AZERBAIJAN: SEARCHING NEW FOREIGN POLICY BALANCE
Before the war in South Ossetia the unsolved status of the issues of military and political character, which were faced by Azerbaijan and which were, first of all, connected with the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (NKC), within the system of the existing balance of the geopolitical powers in the South Caucasus, was considered as a cause for some shift of the foreign political priorities.
After passing of Moscow to the active offensive policy in the issues concerning its national security and its return after a long break to the practice of using its military potential for the solution of the military and political challenges in the interstate relations (which was demonstrated in March-August 2008 in Abkhazia and which resulted in August 8-12 war in South Ossetia), the necessity of such correction for Azerbaijan became obvious.
Generally, reconsideration of some accents of foreign policy by Azerbaijan, in a varying degree, expressly or by implication, is caused by increasing of the geopolitical weight of Russia, its tending to set its political, economic and military dominance over the post-Soviet space,
It is not a mere chance that the geopolitical loss of Azerbaijan at the beginning of the 90s was conditioned by the accession to power on the wave of the national movements of new incompetent elite. Despite the fact that the same practice was in Armenia and Georgia, the ostentatious orientation of Baku exclusively to Ankara in all the spheres of domestic, foreign policy and economics, spacing from Moscow, in the end caused implementation of practical policy by Russia in the region, particularly on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh. Though it should be mentioned that at first after the collapse of the USSR, not to say about 1988-91, the stance of Moscow on Nagorno-Karabakh issue was though invariably inconsequent but emphasized anti-Armenian.
Nevertheless, pro-Western and pro-Turkish “false start” of Baku has formed the alerted attitude of Moscow. Besides, pro-Turkish policy of the first president of independent Azerbaijan Abulfaz Elcibey further to the populist statements about the necessity of the reintegration of the so-called South, Iranian Azerbaijan to the “historical Azerbaijan”, became the main causes of deterioration of Azerbaijani-Iranian relations which even today remain rather complicated.
The removal of Elcibey, the return to the active politics of more experienced Heydar Aliyev improved Azerbaijani-Russian relations to some extent and revived the hopes of Moscow to return Azerbaijan to distinct pro-Russian orientation. According to some Azerbaijani analysts, it brought to the initiation of cessation of hostilities in Artsakh in the dramatic situation for Baku, when there was a chain of failure at the front and the growth of the level of domestic instability.
But the further developments in Azerbaijan and especially lobby of the politically motivated project of Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline have in fact frozen Russian-Azerbaijani relations for years. In the period from the mid 90s to the “Revolution of Roses” in 2003 the key object for the regional policy of Russia was Georgia and control over it would allow Russia to control the whole South Caucasus. But the attempts of Moscow to table Abkhazian, South Ossetian and in a less degree Javakhian cards under Mikhail Saakashvili’s administration ended up in August 8, 2008.
The understandable consolidation of the Georgian society at least in the first post-war period, the absence of distinct and influential pro-Russian powers made it obvious for Russia the impropriety of counting on Georgia as the feeder of pro-Western military-political and economic interests of Azerbaijan. In the situation when Armenia is definitely considered by Russia as its strategic ally in the region, Azerbaijan becomes the main and most urgent direction in the regional policy of Russia.
In Baku they understand well enough the possibility of using the situation in a profitable way, but at the same time they are aware of weighty geopolitical risks which are contained in the overtures with Moscow.
At present the whole political and diplomatic activity of two of three (today Georgia has not enough space for maneuvers in foreign policy) states of the South Caucasus boil down to finding out a real possibility of setting new balance in the region which would allow realizing their definite tactical interests without endangering their main strategic goal and jeopardizing other directions of the foreign policy.
Baku tries to draw definite image dividends in the eyes of Moscow from the fact that in Azerbaijan, unlike Armenia and Georgia, a considerable Russian community preserved and the Russian language is wide spread. About 7% of pupils are studied in Russian (there are 20 Russian schools and about 350 schools where the classes are held in both Azerbaijani and Russian); there are about 100 thousand such students in the higher educational institutions – about 15% from the total number of students in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijani-Russian economic partnership also develops stably though its pace has lowered a little due to the relative energy independence and self-sufficiency of Azerbaijan: in 2007 Russia with $1.5 billion commodity circulation appeared to be the second after Turkey trade and economic partner of Azerbaijan.
But the potential of the economic cooperation between two states is far from being exhausted especially in case of realization of new projects of regional importance, such as, e.g. the usage of the international transport corridor (ITC) “North-South”, especially in case if its railway component is accentuated1. In this case, besides the considerable growth of the role of Azerbaijan in this project, Baku can someway soften its participation in the construction of Kars-Akhalkalaki railway which allows excluding transition through the territory of Armenia and the RF got the long-term concession of Armenian railway system so this contradicts Russian interests.
Besides, Russia still preserves good chances to turn the Caspian region into the political and economic zone where it will play a key role under a minimal presence, at least political and military, of the actors which are not from that region, and first of all the US and EU. As an alternative to the idea of creation of common Black Sea and Caspian region which is lobbied by the West, Russia initiated creation of the Organization of the Caspian Economic Partnership (OCEP). Within the framework of this organization the position of Azerbaijan, due to bigger degree of its involvement into the Euro-Atlantic military-political and economic projects as compared to other countries of the Caspian region, is of great importance for Moscow.
In the energy sector new trends of mutually advantageous cooperation can be:
- expansion of the involvement of Russian “Lukoil” and “Rosneft” companies in the development of offshore gas and oil fields and in Azerbaijani energy sector in general.
- initiation of swap operations – supply of gas by Azerbaijan to the southern regions of Russia in exchange for the appropriate supply of Russian gas to Petkim petrochemical complex in Turkey, which controlling stock belongs to the Azerbaijani State Oil Company (SOCAR).
However, it should be mentioned that all the biggest working and prospective economic projects of geopolitical importance with the participation of Azerbaijan which are mainly connected with the oil and gas production and export have already been oriented to the western capital and export direction, which has a direct impact on the Russian interests but at the same time it cannot be revised without catastrophic economic, political and social consequences for Baku. That is why the activation of the Azerbaijani-Russian contacts on all the levels of oil and gas sector is nothing more than an element of imitation by Baku of its independent status in geopolitical game, which course and layout have already been defined and, despite the fact that virtual variation of the stakes can be used in diplomacy, it cannot influence its outcome.
At the same time, the resumption of virtual geopolitical haggling stirs up regional and non-regional actors and simultaneously it can cast rather real psychological and informational pressure on the counter-partners, especially, taking into account the fact that foreign political activity of Baku in recent 10 years has become more inventive and estimated.
Under the circumstances when the beginning of new energy projects – and first of all Stage-2 of Shahdeniz field development – is postponed to a period not earlier than 2016, in the medium-term perspective the price for the foreign political haggling with Moscow on regional issues can be mutual military-political and military-technical cooperation.
According to Azerbaijani “Doctrine” Journalists’ Center for Military Researches, back in October 2008, within the framework of the session of the Council of the Ministers of Defence of CIS the meeting of the Ministers of Defence of Azerbaijan and Russia took place, during which the proposal of the Russian party concerning further development of military cooperation was discussed2.
Stirring up of Moscow is conditioned by its discontent with closer relation of Azerbaijan and NATO, and particularly, with the prospects of transition of the army of the AR to NATO standards. The main counteractions of Russia for such developments are:
- Aspiration of Moscow to increase the number of the Azerbaijani militaries studying in the Russian military higher educational institutions. At least this will contribute to preserving in the near future mixed (Russian and NATO) system of the Armed Forces of the Azerbaijani Republic.
- Preserving or increasing of the amount of the Russian defence technology purchase.
- prolonging the rent of the Azerbaijani Information Center “Daryal” (Gabalin Radar Station Missile Warning System), which will falle due in 2012, for 10 years, thus, securing its presence on the territory of the country and according to some data – from Azerbaijani military sources – turning it into a full-fledged military base.
- activation of Russia in formation and development of military infrastructure of Azerbaijan and, first of all, its air forces and air defence, which corresponds to the context of the provisions of 2002 treaty on Gabalin Radar Station. Particularly, it provided modernization of out of date air defence complexes (S-75, S-125, S-200 and almost all the complexes of air defence of land forces), as well as purchase of new ones – from S-300 to modified and relatively simple from technical point of view S-125 “Pechora-2M” complexes.
- direct participation in making of military-industrial establishment of Azerbaijan and thus, consolidation of Russian standards and weapon systems and defence technology of Azerbaijani or joint Russian-Azerbaijani production.
But the key issue in the perspective of the development of military-political and military-technical cooperation between Azerbaijan and Russia still remains the stance of Moscow on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and its strategic relations with Yerevan. The basic approach of Moscow to the issue of settlement of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is in the readiness to support any compromise agreement between the parties and this implies, in fact, supporting the present status-quo with the broad opportunities for the political and diplomatic maneuver in future.
The prospects of Baku counting on Moscow in the issue of settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue after the war in South Ossetia and recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia look unexpected and illogical on at first sight.
Firstly, the “balanced” approach of Moscow which, according to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the RF Sergei Lavrov, sees “no parallels between the situation in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, on the one hand, and settlement of Nagorno-Karabakh issue, on the other hand”3, is enough guarantee from the abrupt changes of the stance of Russia on this issue.
Secondly, if the West, in case of the objective features of the foreign political weakness or lack of will by Russia, including the region of the South Caucasus, have not managed to lobby the advantageous for Baku solution of the NKC, the strengthening of the role of Russia even more lowers weight of West in this issue.
Correspondingly, real shift of the priorities in the foreign policy of Azerbaijan or even only a demonstration of its readiness for such shift in case when it is important for Moscow to acquire necessary positioning of Baku on some military-political and economic projects in the South Caucasus, Caspian and Central Asian regions, grants Azerbaijan a chance to get assistance of Russia in even partial resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
On the other hand, real or false correction of any aspect of foreign policy by Baku is impossible without taking into consideration the interests of its main strategic ally – Turkey.
Despite some correction of one-sided orientation of Azerbaijan to Turkey over the period of administration of A.Elcibey, the tendency of Azerbaijani-Turkish relations is fully described by the formulation of Heydar Aliyev; “One nation – two states”. Under the preserving critical attitude of Turkey to the authoritarian system of governing in Azerbaijan, high level of corruption among the Azerbaijani ruling elite, successful implementation of the strategic plans of Ankara and Baku is only possible in case of their coordinated work in pair.
For Ankara Baku is a natural gate to the Turkic world of Central Asia and Russia, and the leadership there may turn Turkey into a real geopolitical actor in Eurasia.
Azerbaijan, which has such an ally as Turkey, may resist rather successfully the pressure by Iran and Russia, and be the “first among equals” in Turkic world, to acquire more considerable support on behalf of the Muslim countries. However, it must be mentioned, that remaining a “continuation of Turkey”, Azerbaijan suffers some image (and not only) losses in the eyes of both Iran and countries of Central Asia.
Besides obvious dividends of such a tandem (here the aspect of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, relations with Armenia, realization of the projects of energy carriers export from the region, exploitation of “East-West” transport corridor and etc. can be mentioned), the coordinated policy of Ankara and Baku brings to a more perceptible political and economic dominance of Ankara and Baku in Georgia. Under a hopeless confrontation between Moscow and Tbilisi, including regional economic and communication projects, its alerted attitude towards Armenia, Armenian communities in Abkhazia and Georgia, regional integration of Georgia is reduced to a role of transition party for the Azerbaijani and Turkish economic interests.
Further projection of the economic penetration of Turkey and Azerbaijan in Georgia to its foreign policy and issues of domestic policy will inevitably cause the activation of the process of repatriation of Meskhetian Turks, who were subject to repressions in 1944, to Samtskhe-Javakheti (which affects the interests of Armenia); increasing of the status of Azerbaijani community; more tractability of Tbilisi in the issue of demilitarization of the Georgian-Azerbaijani border, which line is reconciled only on 65% from its general length.
Meanwhile the pressure on Tbilisi is more of informational character – from the pages of Azerbaijani mass media (according to some data Turkish mass media as well) which reproach their government in unreasonably big economic concessions to Georgia4. Mainly those complaints concern allotting economic preferences (particularly, regarding the gas supply) which are conditioned by the cooperation of Tbilisi in politically motivated projects one of which is the construction of Kars-Akhlkalaki railway. The government of Azerbaijan granted Georgia $200 million credit for a period of 25 years with 1% annual interest rate for works on its territory, allotting that money from the State Oil Fund.
Taking into consideration the facts that the budget forming economic, most of the political as well as military and military-technical programmes and projects implemented today in Azerbaijan are oriented to the West – US, EU and Turkey – and the fact that Baku connects with them achievement of its strategic goals, one may come to a conclusion that some kind of correction of the foreign policy of Baku is, most probably, of tactical character, and it is caused mainly by:
- objective consolidation of the position of Russia, in the South Caucasus as well;
- reconsideration of the real prospects of its economic growth in the direction of reduction;
- as a reaction to the activation of Moscow in the process of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement,
- activation of Turkey, which stands out with the initiative on the creation of “Stability and Cooperation Platform in the Caucasus”, which suggests participation of Armenia, and which supported imitating rather than real process of rapprochement with the RA.
Among those factors only the first one – the consolidation of the role of Russia – is long-term and permanent. At the same time, the development of economic cooperation between the AR and RF, especially in the oil and gas sector, is still rather indefinite and it directly depends on the implementation of the energy projects, oriented to the West (and first of all on the viability of Nabucco gas pipeline). And the prospects and later stirring up of Russia and Turkey in the region are not obvious due to the fact that there are many actors with contradicting interests and due to the mosaic structure of the elements which sustain relative stability in the region.
That is why when it becomes obvious that the activity of the neighbours is not of long-term and viable potential due to the incompatibility of a number of key aspects in the foreign and domestic policy of Armenia, Russia, Iran and Turkey, Baku will have to return to its usual guidelines in foreign policy.
However, it seems that in Moscow they still have not abandoned hope for returning Baku to pro-Russian course, and that is why in near future we can expect from it new pro-Azerbaijani steps.
1In June 2008 “Russian Railways”, “Iranian Railway” and “Azerbaijani State Railway” corporations signed an agreement on building Kazvin-Resht-Astara railway within the framework of ITC “Nothr-South”
4As the prime-minister of Georgia Zurab Nogaideli confessed in 2007, they owe, to some extent, the high GDP growth rate in 12% to Azerbaijan.
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