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Azerbaijan: President Aliyev Walks Tightrope Between Russia, West

  • Valentinas Mite --> Putin (left) and Aliyev, seen here in Almaty in June, are meeting for the fourth time this year (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) PRAGUE, November 9, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev visited Moscow today on the heels of a trip to Brussels during which he signed a memorandum on cooperation in energy with the European Union.

Ahead of the visit, President Vladimir Putin officially gave his stamp of approval to his Azerbaijani counterpart's visit to EU headquarters and NATO.

"I would like to congratulate you on your successful visit to Brussels," Putin said. "I know, indeed, the visit was very practical, concrete. Important agreements have been made regarding Azerbaijan's participation in European efforts in the energy field."

Behind The Scene

But some observers believe that away from the microphone, Putin cannot have much good to say about Azerbaijan's efforts to curry favor in the West.

Ali Kerimli, who heads leading Azerbaijani opposition party Popular Front, says the issue was sure to be a hot topic during today's talks.

"Every year it is becoming more and more difficult for Aliyev to stay in two places at the same time," Kerimli said. "To be at a friend, a satellite, a supporter of the authoritarian Russia, and at the same time to participate in all the NATO and EU integration programs."

A commentary in the Russian daily "Kommersant" on November 9 suggested that, as compensation for this policy, Russia might ask Azerbaijan to participate in an energy blockade of Georgia. The daily wrote that the Kremlin is prepared to offer Russian investment in Azerbaijan's energy sector and also to supply Russian armaments at a discount.

Relations between Russia and Azerbaijan, branded as a "strategic partnership," are complicated.

The Karabakh Card

Shain Abbasov, an independent analyst based in Baku, says many in Azerbaijan believe that the resolution of Azerbaijan's conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh is in the hands of Moscow, not in the West.

Nagorno-Karabakh has been under the control of Armenia since a 1994 cease-fire ended a six-year war. Russia plays a key mediating role as the sides try to come to an agreement on the region's final status.

However, Kerimli has said the conflict serves Moscow by helping Russia to preserve its influence in both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Analyst Abbasov says the Kremlin's policy toward Armenia, a Russian ally, remains more benign than toward Azerbaijan.

"Armenia is a traditional Russian ally in the southern Caucasus," Abbasov said. "You know that Azerbaijan is a member of GUAM, which in principle is considered to be an anti-Russian political grouping and nobody tries to hide it very much. So there is no doubt that Azerbaijan is trying differently from Armenia to balance its foreign policy between the West and Russia."

Analysts have also suggested that some practices in Azerbaijan -- antidemocratic ones -- serve to bring it closer to Russia than the West.

Everything Under Control

Abbasov, for example, says Aliyev is clearly following Russia's model of "controlled democracy."

Azerbaijani police breaking up an opposition demonstration in November 2005 (AFP)

"In fact, Azerbaijan is clearly following the Russian way, the way of Putin's democracy," he said. "It is under way already now. There is no question which way Azerbaijan might choose. Aliyev's administration has already made a choice, and we are already heading down this road. You can see all this pressure on the press, a very strict authoritarian way of rule and so on. In fact, we have a very similar situation as in Russia."

As for other topics, economic issues were likely on today's agenda -- including natural-gas prices. .

Moscow could threaten, as it has done to other neighboring states of late, to raise considerably the price of its gas exports to Azerbaijan. But the move might not provide much leverage in getting Baku to avoid making overtures to the West. Azerbaijan uses only an estimated 10.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year, and only 1.5 billion of that is imported from Russia.
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