Vol. 5, No. 1 (January 01, 2012)

Azerbaijan’s foreign policy in 2012: Ten issues to watch

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Having just completed its most successful year in foreign affairs since the restoration of independence, Azerbaijan enters 2012 with many new opportunities and the challenges that come with them.  No one can say exactly what the next twelve months will bring, especially in the area of foreign affairs, but below are ten issues that are certain to be at the center of attention in Baku in the coming months.

1. A New Format for Karabakh Negotiations?

Azerbaijan’s overriding foreign policy goal now as it has been for 15 years is to end Armenian occupation of 20 percent of its territory.  There have been many moments of hope and despair over that period, but at the start of 2012, the stage appears set for a major change either in the composition of the OSCE Minsk Group or even in its displacement by other forums as the center of talks on a peaceful resolution of the conflict. 

Like Turkey, Azerbaijanis are furious at France, one of the Minsk Group co-chair countries, whose parliament has just passed a law criminalizing the denial of the so-called “Armenian genocide” of 1915.  Like their Turkish counterparts, Azerbaijani officials and politicians have suggested that at the very least this action means that Paris can no longer claim to be an even-handed player in the talks, and some in Baku and Ankara have suggested that at the very least Paris should be replaced as a co-chair.

At the very least, such calls will reinforce Azerbaijani feelings that the Minsk Group has not lived up to its promise.  More likely still, it will lead to calls for a change in the group’s membership or format.  And even more probably, it will mean that other venues, such as the role now being played by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will expand.  At the very least, this latest controversy suggests that a settlement based on international law may be further away than it was only a year ago, even though Armenia’s position domestically and internationally is weaker now than ever before.

2. UN Security Council Membership.

Official Baku and the Azerbaijani people celebrated Azerbaijan’s election this past fall to a two-year term on the UN Security Council as a reflection of its rising status in the world and its successful diplomatic outreach to regions such as Latin America to which other candidate countries devoted less attention.  

Beyond any doubt, Azerbaijan’s election will enhance both its international standing and its ability to promote its national interests, but these gains will pose challenges.  On the one hand, as a member of the UN Security Council, Azerbaijan will have to take positions on many issues it has not had to in the past, something that will put it in the spotlight more often and make the continued prosecution of its highly successful balanced foreign policy somewhat more difficult.  And on the other, Baku will find itself drawn into numerous and intense negotiations on many of these issues, an involvement that will place burdens on Azerbaijan’s still-growing diplomatic apparatus.

At the very least, as officials in the Presidential Administration and Foreign Ministry have indicated, Baku will have to expand its permanent representation in New York and other United Nations centers and increase the size of its foreign policy institutions even more rapidly than it has done over the last five years under the direction of President Ilham Aliyev.

3. Escalating Tensions around Iran.

One issue that Azerbaijan will have to confront not only as a member of the UN Security Council, but also more generally is the rapidly escalating tensions between Tehran and the international community over Iran’s nuclear program.  While it has opposed nuclear proliferation, Baku has been very clear that it will never allow its territory to be used to attack Iran, and it continues to have close relations with the Iranian government while also maintaining good relations with the United States, the European Union and Israel, three of international actors who are currently involved in a standoff with Tehran over its nuclear program.

If tensions around Iran continue to escalate and particularly if they lead to military actions by any of the sides, Baku could be forced to choose, but more likely, it may become a central player in the drama, with each side viewing Azerbaijan as a bridge or mediator whose leaders and diplomats could prevent the crisis from deteriorating further.  That, too, will place new burdens on Azerbaijan, but it may prove to be the opportunity to elevate Baku from being a major regional power into one with far more influence beyond its immediate neighborhood.

Other countries, including China and India, clearly see this, and they are likely to seek to work with Baku lest things get out of hand, a positive development beyond question, but one that will also pose new challenges to Azerbaijan’s balanced foreign policy.

4. The End of the Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement.

No single action so far unsettled Azerbaijan more than the apparent opening of a rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey with the signing of the so-called Zurich Protocols in October 2009.  Azerbaijan viewed Turkey as its closest ally in Baku’s efforts to end the Armenian occupation of its territory, and Ankara’s willingness to sign an agreement with Yerevan struck many in Baku as an act of betrayal—or at the very least as an action that would allow Armenia an opportunity to refuse to abide by international law and withdraw its forces from Azerbaijani territories.

Because of Armenian intransigence and Azerbaijani criticism, Turkey has backed away from these protocols with the Grand National Assembly refusing even to consider them for possible ratification.  Now it is clear that the Protocols are a dead letter and that Turkey will not open its borders with Armenia until Yerevan ends the occupation, a reflection of Turkish attitudes toward Armenia and even more of Ankara’s appreciation that it went too far by signing the accords without carefully considering the views of Azerbaijan.

On the one hand, this means that Armenia cannot hope to expand its economy by exporting its goods through Turkey unless and until it withdraws from Azerbaijan, a situation that—given the increasingly disastrous economic and political situation within Armenia—should force Yerevan to negotiate a settlement more quickly.  But on the other, this development means that Armenia is more, not less, dependent on the Russian Federation and that the key to any solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict lies in Moscow. 

5. Uncertainties in Moscow.

Given the growing importance of Moscow in this regard and the presence of more than a million Azerbaijanis in the Russian Federation, upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections there and the uncertainties they are already generating are going to be matters of first concern for Baku. 

6. A New Wave of Instability in the North Caucasus.

Azerbaijan lives in what remains a very unstable neighborhood.  No part of that is more unstable than the North Caucasus, and that region is likely to become more troubled in the year ahead.  The amount of Russian aid and outside investment are uncertain, and various groups in the region are prepared to challenge Moscow’s appointed representatives there, especially in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics planned for 2014. 

Trouble in the North Caucasus affects Azerbaijan in two ways.  On the one hand, trouble there has a tendency to cross borders either as the result of refugee flows or the perception of regional difficulties that problems in the North involve.  And on the other, Russia has never been able to stabilize the North Caucasus without establishing a dominant position in the south.  Consequently, if there are problems in the North Caucasus in 2012, Azerbaijan and its neighbors will have to cope with expanded Russian interest in using the South Caucasus to defend Moscow’s position in the North.

7. Echoes of the Arab Spring.

Perhaps the greatest of unknowns for 2012 is the possible echoes of the Arab Spring of 2011.  The revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere have inspired popular revolts in many countries, both politically and technically, and they have also forced governments to take new measures, with some seeking to find common ground with the population and others invoking the need for stability to crack down on their populations. 

Azerbaijan has been far less affected by the Arab Spring than many countries in the region; not only because its government enjoys more support and has greater legitimacy than others, but also because Baku under President Ilham Aliyev—as was the case under his father Heydar Aliyev—has invested in promoting the welfare of the population.  Given the inevitability of a revolution of rising expectations and a growing population, Baku will find itself under even more pressure to make such investments in the future.

8. Eurovision and More Intense International Attention to Azerbaijan.

All Azerbaijanis welcomed their country’s victory in the Eurovision competition and look forward to Baku’s hosting of that competition in 2012.  The victory attracted expanded international attention to the country, and the upcoming competition promises to attract even more. 

Because Azerbaijan has a good story to tell, most of this attention has been and will be positive, but no country is without problems—and problems more than achievements make for better media stories.  Since the victory at Eurovision 2011, Azerbaijan has been the subject of many critical stories, some of which offer a distorted picture of life in the country.  And in the coming months, Azerbaijan is likely to be the subject of many more.

What many people around the world will be watching is how Azerbaijanis react.  Some Azerbaijanis will undoubtedly see such stories as the work of “the Armenian lobby,” but most will recognize that such stories are a reflection of the way the world media works and understand that the more important their country becomes, the more likely at least some journalists will try to play up the negative.  At the same time, however, Azerbaijani representatives, including diaspora organizations, will have an expanded role to play in correcting false reporting about the country.

9. Expansion of Azerbaijan’s Diplomatic Presence Abroad.

More than any other leader in the post-Soviet region, President Ilham Aliyev has committed his country to the expansion of its diplomatic presence abroad, particularly in regions like Asia and Latin America that many other countries have fewer contacts with.  That policy which lay behind Azerbaijan’s election to the UN Security Council has led to a doubling in the number of Azerbaijani missions abroad over the last five years and—what is equally important—a dramatic growth in the number of resident embassies and missions in Baku is set to continue.

Few international observers thought it would be possible for Azerbaijan to expand so quickly, but Baku’s program for training new diplomats at institutions like the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy has managed to keep up.  As its network of missions increase and as demands on those which already exist grows, Azerbaijan will have to do even more in this regard, perhaps doubling the size of its foreign service over the next two years.  That, too, will be a major challenge.

10. Growing Economic and Military Power.

At the foundation of Azerbaijan’s expanding influence in the world is its economy.  Its oil and gas resources and its role as an exporter and transporter of hydrocarbons already have made Baku a serious player in Europe.  That role will only expand as various pipeline projects come on line and the true extent of new gas field finds is defined.  That could set Baku on a collision course with other exporters; at the very least, Azerbaijan’s officials and diplomats will have to work hard to defend Azerbaijan’s interests in this most important sector.

In 2011, Azerbaijan’s GDP formed 80 percent of the total GDP of the three South Caucasus countries.  That share will likely rise still further in 2012 given the economic disaster in Armenia and troubles in Georgia.  And that economic power will add weight to its influence not only over its neighbors in the South Caucasus, but in Central Asia and the Greater Middle East more generally.

One area that is likely to become increasingly important over the next year will be Azerbaijan’s export of weapons and military hardware.  Thanks to joint production agreements with Turkey and its own military industry, Azerbaijan is now posed to take its place as a major arms exporter, a status that will only give additional weight to its diplomacy. 


In short, 2012 is likely to be an exciting and challenging one for Azerbaijan and its relations with the world.  But as President Ilham Aliyev recently said, the strength of the Azerbaijani government combined with the strength of the Azerbaijani people means that there is no task, foreign or domestic, that the country cannot hope to achieve.