Wednesday, 20 January 2010

BAKU CONCERNED OVER WEAKENING U.S. ENGAGEMENT

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By Mina Muradova (1/20/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Azerbaijani officials have recently expressed their criticism with U.S. policies, hinting at cooling relations between the two countries.
Azerbaijani officials have recently expressed their criticism with U.S. policies, hinting at cooling relations between the two countries. Observers are concerned that disappointment with Washington's policies after President Obama’s ascent to power can damage the "strategic" partnership and redirect Baku's foreign policy towards Moscow. Azerbaijani officials have criticized Washington for "inconsistency". While in the past, visits of American high-ranking officials to Azerbaijan were frequent, these seem to have declined and Baku has even accused Washington of passivity. In early November, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Araz Azimov stated that the bilateral relations between the two countries needs to be balanced and mutual. "Azerbaijan does not see such an attitude from the United States. Efforts that Azerbaijan has made [towards the U.S.] are much greater than those of the United States. Official Baku considers this an inconsistency of Washington's policy in the region." Official Baku believes that thanks to Azerbaijan, the United States could enter the Caspian oil-rich region in the early 1990s and weaken Russian interests in the region. Strategic projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline laid the foundation for U.S.-Azerbaijan relations in the region and opened a new transportation route to the West for post-Soviet countries in the Caspian region. In response, Baku expected that Washington would revoke the Freedom Support Act's Section 907, prohibiting most government-to-government aid to Azerbaijan, which has been in force since 1992 due to the embargo of Armenia resulting from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Baku considers the section unfair, especially as about 20 percent of its territory is under the control of Armenian troops. Azerbaijani political circles have expressed disappointment with Washington’s weak position in convincing Armenia to compromise in the peace process on the Karabakh conflict, while great efforts were made to convince Armenia and Turkey to normalize their relations. “Nobody does such things to resolve the Karabakh conflict”, said Novruz Mammadov, head of the presidential administration’s foreign relations department. The West and in particular the U.S. received heavy criticism at the Baku conference on November 20, which was organized by the presidential administration’s Center for Strategic Research. According to the Turan news agency, the deputy speaker of Azerbaijan's parliament, Ziyafet Askerov, stated that “U.S. foreign policy is a hostage of the Armenian lobby”. At the event, Mammadov added: “While the U.S. provides strong moral and financial support to Armenia, which occupies Azerbaijani lands, we do not see significant assistance to Azerbaijan on the part of Washington”. Moreover, the U.S. Congress’ allocation of US$8 million in humanitarian assistance to the internationally unrecognized Karabakh region in fiscal year 2010 provoked major protests in Baku. Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry sent a protest note to the U.S. Government on December 18 and pro-governmental MP Zahid Orudj blamed the U.S. for using oil revenues earned from Azerbaijani oil against Azerbaijan: “The U.S. produces oil here, sells it and collects revenues … and then spends funds on assisting Armenian separatists”, he said at a parliamentary session on December 15. Another member of parliament, Jamil Hasanli, even called for a reconsideration of the strategic partnership with the U.S. Both official and non-governmental circles have expressed their disagreement with Washington’s policies, arguing that it helps strengthening the illegal regime on occupied territory and damages the U.S. reputation as a neutral mediator. The annual Freedom House report on “Freedom of the Press 2009”, which presented Karabakh as a joint Armenian-Azerbaijani territory, added fuel to the fire. Official Baku considered this as an insult and a biased position towards Azerbaijan by an organization funded by the U.S. government. Observers are concerned that cooling ties between Baku and Washington can lead to closer relations between Baku and Moscow. On November 26, MP Gudrat Hasanguliyev proposed that Azerbaijan should join the Moscow-supported Collective Security Treaty Organization and allow Russia to establish a military base in Azerbaijan, in exchange for Russian recognition of "Azerbaijan’s sovereignty over Karabakh." Baku’s distress over the lack of progress in the Karabakh peace process could push it towards Moscow, which has over the last two years appeared an active mediator by holding trilateral meetings between the presidents of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Russia. In particular, President Ilham Aliyev recently termed the memorandum signed in Moscow by the three presidents in November 2008 one of the most significant achievements since the cease-fire agreement in 1994. However, it is difficult to imagine that Azerbaijan, which publicly states its adherence to Euro-Atlantic integration and western values, would completely redirect its foreign policy towards Russia. This appears unlikely, especially since Azerbaijan has a strategic partnership with the U.S. on security and energy issues. In addition, Azerbaijan has an ambitious intention to deliver its oil and gas to European markets independently, without Russian assistance.
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