Vol. 4, No. 1 (January 01, 2011)

Progress toward a breakthrough: Azerbaijan and the world in 2010

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Many in Azerbaijan and elsewhere expected 2010 to be a breakthrough year that would lead to the end of Armenian occupation of 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory, and because that has not happened, some of them are now giving the most pessimistic assessments of Baku’s foreign policy activities in 2010.  But that is a serious mistake.  On the one hand, the reaction of various international actors, including Azerbaijan, to the lack of progress on what is commonly referred to as the Karabakh conflict in fact makes progress more likely rather than less in 2011.  And on the other, the focus on the Karabakh issue alone distracts attention from the major foreign policy moves, both institutional and political, that Baku did achieve over the last 12 months.

The reasons for optimism about the Karabakh conflict at the start of 2010 were obvious: Turkey and Armenia seemed to be edging toward an opening that would give Ankara greater influence over Yerevan and allow Yerevan to take steps on Karabakh that it has so far refused to do.  Kazakhstan was the president in office of the OSCE and had made it clear that finding a solution to the Karabakh issue was at the center of its agenda.  And both the  leaders of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries, in particular Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev, and the governments of neighboring countries not part of the Minsk process such as Iran all became more active.

Despite all that, however, there was no resolution.  Armenia refused to move, and the OSCE summit in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana came and went without progress—or at least without the kind of progress that non-diplomats could see.  That failure led more officials in both Azerbaijan and Turkey to talk about a military option and prompted even more politicians and commentators there and elsewhere to conclude that this frozen conflict was going to stay frozen for a long time to come.

But there are at least three reasons why that conclusion is not justified.  First, increasing frustration with the OSCE and its Minsk Group in Baku and elsewhere simultaneously forces its co-chair countries to become more active lest the OSCE itself lose its way, something various leaders suggested in Astana was already the case, and prompts other countries like Iran and even India and China to assume a larger role either to project their rising power or to win plaudits from the current leaders of the international system.  Thus, 2011 almost certainly is going to see a newly active Minsk Group and actions by others, with each of these trends pushing the other forward.

Second, 2010 was a year in which Azerbaijan’s power, influence and standing all rose while that of Armenia declined, developments that put new pressures on Yerevan to settle before these trend lines separate even further.  Azerbaijan’s military program was growing both because of its own investments and because of expanding ties with Turkey in the defense industry.  Armenia’s military continued to weaken along with its economy.  Moreover, Azerbaijan’s political influence and standing increased because Baku showed itself willing to live according to the OSCE’s revised proposals, something Armenia refused to do.  Indeed, one can see US President Barak Obama’s decision to give Matthew Bryza a recess appointment as a bow to Baku’s increased standing and as evidence that “the Armenian lobby” which Azerbaijanis have often seen as all-powerful is now anything but.

And third—and this may be the most important reason for optimism rather than pessimism on this point—the failure of the OSCE Minsk Group to achieve an accord this year not only opens the way for new participants in the peace process but also new ideas as well.  As many Azerbaijani commentators have pointed out, the Minsk Group has failed to reconcile the two principles it has sought to bring together, that of the inviolability of the territorial integrity of states and that of the right of nations to self-determination.  Those principles do not necessarily conflict, but bringing them together in a way that does not constitute a victory for one side and a defeat for the other is a problem.  Now, as was the case in the years before the Minsk Group was formed, there may be a chance for new ideas, including perhaps the defense of both through expanded international involvement.

However that may be, focusing on the Karabakh issue alone inevitably distracts two other developments in Azerbaijan’s foreign policy during 2010 that appear likely to prove equally or even more important in the coming years.  The first of these is institutional; the second is a broadening of Baku’s approach to the world.  Institutionally, Azerbaijan made serious steps toward fulfilling President Ilham Aliyev’s promise three years ago that Baku would have 80 embassies and more consulates around the world, thus doubling its representation abroad in a matter of months.

Not only did Azerbaijan open embassies and consulates general in many countries in 2010, but it both staffed them with professionals trained at places like the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy and with experience in the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Baku.  Moreover, this fall, again in response to an initiative by President Aliyev, the foreign ministry began setting up public outreach offices in most of these missions, thus ensuring that Azerbaijan’s message to the world will be delivered to important publics and that Baku will play an increasing role in the large and increasingly active Azerbaijani diasporas in many capitals.

All of this has contributed to a broadening of Azerbaijan’s approach to the world both geographically and functionally.  Over the course of 2010, Baku sent senior diplomats to Asia and Latin America, places where Azerbaijan has important economic and political interests and is opening missions, as well as expanded its presence in Iran, Georgia, the Russian Federation, and Turkey, where it has equally important concerns.  In the case of Russia, it has reached a border accord, and Baku is currently negotiating with Georgia to achieve the same.  Finally, during the last 12 months, Azerbaijan has increased its contacts with Central Asian states with whom it has much in common culturally and linguistically but with whom it has obvious interests in the Caspian and the question of gas and oil transit.

Azerbaijan’s expansion reflects Baku’s increasing interest in playing a role not just as an energy supplier but as a major regional power, something other countries are interested in seeing it become either as a counterweight to the expansion of Turkish and Iranian influence or as a guarantor of security in a region that has known little of it over the last centuries.  Most commentaries on Azerbaijan begin and end with oil and gas, but increasingly, Azerbaijani diplomats are talking about other issues as well.  And that shift, one that has passed below the radar screens of many, may be the most important reason for an optimistic assessment about Azerbaijan’s role in the world in 2011.