Wednesday, 04 September 2013

Vladimir Putin Visits Baku

Published in Field Reports

By Mina Muradova (the 04/09/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst)

In mid-August, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin paid his first visit to Baku after resuming his presidency. No significant political declarations were made, but observers considered the visit to be a gesture aimed at dismissing speculations that the Kremlin is supporting an opposition candidate with Russian citizenship in Azerbaijan’s presidential elections, scheduled for October. The visit was intended to demonstrate that bilateral relations between the two countries are developing, even in the face of recent setbacks. 

On August 13, President Putin arrived in Baku with a large delegation including the foreign minister, defense minister, minister of transport, energy minister and the presidents of energy companies Rosneft and Lukoil. The last time Putin visited Azerbaijan was in 2006.

At the end of his visit, Putin termed Azerbaijan “one of Russia’s long-standing, traditional and reliable partners,” with whom he had discussed details of “strategic partnership.” He underlined “an obvious record” of trade between the two countries in trade, which grew between 37 and 47 percent last year.

After official bilateral negotiations, Putin and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev witnessed the signing of a number of intergovernmental documents. Russia’s Rosneft oil company and the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) signed an agreement on cooperation and the general terms and conditions for oil deliveries. A document on cooperation between the emergency ministries of the two countries for 2013-2015 was also signed, as were intergovernmental agreements on cooperation in air search and rescue, on the construction of a road bridge over the Samur River across the Russian-Azerbaijani state border, and a Program for Humanitarian Cooperation through 2015.

Relations between Russia and Azerbaijan have been tense for some time after the termination of two major intergovernmental agreements; a 1996 deal to transport oil from Azerbaijan through the Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline and another agreement regarding Russia’s lease of the early warning radar station Darial in the Gabala region of Azerbaijan. Apart from this, speculations that the Kremlin intended to use the finances of some oligarchs of Azerbaijani ethnicity to shift of power in Azerbaijan to a Moscow-supported leader poured oil on the flames, especially when the opposition announced Rustam Ibragimbekov, a 74-year-old Oscar-winning screenwriter with Russian citizenship, as their united single presidential candidate.

However, by making this visit Moscow intends to demonstrate that Azerbaijan is still within Russia’s sphere of influence and to publicly show support for the incumbent President Aliyev.

Azerbaijan will hold presidential elections on October 9, 2013, and Aliyev was recently registered as a candidate for the ruling party and stands a high chance of staying in power. Two weeks after Putin’s visit, Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission (MSK) refused to register Ibragimbekov as a candidate for the Presidential elections. The commission said its decision on August 27 was based on the fact that Ibragimbekov has dual citizenship and is not a permanent resident of Azerbaijan. Although Ibragimbekov applied to cancel his Russian citizenship, this issue was delayed by Russian governmental agencies.

Ali Ahmadov, the Executive Secretary of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, dismissed claims that Putin arrived in Baku to demonstrate support for Aliyev ahead of the elections. “Ilham Aliyev doesn’t need support from Vladimir Putin. The only force supporting President Aliyev is the Azerbaijani people, the voters,” he stated.

There was some expectation that Putin would push Azerbaijan to integrate with its regional economic and political-military structures, such as the Eurasian Union, the Customs Union, the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), and the military Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), but no declarations on these topics were made.

However, military cooperation between the two countries is growing. “Today, military cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan is estimated at around US$ 4 billion and it is a growing trend,” said Aliyev at the news conference at the end of negotiations. Rasim Musabekov, an MP and a political analyst told journalists that “Azerbaijan has become one of the leading countries among buyers of Russian military equipment, which is considered, rightfully, as among the best worldwide … This is not just military-technical cooperation. It's very important to discuss questions which can affect Azerbaijan. For example, the situation in the Caspian, where military activity is increasing, there is the context of Iran, developing events in the Middle East, plus the most important – settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.”

On the eve of Putin’s visit, another MP, Zahid Oruj, stated to Trend news agency that Azerbaijan and its strategic ally Turkey were forming a unified army: “The creation of joint Azerbaijani-Turkish military units proves that the two countries share a unified view of regional problems and security issues. The old formula for our cooperation, ‘One nation, two states’ must be replaced by another slogan: ‘One nation, one army’.” He noted that the two countries “undertake joint strategic actions,” which are supported by “political will and adequate resources.”

A significant moment of Putin’s visit was the arrival of two military ships from Russia’s Caspian Flotilla, the missile ship Dagestan and the small artillery ship Volgodonsk, and the fleet’s commander Vice Admiral Sergey Alekminsky. According to BBC, Dagestan can fire missiles at a range of 300 kilometers, which is slightly less than the width of the Caspian Sea and which supersedes the capacity of all other Caspian states. “It is symbolic that our talks coincide with a friendly visit of a detachment of the Russian Caspian Flotilla to Baku. The Dagestan missile ship and the Volgodonsk small artillery ship are among the vessels. At the end of 2013 Azerbaijani sailors plan to make a return visit to Astrakhan,” Putin said, underlining that there are still many unresolved issues relating to the Caspian Sea, including security, border delimitation, and conserving biological diversity.

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