Vol. 5, No. 2 (January 15, 2012)

Azerbaijanis revisit 2011 and gaze ahead into 2012: A survey

Editorial Note:  As it has in the past, Azerbaijan in the World has surveyed officials and experts on the most important foreign policy developments of the past year.  What follows is a brief survey of different perspectives for 2011. 

Azerbaijan in the World:  What do you see as Azerbaijan’s chief foreign policy achievements during 2011?

Tedo Japaridze, Amb. [Foreign Policy Adviser, Georgian Dream public movement]: Azerbaijan’s major success in the last year was that it did not figure in news stories about the negative developments that affected so much of the world: the debt crisis, commodity fluctuations, regime change, and the like.  Instead, Azerbaijan has succeeded in avoiding these problems and when it does attract attention, it is for its growing role in the European energy-security architecture, Baku’s rise as a logistics hub, and its impressive domestic growth rates.  In short, Azerbaijan presents itself to the world as a sober and competent strategic actor and, therefore, a reliable partner and sound investment destination.  Few countries can make such a claim, especially in the troubled South Caucasus.  

Making the news for the right reasons takes a lot of work, often unseen, unspoken and uncelebrated.  This is the work of a state-of-the-art diplomatic core, equipped with patience, proficiency, professionalism and foresight.  Such human resources explain why Azerbaijan can now count on diplomatic successes in the UN Security Council.  In sum, the country’s fate is in good hands.

Rasim Musabayov, Dr. [MP, member of the Milli Majlis international and inter-parliamentary relations committee]: The greatest achievement was the election of Azerbaijan to the UN Security Council.  Second in importance was the signing of an agreement with Turkey about gas, both supply and transit, and also about the construction of the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline.  The intense activity of visits by President Ilham Aliyev and visits to Baku by leaders of other countries was critically important too, as was the broadening of the network of diplomatic missions of Azerbaijan abroad and the strengthening of ties with the Azerbaijani diaspora.

Adil Baguirov, Dr. [Managing Director, United States Azeris Network, USAN]:  Beyond any doubt, winning a two-year term on the UN Security Council, thus becoming one among only ten nations that enjoy the non-permanent seat and only the second ex-USSR state to do this, puts all other accomplishments, however important in their own right, in the shade.

AIW: What were the major shortcomings of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy in 2011? 
Japaridze: If I answered such questions I would not be a diplomat.  Shortcomings are in any event hard to define in international relations, because the effects of one decision or another take long to “sink-in.”  The fact is that every decision made, by definition, limits future options.  This is the curse a diplomat has to live with. 

However, I would humbly advise my Azerbaijani colleagues not to consider age as the sole mark of wisdom and, therefore, to exploit as much as possible the world-class human resource capacity they have at their disposal, especially in the promotion of economic, energy and trade policy objectives.  This is not a gamble, it is a safe bet.  And, by the way, shortcomings or drawback are essential parts of development, as we should learn on our mistakes and not to repeat them day in and day out.

Also, I would very much like to see deeper and more productive cooperation between Georgia and Azerbaijan developing, as it used to be during Shevardnadze and Heydar Aliyev.  As I noticed during a couple of months I stayed in Baku with ADA, although neighbors, we do not know much about our history, culture and even current politics.  That’s one thing to say that we are “strategic partners” (and we should be!), but we need to fill-in that partnership with some solid essence besides solid and trade interest—“material interests.”

Musabayov: Among the negatives, one should mention the extreme slowness in talks about entering the World Trade Organization.  Here we are clearly falling behind.  I would also suggest that cooperation with the European Union must not be limited to energy issues alone, but must be considered in a strategic context and develop at many levels.  Moreover, it is still the case that Azerbaijan responds to events in a reactive rather than planned way, something that limits its influence and effectiveness.

Baguirov: Azerbaijan did everything it could reasonably be expected to do in terms of trying to resolve the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over the Armenia-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.  As a result, there is no reason to accept the notion that Baku bears responsibilities for the lack of an agreement.  But there are some shortcomings for which Azerbaijan is clearly responsible: inefficient work in some embassies and consulates, the latter being especially clear if and once compared with some of Azerbaijan’s other exemplary diplomatic representations abroad; the decision to end in-airport same-day visas for US, Canadian and European visitors, which—while perhaps fair diplomatically—hurts Azerbaijan’s ties as it hinders tourism, academic exchanges, business ties, as well as diasporic visits, all of the latter being crucial in terms of Azerbaijan’s further development and modernization; and the more general problems of the regular visa process, which USAN was assured to improve soon.  For a country like Azerbaijan, these superficially small issues can present major problems and should therefore be treated as major components of foreign policy.  Clearly, despite 20 years of independence, Azerbaijan’s voice regarding the illegal occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and the regions around it is not heard as loud and as often as it should be.  
AIW: How do you assess progress made in the resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2011?  And what do you see as the prospects for a settlement of the conflict in 2012?

Japaridze:  There is hardly any state in this tormented region of ours that does not have unsettled territorial disputes.  Wisely, in my opinion, Azerbaijan has taken the diplomatic route in addressing this issue and, as I am well aware, this was a choice.  

Time in diplomacy can be a friend or an enemy.  And, as we speak, time works for Azerbaijan.  As the country proves to be a success story, its negotiating position is enhanced.  Moreover, time gives the opportunity for ground work, for no settlement or treaty can miraculously heal the wounds and pain of those who have been thrown out from their houses, lost husbands and sons and are deprived of their right to live in peace, in their own land.  No diplomatic settlement can undo what has been done; but, time is needed to prepare the ground for the future.  If I were to raise expectations for 2012, I would be making time an enemy of Azerbaijan, something I do not want to do.  But I will say that every month and year brings us closer to a sound, pragmatic and realistic settlement, which will restore Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.

Musabayov:  Unfortunately, there is no basis for speaking about progress on this issue.  As before, negotiations remain at a standstill.  After the failed Armenian-Azerbaijani meeting of presidents last summer in Kazan, the talks have in essence stopped.  From the point of view of any forward progress, 2012 does not promise any change in that regard.  The election cycle beginning in Armenia limits the chances for compromises by either Serzh Sargsyan or Bako Saakyan.  Moreover, there are presidential votes in the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries, and they will not be focusing on our problems.  Therefore, I do not expect progress on this issue in 2012.

Baguirov: Azerbaijan did pretty much everything it could for the peaceful resolution of the conflict.  And it will certainly continue to do so in 2012 for several obvious reasons, such as the inherent wish to live and develop in peace.  However, Armenia’s intransigence and national strategy will prevent a peaceful resolution of the conflict and cessation of the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani lands in 2012.  Thus, it is more important to already look beyond 2012, since the status quo is unacceptable, as we all know and as even the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs have declared more than once.

AIW: How do you assess Azerbaijan’s energy diplomacy in 2011 and what does the future hold for it? 

Japaridze:  As I noted already, Azerbaijan’s energy diplomacy has been a source of some fascinating surprises for the world.  I think there is still more room for a greater thrust in Azerbaijan’s position-building in this respect, something that would require more concerted and unified action between the Presidential Administration, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Energy and SOCAR.  Working together, these four elements represent a mechanism for effective work.  I would also like to note that the newly established Center for Energy and Environment at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy has the resources and structure to provide strategic guidance for this group.

Musabayov: Positively.  Despite the negative predictions of some, Azerbaijan did achieve a mutually profitable agreement with Turkey on prices and amount of gas to be supplied, as well as on its transit through Turkey to European markets.  Documents were also signed both on the use for transportation of Caspian gas of the existing pipelines and the construction of a new Trans-Anatolian pipeline.  The strengthening of energy cooperation with the European Union and the Russian Federation is very important as well.  Over the next twelve months, it is important to increase dialogue on energy issues with Turkmenistan.  I submit that a stress on the profits to both sides from such cooperation will allow existing disagreements to be overcome and to move forward toward an agreement on the demarcation of interests in the Caspian.

Baguirov: Azerbaijan’s purchasing of several foreign energy mega-assets in countries like Turkey, Georgia and Switzerland, along with signing of the gas transit agreements with Turkey, are all very positive accomplishments. I am convinced that this outward expansion strategy will continue and will be to the mutual benefit of Azerbaijan and its people, as well as the countries into which Azerbaijan will invest.

AIW:  How do you assess the evolving dynamics of Azerbaijan’s relations with its immediate neighbors—Russia, Iran, and Turkey—over the last year and what is likely to develop over the next twelve months?

Japaridze:  I have nothing but esteem and professional appreciation for Azerbaijan’s balanced, pragmatic and realistic policy towards these big regional actors.  We do not live in “easy” neighborhood, and the job of a diplomat never begins from a blank slate.  There are traditions, culturally entrenched strategic vectors, history and prejudice, which limit the scope of our action.  Azerbaijan is in this respect a refreshingly forward-looking actor, promoting its national interests with a sense of rare sobriety.  Not all regional actors have managed to cross this “contextual” minefield as successfully as Azerbaijan has.

Navigating along difficult choices is not easy, especially since the actors you mentioned do not always present their neighbors with easy choices.  However, if Azerbaijan could make it through 2011 without making the news for the wrong reasons, there is no reason to doubt that 2012 will be as successful.  

Musabayov:  One can assess the dynamic of relations with Turkey and Russia positively.  Economic turnover with these countries has risen significantly.  Azerbaijan is investing in major projects in Turkey.  Russia has been transformed into an important purchaser of Azerbaijani gas.  And an intensive political dialogue with these countries continues, although it is true that on certain issues, there is not a complete correspondence of views.  Fortunately, in both Moscow and Ankara there is an understanding of the special situation in which Azerbaijan finds itself.  

Relations with Iran are somewhat worse.  But Tehran’s relations with any other country, excluding perhaps Syria, Northern Korea, Armenia, and some unimportant Latin American countries, are no better.  

I submit that in 2012 the situation regarding these powers will not change fundamentally.

Baguirov: Relations with both Turkey and Russia are developing very well, although, of course, there is plenty of room for deepening and improving them further, particularly in the media, academic and security spheres.  With regard to Iran, Azerbaijan has been trying to be on good terms, all the more so because Iran has a significant population of ethnic Azerbaijani Turks (up to 30% of the population) and because Azerbaijan wants peace and stability on its borders.  Moreover, Azerbaijanis have centuries of friendship with all the people of Iran. 

Unfortunately, Iranian TV and illegal radio broadcasts continue into Azerbaijan spreading pseudo-religious and pan-Iranian propaganda.  Moreover, Tehran continues to make threats and various unfriendly gestures towards Azerbaijan, including refusing Azerbaijani requests to meet about border incidents.  It is also hard to develop friendly relations with Iran continuously making unhealthy claims about different of Azerbaijan’s famous public figures and poets (e.g. Nizami Ganjavi, Mirza Fathali Akhundov) being of Persian origin.

AIW: How do you assess the evolving dynamics of Azerbaijan’s relations with the United States in 2011 and what does the year 2012 promise for the bilateral relations?

Japaridze:  The United States has been a partner with all regional stake-holders in the South Caucasus.  After all, the USA cannot afford not to be engaged in the region, given its global role in the energy market and its historical role as a European security partner.  Moreover, in recent years, the US has stressed its involvement in Central Asia and Afghanistan.  These factors all dictate more rather than less engagement in the region.

There is little doubt that US engagement in the region has been largely beneficial for us.  Despite the fact that all states in the region are toddlers when it comes to state and capacity-building, our allies are increasingly becoming more aware of the fact that all of us in this region form an impressive mosaic of unique and ancient civilizations, each with our own historical and cultural baggage.  It now gradually becomes clear that the initial thrust of the post-1989 democracy-promotion project, which at times was haunted by mechanistic visions of top-down grand reform strategies, was rather misleading.  As a result, the US is becoming more realistic and responsive to realities on the ground.  In this sense, I expect year-to year better understanding of realities from both sides and improvement of relations with the USA.

Musabayov:  Relations with the US have been contradictory.  On the one hand, Washington demonstrates great interest to Azerbaijan, through the visits of senior officials from the Pentagon and the State Department.  Moreover, the US has expressed interest in ties with Azerbaijan in the energy sector and on specific issues of a military-strategic character.  However, the US has not been prepared to support Azerbaijan in the first instance on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.  The unwillingness of the Obama Administration to oppose in a decisive manner Armenian lobbyists in the Senate during the confirmation fight over Matthew Bryza does not inspire optimism regarding positive changes in Azerbaijani-American relations in the next year.  Even more, this fall there will be an election in the US and thus Washington will pay less attention to foreign affairs, including its relations with Azerbaijan.  

Tkacik: [Professor of Political Science, Stephen F. Austin State University, TX, USA]:  It was my hope that the Obama administration would do a better job of recognizing the strategic significance of Azerbaijan and the potential for mutually beneficial engagement.  However, it seems clear that the Obama administration has chosen to emphasize human rights issues over strategic engagement.  There are at least four factors involved here.  First, there is a default to human rights rhetoric in the Clinton-led State Department.  Second, the Obama administration is entering an election year and cannot afford to open a strategic dialogue with Azerbaijan, which would generate additional vocal domestic opposition in the US.  Third, the US may view the Nagorno-Karabakh issue as intractable (like Kashmir) and decide to avoid entanglement in an issue the US cannot resolve satisfactorily.  Fourth, Azerbaijan has not responded effectively to the challenges presented by US foreign policy.  Though the US has on occasion singled Azerbaijan out for human rights criticism, Azerbaijan has responded defensively, which confirms for many in the US the view of a restrictive polity in Baku. 

Instead, Azerbaijan ought to actively engage US criticisms.  This could be done in two ways.  First, changes in Azerbaijan’s domestic policy (even small changes) have the potential to elicit larger changes in US policy.  For example, greater freedom within civil society, or a real crackdown on corruption, or the release of regime critics, when combined (second) with support for the US on some key policy, ought to lead to incremental changes in US behaviour.  This does not mean that Nagorno-Karabakh would be resolved.  But it could mean a significant reduction in criticism of Azerbaijan and perhaps US support on other key issues.  Diplomacy is a matter of small steps and small compromises building over time into favourable policy.  To link all endeavours to resolving Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan’s favour is both counterproductive and unrealistic.  But a long-term foreign policy vis-a-vis the United States could create an environment in which the unfavourable resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh would become unthinkable.  Such a situation would make compromise on Armenia’s behalf more likely.  Finally, in addition to these “carrots,” there are more effective “sticks” that Azerbaijan has used to this point.

Baguirov:  There is a lot to do in 2012.  The latest setback to bilateral relations was the inability of the U.S. Administration to secure confirmation for its nominee to Baku, Ambassador Bryza, and the lack of a US ambassador in Baku since December 2011.  Both nations will be hurt from this, but for U.S. this represents far greater loss in terms of prestige and trust.  However, the recent approval of the 3rd phase of NATO IPAP, the expanded dialogue and links between the two nations, an increase in trade (including the first Azerbaijani satellite, which is being produced now and will be launched this year), and a new Azerbaijan Ambassador to the United States, are all very positive developments, which will undoubtedly make 2012 very productive. 

I want to also note the special role that the Azerbaijani-Americans (Azerbaijani Diaspora) and such American organizations as the U.S. Azeris Network (USAN) and the Karabakh Foundation, as well as other organizations all across the United States, in states like Maine, Florida, New York, and Texas, play in this bridge-building.  Thanks to the diaspora and its organizations, Azerbaijan and all Azerbaijanis are today better known in the United States and more tangible achievements are registered, from greater media (USAN alone has published 57 articles in the U.S. press in 2011) and academic exposure (dozens of conferences and seminars were organized and attended). 

AIW:  How do you assess Azerbaijan’s activities in the public diplomacy sector in 2011?   

Japaridze: Public diplomacy or “Track Two Diplomacy” is an essential part of contemporary policy making in world politics.  The EU has long been regarded as a normative superpower; Turkey is demonstrating an enormous capacity in this field as well, and there are those who would argue that “soft-power” there has been “Track One” diplomacy for some time, that is, a factor that highly correlates with Turkey’s current ascending position.  

The Obama administration, too, has reinvigorated such diplomacy.  Consequently, in a complex world or “global village,” we must keep an open mind for diplomatic orientation that is more “contextually responsive,” rather than merely focusing on traditional actor-based analysis.

Naturally, Azerbaijan should be more innovative and creative in this regard.  I would suggest that Azerbaijan has plenty of still unused soft-power capacity to exploit, especially if its young, up-and-coming, globally-trained-and-minded generation is given the chance to test its worth.  In this sense, Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy is the “brain-hub” of the Azerbaijani future.  As I noted earlier, investing in your youth is not a gamble; it is a safe bet.

Musabayov:  There has been an attempt to increase public diplomacy actions.  While earlier, Armenians had the field almost to themselves on many issues of concern to us, now we are the initiators of many activities.  For example, there were the efforts of the Azerbaijani Karabakh community in Berlin and Paris to tell the world about Azerbaijan’s side.  There were also presentations of books in London and Moscow, and one should also note the activities of the Karabakh Council for Promoting Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue.  However, there should not be any illusions about the independent possibilities of public diplomacy.  This is a necessary, but no more than a secondary instrument in the resolution of existing conflicts and must be considered primarily as a supplement to the efforts of official diplomacy. 

Baguirov, Dr.:  Clearly, Azerbaijan has started to do more in this respect, and that is a welcome sign.  However, despite some progress, far more needs to be done, for Azerbaijan remains significantly behind other regional nations, such as Armenia, in its public diplomacy, a situation that may easily change if Baku continues to invest greater effort in this direction.

AIW:  What specific challenges do you think Azerbaijan’s foreign policy faces as the country moves to the year 2012 and what needs to be done to address those challenges?

Japaridze:  Sustaining your course in the midst of a global crisis and political upheaval is no easy task; it was difficult enough in 2011 and it will get no easier in 2012.  However, let me note this: just before leaving Baku in December, I watched President Aliyev’s live interview on TV with an Itar-Tass correspondent, in which he provided a solid strategic overview of your country’s foreign policy direction.  Reading between the lines, he provides a clear indication that he is thinking about the future and has a clear idea of what he wants Baku to do.  In fact, in my view, Azerbaijan is one of only a small club of nations whose main foreign policy vectors reflect such long-term thinking.  As a result, I’m more than confident that Azerbaijan will reach its strategic objectives.  You are running a marathon, not a sprint.  That is a diplomatic approach that other countries in the South Caucasus would do well to emulate. 

Musabayov:  I would suggest the first, and most important, such challenge concerns the situation around Iran.  The intensification of sanctions and, even more, a direct military clash will put before the Azerbaijani government and its diplomacy some very difficult and complicated tasks.  Therefore it is important to assess all the possible variants of the development of the situation and mark out the steps, which could minimize the risks for us.

A second challenge is to get out of the current dead end in the talks on Nagorno-Karabakh.  Clearly, the time has come for the mobilization of pressure on Armenia and the use of UN mechanisms, including the General Assembly and Security Council, to do that.  Without such tough pressure, Armenia will continue the occupation.

A third challenge is to politely refuse—without negatively affecting bilateral ties—to be drawn in by Moscow into the chimerical project of a Eurasian Union.  We need to intensify our efforts in talks about joining the WTO, expanding cooperation with the European Union, and give new content to strategic cooperation with Turkey and Georgia.  

In addition, we must continue to focus on Caspian issues and on such traditional directions of our diplomacy as GUAM and the CIS.

Baguirov:  Ending the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent regions is always challenge numero uno.  Everything else is formulated around it.