbaijan, that means that developing relationships with its immediate neighbors is linked to but not derivative of its ties with outside powers and that such relationships, despite the assumptions of many in the region and outside, could change dramatically in the short term lending a new unpredictability to what is already one of the more unpredictable regions of the world.


[1] See http://news.day.az/politics/234791.html (accessed 25 October, 2010).