EU officials in Brussels were left clearly impressed by President Ilham Aliyev's record -- even if they do stress it is marred by democratic shortcomings.
Azerbaijan owes much of the respect it is winning in the EU to its huge oil and gas deposits -- but not all of it.
It is also increasingly seen in Brussels as a rare example regional example of a country able to put its strengths to good use. Its economy is growing at what one EU official today described as a "phenomenal rate."
The country has a good relationship with Russia, but is seeking to establish a balance by securing good ties with the EU and the United States. Azerbaijan's conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh remains a problem, but does not appear to hinder its foreign-policy objectives.
This was the backdrop to EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana's description of Azerbaijan as an "important country in an important region" after his meeting today in Brussels with the country's president, Ilham Aliyev.
"We want very much to deepen our bilateral relationship with Azerbaijan, not only in the field of energy -- which is important. But Azerbaijan is not only a producer of energy, it's an important country [in] an important region, with which we want to have a deep relationship." Solana said. "The EU is to sign European Neighborhood Policy "action plans" with Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia next week (November 14). The "action plans" set out the priorities for the countries' cooperation with the EU and will open, in Solana's words, "a new era" in EU-South Caucasus relations.
However, Azerbaijan increasingly stands out in the region. It alone has been able to give up EU financial aid, which totaled some 400 million euros before a steep hike in energy revenues made it redundant. Baku also avoids controversy by speaking in general terms of its wish to pursue "Euro-Atlantic" integration, while refraining from demanding EU or NATO membership.
Position Of Strength
As one EU official noted today, Azerbaijan is also able to speak with Russia from a position of strength without jeopardizing good-neighborly relations. At the same time, it manages to get along with Georgia at a time when that country's relationship with Russia has hit a new low.
Aliyev, who signed a broad energy accord with the European Union today, was careful to distance himself from more radical voices seeking to diminish Russia's dominant role as an EU energy supplier. The Azerbaijani president promised oil and gas, but indicated that Baku's hand will not be forced regarding the selection of transit routes.
"We never considered our country as any kind of alternative to any other country [regarding energy supplies]," Aliyev said. "We just did our job, did what was right for the country, [right] for the region. And our energy infrastructure today allows us to transport large volumes of oil and gas to European and international markets."
Azerbaijan is currently exporting oil via Russia and Georgia, and gas through Georgia. Aliyev today expressed interest in the development of a Ukrainian-Polish oil pipeline. But along with Russian and Kazakh authorities he also appeared to link deliveries to a wish to acquire a stake in European processing facilities and distribution networks.
Not In The Pipeline
Hopes for direct gas links from the Caspian Sea region to the European Union, on the other hand, appear to be fading. An EU official told RFE/RL today that the so-called Nabucco pipeline -- recently billed as a major alternative to Russian supplies by transiting gas to Southeastern Europe via Turkey -- was not discussed at the meeting with Aliyev.
In another bad sign for the future of the alternative pipeline, Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev last month told the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee that the construction of a gas link between his country to Azerbaijan via the Caspian Sea appears increasingly unlikely.Toqaev suggested that Kazakhstan is content with continuing to use Russian transit facilities.
Another issue on which the EU is keen to cooperate with Azerbaijan is neighboring Iran. While the EU is seeking to thwart what it fears are Teheran's ambitions to build nuclear weapons, Azerbaijan is seeking backing for its efforts to improve the standing of the up to 30 million Azeris living in Iran. Aliyev told EU officials today that Baku is unhappy that the Azeri language is banned from schools and the media in Iran.
The only blemish on the EU-Azerbaijani relationship remains Baku's conspicuously weak democratic record. Both Solana and the president of the European Commission, Jose-Manuel Barroso, said after their respective meetings with Aliyev that they had raised the issue.
But Barroso also highlighted extenuating factors, praising Azerbaijan's relative successes. "Let's not forget that Azerbaijan never had a democratic state as we consider it in the European Union," he said. "So Azerbaijan is making efforts [toward] economic and political reform."
Barroso also appeared to suggest that Baku is entitled to some sympathy and understanding owing to its location.
"Let me tell you that what we are doing is exactly the way to promote democracy and the rule of law in Azerbaijan," Barroso said. "Today in the meeting I raised also these issues with the [Azerbaijani] President Aliyev, and he gave me his analysis and his assessment of the situation; namely, the situation of a country that is in a very peculiar region."
Promises Of Reforms
Aliyev himself repeatedly said that a "strong" political system is needed for a "strong" economy. He also said Azerbaijan and the EU hold "shared values," and promised political and democratic reforms.
However, in a sign that the EU considers such difficulties to be relatively minor at this stage, foreign-policy chief Solana announced after meeting with Aliyev that he will soon be visiting Baku.