Vol. 4, No. 2 (January 15, 2011)

Azerbaijan and the EU Eastern partnership: Toward a relationship of equals?

Samuel Lussac
Sciences Po Bordeaux – SPIRIT
Kadir Has University

The European Union and Azerbaijan have cooperated since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Since July 16, 2010, the two sides are committed to discussing a future Association Agreement within the framework of the EU Eastern Partnership program.  That agreement will build on the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement the EU signed with Azerbaijan earlier as well as on the special relationship Azerbaijan enjoys with the EU thanks to its energy resources. 

If the relationship between the EU and Azerbaijan has been strong in the energy area, bilateral cooperation in other fields including rule of law and economic diversification has been much less developed.  Obviously, both the EU and Azerbaijan hope to broaden and deepen the level of cooperation, especially given the EU’s Eastern Partnership project.

Because the EU has accepted many former socialist bloc countries as members, the Union is not completely united on how to approach the former Soviet republics.  The new EU members support a differentiated approach to these countries given their variety, and they achieved a victory in November 2006 when they secured EU backing for the development of Individual Action Plans with each of the three South Caucasus states.  Subsequently, these Eastern European EU members, led by Poland and Sweden, have pushed for a special relationship with each of the former Soviet republics. 

The so-called Visegrad Group which consists of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia backed the Polish-Swedish proposal and argued that Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and the South Caucasian states are part of “Eastern Europe,” a view that not all the other EU members shared, but with the support of the United Kingdom, Poland and Sweden submitted a proposal for the establishment of an Eastern partnership to the European Commission in May 2008, and despite some reluctance the Commission ultimately agreed.

This process accelerated after the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008.  During the extraordinary European Council of September 1, 2008, which convened to address this conflict, the European member-states strongly reiterated their support for the Eastern Partnership and underscored that they did not wish to leave their Eastern neighbours facing Russia alone.  As a result, the Eastern Partnership Program was launched on May 7, 2009, at the EU Prague Summit.

In addition to this bilateral approach which calls for the elaboration of Association Agreements with each of the six countries, the Program calls for the creation of a multilateral framework encompassing the relationship between the EU and its six partners that will ultimately allow for the establishment of an Economic Community for the Neighborhood. 

Until 2003, the EU did not define Azerbaijan or its neighbors in the South Caucasus as a neighbor of Europe.  Baku was added to that category only then, and that became the basis for the talks that have occurred since that time, talks that have focused on energy issues more than anything else given Azerbaijan’s natural wealth.
Taking advantage of the institutional turmoil generated by the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, DG Energy from the European Commission has decided to take the lead in policy-making towards Azerbaijan.  It knows that this country is the only one that in the short run, that can provide gas to the South Corridor project and is thus willing to build a special partnership between Baku and Brussels.  In this perspective, Roland Kobia, who previously worked with former Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, was appointed as the new head of the EU delegation in Baku in October 2009. 

The future Association Agreement could break this energy dominance in the Azerbaijani-EU relationship.  First of all, Baku hopes that Brussels will take into account its domestic evolution.  The Azerbaijan the EU used to deal with in the mid-1990s is very different from the Azerbaijan it is negotiating with today.  In the 1990s, it was one post-Soviet state among others, struggling to promote its interests abroad.  Now, it is a wealthy country that uses its enormous oil revenues to build a coherent and consistent foreign policy in the Caspian and the South Caucasus.  It has proved its ability to sustain external pressures from great powers. 

Second, Baku hopes the EU will take into account Azerbaijan’s role as a regional economic leader.  The Azerbaijani oil company SOCAR is now the largest taxpayer in Georgia, where it controls all the gas distribution system.  Azerbaijan also funds the Georgian section of the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad, which may be an important axis of transportation across the South Caucasus in the next decade.  Moreover, the role of Baku in the energy field in Turkey is also becoming increasingly important.  Thus, in the economic sphere at least, Azerbaijan is becoming a major player in the South Caucasus. 

Brussels does want the Association Agreement to update its relationship with Azerbaijan.  Such an agreement is firmly needed insofar as the EU lacks leverage over Baku given that Azerbaijan does not want to join the EU.  Thus, Brussels needs to find other incentives to build a strong partnership with Azerbaijan.  The Association Agreement is intended to provide such an opportunity.  At the very least, it may help Baku and Brussels revise their economic and political dialogue.  On the one hand, the EU needs Azerbaijan to be a door opener in the South Corridor project, and on the other, Baku needs the EU to play a stronger role in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  The Association Agreement could lead to a win-win situation, but for that to happen, both the EU and the Azerbaijani government will have to work hard to turn these hopes into realities.