Vol. 3, No. 22 (November 15, 2010)

Polish-Azerbaijani relations: Is a new chapter about to open?

Konrad Zasztowt
National Security Bureau (Poland)

Relations between Poland and Azerbaijan are at a watershed moment.  On the one hand, the increasingly intense relations between the two countries over the last decade may now weaken as a result of the failure of joint energy projects, declining cooperation among post-Soviet states like Ukraine and Georgia, and the likely withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan.  But on the other, the European Union’s Eastern Partnership Program (EPP) initiated by Poland and Sweden could have the opposite effect, leading to an expansion of bilateral ties in the coming years.

Poland recognized Azerbaijani independence on December 27, 1991, and both then and later declared its respect for the territorial integrity of that country, something critically important for Azerbaijan.  But intensive diplomatic contacts developed only in the late 1990s after then-President Heydar Aliyev’s visit to Poland in August 1997 and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski’s visit to Baku in October 1999.  Poland backed Azerbaijan for membership in both the Council of Europe and the World Trade Organization and declared its interest in participating in various energy projects. 

Bilateral cooperation on energy involved the development of plans for the creation of the Eurasian Oil Transportation Corridor (EAOTC), a program that defined an integrated route for the export of Caspian basin oil through Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Black Sea to Ukraine and Poland.  Following the opening of the Odessa-Brody pipeline in 2001, Poland sought access to Azerbaijani oil via the extension of the network to the Polish refinery at Plock and then to Gdansk.   

Although Ukrainian portion of this route was finished in 2001, the Polish segment is still not ready.  Moreover, the pipeline was in fact used to move Russian oil to the Black Sea rather than Caspian oil to the West.  Political conflicts in Kyiv prevented Ukraine from reaching an agreement on the exact route of the pipeline there, and as a result, Poland decided that it was not yet ready to invest in it.  At the same time, Azerbaijan was suspicious about the development of the Ukrainian segment and focused its attention on other routes westward, including in particular the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline which was completed in 2005.

Although political turmoil has continued in Ukraine, both Azerbaijan and Poland have supported the Odessa-Brody corridor, using the energy summits in Krakow, Vilnius, Kyiv and Baku in 2007-2008 to try to push things forward.  During the Vilnius meeting in October 2007, the energy ministers of Azerbaijan, Poland, Lithuania, Georgia and Ukraine along with their respective oil companies signed an accord intended to speed up the realization of the Brody-Plock-Gdansk project.  But these efforts did not achieve expectations, especially after the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008 and continuing uncertainty in Ukraine. 

Viktor Yanukovich’s victory in the Ukrainian presidential elections earlier this year probably ends this project, thus reducing the possibility for cooperation between Poland and Azerbaijan in the energy sector.  GUAM does not seem able to take up the slack for the same reason.  But the European Union’s Eastern Partnership Program (EPP) may provide a new opening.

In May 2008, Poland joined Sweden in proposing this initiative to the EU’s General Affairs and External Relations council.  The aim of the program is to bring the former Soviet republics into closer relationship with the new EU members in Eastern Europe.  As inaugurated in May 2009, the EPP relies heavily on Poland, which not only proposed the idea in the first place but has made its implementation one of two central tasks of Warsaw’s eastern policy.  The other is improving relations with Moscow, but whether that will happen in the wake of the tragic death of President Lech Kaczynski in a plane crash very much remains to be seen.

Kaczynski’s death may have a negative impact on Poland’s approach to Azerbaijan.  The new Polish president, Bronislaw Komorowski may choose to focus his attention on cooperation with the main EU partners, Germany and France, and to give preference to ties with Moscow over ties with other Eastern neighbors.  Komorowski’s recent visits to Ukraine (on September 25 and October 1) could indicate, however, that such a change is not going to happen.  But however that may be, Poland is likely to focus less on the South Caucasus as a source for energy.

Yet another factor influencing Poland’s relationship with Azerbaijan has been the involvement of both in the stabilization effort in Afghanistan.  However, Poland plans to withdraw its troop by 2012, and that likely will reduce Polish interest in the Caucasus and Central Asian regions whatever Azerbaijan does.

That past efforts have not had the success many hoped for does not mean that future cooperation will fail.  In the immediate future, however, Poland is likely to adopt a more pragmatic and prudent rather than principled policy.  If Warsaw uses its influence within the EU to get Brussels to pay more attention to the South Caucasus, both Poland and Azerbaijan could gain, with the former acquiring a stronger position in the EU’s external policy and the latter the chance for greater cooperation with Europe.