Past week, two spy scandals erupted in Baku, both linked to the Russian secret services. On the first occasion, the head of security at Baku International Airport, Emil Suleymanov, was arrested on charges of espionage on behalf of Russia. Apparently, Suleymanov and his staffers put listening devices in the special VIP room, where President Ilham Aliyev would chat with his advisors prior to departures.
In another case, the former permanent representative of Azerbaijan at the United Nations, Eldar Guliyev, was reported by Russian and foreign media to have been spying for Russia while serving in office. Although Guliyev is retired at the moment, the news about his possible collaboration with the Russian secret services raises serious concerns about the national security of Azerbaijan.
A Spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Khazar Ibrahim, refuted rumors about Guliyev, and assured the local reporters that all foreign service officers pass through special security checks before being admitted to the work in the ministry.
Nevertheless, independent political scientists and experts believe otherwise. Former advisor to President Heydar Aliyev on foreign affairs Vafa Guluzadeh thinks that it is normal for foreign countries to use spies in other countries, and that many countries most likely have spies in Azerbaijan as well. But in his interview to the news agency Day.az on February 4, he urged the government not to hire people to key government positions if they have studied in Russia. A vocal anti-Russian critic, Guluzadeh recommended that Azerbaijan cooperate with the U.S. and Israel in counter-intelligence operations.
Indeed, it is no surprise that such spy scandals would occur in Azerbaijan. The country has a very important geo-strategic value to the regional powers, and foreign governments are known to use covert operations to influence domestic developments in the country. A symptomatic case is the recent arrest of members of the radical Islamic organization â€œSaidâ€™s groupâ€ which had links to Iranian intelligence services.
What is surprising, however, is the reaction of the Azerbaijani government. Unlike neighboring Georgia, where the government also arrested a number of Russian spies last year and made a huge political scandal out of this, the Azerbaijani government keeps its head cold and manages the criminal case internally, behind closed doors, without a major diplomatic scandal. In fact, the efforts on the part of President Aliyev and his team not to allow these cases to ruin the fragile normalized relations with the northern neighbor are clear.
This, however, does not mean that Azerbaijani government fears Russia. On the contrary, the governmentâ€™s persistence on fighting such cases without concealing that they are related to Russia shows that the political leadership is eager to send a message to the Kremlin. The message is â€œwe are independent and confident and are ready to tackle these challenges if needed.â€
Indeed, Azerbaijan is perhaps one of the few countries in the post-Soviet space which manages to maintain normal relations with Russia but also to pursue a free and independent foreign policy, geared towards the West. Rich energy resources, skillful tending to the interests of the regional powers and enhancing relations with the EU and NATO help this process even more.
This week, Slovenian Foreign Minister and acting EU chairman Dmitriy Rupel, and EU Commissioner for European foreign policy and neighborhood relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner visited Baku and discussed bilateral relations with President Aliyev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. They also opened the EUâ€™s first permanent office in Baku â€“ a clear sign of growing and deepening relations between Brussels and Baku.
As the energy needs of the EU countries grow and the supplies of the energy become rather unreliable, Baku emerges as a strong partner to the EU members in terms of providing alternative energy routes and ensuring the energy security of the European countries. The Kremlin is irritated by these developments, but there is only so much it can do. Further attempts to pressure official Baku is likely to push the latter even further into the hands its Euro-Atlantic partners.Thus, Azerbaijanâ€™s foreign policy priority towards Euro-Atlantic integration is clear and helps Azerbaijan strengthen its international standing. Relations with Russia also remain a priority, but as the spy scandals show, official Baku is not ready to be a push-over.