BACKGROUND: Azerbaijan is a pivotal state for Western interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The country is a key supplier of oil to several Mediterranean countries, including Israel, and is soon to become the first Caspian producer to ship natural gas directly to European consumers. Azerbaijan, together with Georgia, represents strategic access to Central Asia, and Baku's port serves as a key logistical hub for transshipments of a variety of cargos to Afghanistan. Azerbaijan is sandwiched between Russia and Iran. Both neighbors understand well the importance of Azerbaijan's location and are seeking to prevent a deeper Western integration of the small Caspian state. While Russia is openly assertive in its relationships with all its neighbors, Iran is more covert and tries to operate below the radar screen.
Finally, the unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh remains a key challenge for Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh and seven additional regions of Azerbaijan remain under Armenian control. The conflict is a major factor impacting not only Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, but also the security and geopolitical environment of the entire Caucasus region. Russia is an important guarantor of Armenia's security, determining the presence of Russian troops in Armenia and providing Russia with leverage over Armenia on major geopolitical and economic issues, and in turn complicating resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
A new element of Russian pressure emerged relatively recently, on the eve of the EU's Eastern Partnership (EaP) Summit to be held in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius on November 27-28, 2013. It was expected at the summit that Ukraine would sign an Association Agreement (AA) on Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU. Other EaP participants, Georgia, Armenia and Moldova, were planning to initial the agreement, in anticipation of final ratification by next year. For the last several months, Russian officials are on record expressing their discontent and have threatened economic severe ramifications should such agreements be reached.
Such Russian pressure manifested itself during a meeting between Armenian President Sargsyan and President Putin on September 3 in Moscow, where it was announced that Armenia will join the Customs Union, thus making it very difficult, if not impossible, to move forward with Armenia’s plans for an EU Association Agreement, which would include a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement that is incompatible with the Customs Union. The nature of Russian pressure is best illustrated by the fact that Sargsyan had shown no intention to make this move prior to his trip to Moscow, and had by all accounts failed to discuss the matter with anyone prior to his trip, thus taking his entire country by surprise.
IMPLICATIONS: Encouraged by this success with Armenia and by the limited response from Western countries, Russia advanced its tactics on other states, using trade sanctions and other political tools, such as borderization and creeping annexation of Georgian territories occupied by Russian military forces since 2008. Under tremendous pressure, Ukraine announced on November 21 its decision not to sign an agreement and pursue a trilateral Russia-Ukraine-EU trade and economic integration process. This may simply be a tactical retreat, and not yet a strategic defeat of Ukraine's European integration, but it is clear that pressure will mount on every actor in the Russian neighborhood pursuing an independent foreign policy, to join the Customs Union. Azerbaijan is facing very serious challenges in this regard too.
In December 2012, Secretary Clinton delivered one of her last speeches as Secretary of State and mentioned the imminent threat of Russia’s undue influence in the region. “There is a move to re-Sovietize the region,” she stated. “It’s not going to be called that. It’s going to be called a customs union; it will be called Eurasian Union and all of that. But let's make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.” The current membership in the Customs Union includes Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, and Russia’s plan is to significantly increase membership in the near future. Azerbaijan will be a major target.
This multilevel pressure creates a major security challenge for Azerbaijan. Against the backdrop of this complicated environment, and having in mind that there was no real challenge to the incumbent president, the conduct of elections on November 9 should not obscure the very real interests that America has in Azerbaijan. Tensions between the U.S. and Azerbaijan will damage the interests of both countries and could in the context of other Russian actions substantially weaken and even reverse the West's strategic gains in the Caucasus and Central Asia, reached over the last two decades.
Azerbaijan is at the center of several strategic projects of significant importance to U.S. national interests and their implementation should not be compromised. A primary such interest is logistical support for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and equipment from Afghanistan in 2014 and beyond, in which Baku's sea and air ports, and Azerbaijani as well as Georgian railways will have a very important role to play. The second strategic project is the implementation of the Southern Gas Corridor that will supply natural gas to U.S. allies in Europe via a complex set of pipelines stretched from off-shore Caspian fields to the Italian market via Georgia, Turkey, Greece, and Albania, thus supporting energy and economic security for all transit countries. In addition, Azerbaijan is a secular Muslim state in a difficult neighborhood, a property that deserves to be safeguarded.
In the final analysis, there is too often a perceived choice between strategic interests and the support for democracy. This is a false choice. In Azerbaijan, and the broader region, the ineffectual nature of western democracy promotion is directly related to the West’s perceived disengagement from the security concerns of the South Caucasus. Only two years ago, Washington allowed the post of U.S. Ambassador remain vacant for close to a year; and only last year, the post of American co-chair to the Minsk Group, tasked to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – Azerbaijan’s deepest national concern – was similarly left vacant. To put it simply: if America wants to influence Azerbaijan’s domestic politics in the right direction, the first thing it should do is to engage in the security issues of the region, return to its earlier policies of actively supporting the sovereignty and independence of the region’s countries, and
CONCLUSIONS: In order to perform its important regional functions, and to maintain its sovereignty under growing pressure, Azerbaijan needs strong political support. High level political engagement is critical for this part of the world. President Putin understands this and frequently meets face to face with the regional leaders. He personally visited Baku on August 13 and brought with him several high level officials to demonstrate Azerbaijan's significance for Russian policies. The case of Central Asia proves that China’s leaders also understand the importance of high level personal engagement. The U.S. has too much on its plate, and no one expects frequent presidential trips to the region. However, visits of the Secretary of State are essential for the appropriate level of engagement to address all the issues of concern, including democratic and civil society development in the context of a broader commitment to the security of the Azerbaijani state. These issues cannot be separated in the highly tense security environment surrounding Azerbaijan.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Mamuka Tsereteli is Director of Research for the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center.