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Azerbaijani-Russian Relations Hostage To Pragmatism

Ilham Aliyev (left) and Dmitry Medvedev -- all smiles on the surface
Ilham Aliyev (left) and Dmitry Medvedev -- all smiles on the surface
On September 16, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev paid a working visit to Moscow to discuss with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev the repercussions of last month's war between Georgia and Russia. Predictably, the public statements by both men following those talks yielded little of substance, except for Medvedev's affirmation that Russia's position on Nagorno-Karabakh has not changed.

Azerbaijan is central to Russian aspirations to preserve the maximum influence over the South Caucasus. The international community's primary interest in that region is Caspian hydrocarbons, and Azerbaijan is the key to their export to international markets. In seeking over the past 14 years to diversify export options for its oil and gas, Azerbaijan's leaders have therefore been constrained to balance the unequivocal support of the international community, in the first instance the United States, for the construction of oil and gas pipelines that bypass Russian territory, with the need for concessions to Russia in other spheres, and with Russia's alliance with Armenia.

That balancing act has proven not only possible but beneficial, not least because Russia and Azerbaijan are in many respects very similar. Both have adopted an authoritarian leadership style that seeks to pass itself off as a unique variant on democracy. Neither has any qualms about blatantly rigging the outcome of elections. And thanks to their important role as producers and exporters of oil and gas, and the vast wealth they continue to accumulate in that capacity, both can afford to ignore Western criticisms not only of electoral malpractice, but also of the suppression of the political opposition and freedom of speech, as well as other human rights violations.

They pay lip service to, but routinely flout, the commitments they undertook on joining the Council of Europe; and while members of NATO's Partnership for Peace program, neither has demonstrated any real desire for NATO membership. The fact that Azerbaijan was one of the first CIS states to which Medvedev paid a formal visit following his inauguration in May only serves to underscore the importance of Azerbaijan in Russian foreign policy.

During the late 1990s, Azerbaijan tilted toward the West as negotiations edged slowly forward on putting together a consortium to build the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil-export pipeline. But after Vladimir Putin's advent to power in Russia in early 2000, and once construction of the BTC began in 2002, a new era of strategic cooperation between Azerbaijan and Russia opened up, of which the most tangible manifestation was a steady increase in bilateral economic cooperation and trade. Both Medvedev and Aliyev approvingly highlighted that aspect of bilateral relations in their public comments on September 16.

Balancing Act With Georgia

Relations between Russia and Azerbaijan are, however, inextricably linked to Azerbaijan's uneasy relationship with Georgia. As noted above, the key factor in Azerbaijani-Georgian ties is cooperation in the export of oil and gas to international markets via Turkey. But in other important respects, the two countries' priorities diverge.

Georgia under President Mikheil Saakashvili has wholeheartedly embraced democratization and sweeping reforms and affirmed its zero tolerance of corruption. It has also unequivocally signaled its desire to join both NATO and, eventually, the European Union.

Azerbaijan by contrast seemingly has little interest in either genuine democratic transformation, or effective economic reform and anticorruption measures. And its equivocal stance with regard to cooperation with NATO has exasperated senior officials within the alliance who have sought without success in recent years to obtain clarification of Baku's intentions.

A further complicating factor in relations between Baku and Tbilisi is, according to informed observers, Aliyev's personal dislike of Saakashvili. Saakashvili's ill-conceived attack on South Ossetia last month and the disproportionate Russian military response highlighted the vulnerability of the pipelines on which Azerbaijan's continued economic prosperity and tenuous political stability depend. Specifically, the August war may well have served to bury what rapidly dwindling hopes still remained for building the planned Nabucco pipeline that would transport Caspian natural gas via Azerbaijan to Turkey and thence to Europe. (Much of the infrastructure for the South Stream pipeline, Russia's intended alternative to Nabucco, is already in place.)

In that respect, Aliyev has every right to feel both anger at his Georgian counterpart's irresponsibility (and possibly also at Washington's failure to restrain Saakashvili), and acute concern over how additional gas from the second phase of development of Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz deposit will be exported. Gazprom last year offered to purchase that additional gas, which is expected to come on stream in 2012 or 2013. Azerbaijan, which has received alternative offers that are, however, contingent on the successful implementation of the Nabucco project, has neither accepted nor rejected Gazprom's overture.

Finally, Russia's intervention in South Ossetia, ostensibly to protect from indiscriminate Georgian reprisals those residents of South Ossetia who had availed themselves of the offer of Russian passports and were thus on paper Russian citizens, raised the question: would Russia provide military assistance to Armenia in the event of a comparable attempt by Azerbaijan to restore by military force its control over the breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh?

The unprecedented increase, to $1 billion annually, of Azerbaijan's defense spending and repeated hawkish threats by its senior generals have led some observers to conclude that Azerbaijan is indeed contemplating a new war to win back Nagorno-Karabakh before revenues from oil exports peak and Ilham Aliyev's second presidential term expires in 2013. In what the Russian daily "Kommersant" on September 16 construed as a warning to Baku, the concluding statement adopted at the September 5 summit in Moscow of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization expressed concern at the ongoing "military buildup and escalation of tensions in the Caucasus" and warned against "new attempts at resolving conflicts by force."

What Can West Offer?

Those observers who anticipated that Russia's military intervention in Georgia would finally impel Azerbaijan to abandon its balancing act of recent years and align itself firmly with the West have been proven wrong, however. The West, after all, offered Georgia no military support, confining its reaction to hand wringing and verbal condemnation of Russia's flagrant violation of international law. That message was not lost on the Azerbaijani leadership, as became clear from the lukewarm reception reportedly extended to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney during his brief September 3 visit to Baku.

One further recent development has similarly weakened Azerbaijan's geopolitical position, namely, the landmark visit to Yerevan on September 6 by Turkish President Abdullah Gul. The prospect of a breakthrough in Armenian-Turkish relations is widely perceived in Baku at best as a zero-sum game in which Azerbaijan would lose out badly, and at worst as a stab in the back by Turkey, long considered Azerbaijan's partner and ally.

It was therefore Medvedev who held most of the aces when he sat down for talks with Aliyev on September 16. Predictably, in their public statements both presidents stressed the need to defuse tensions in the South Caucasus and to restore "peace and predictability" (meaning find at all costs a way to prevent Saakashvili from committing any further military aggression). But having dealt a bloody nose to Washington's Georgian protege Saakashvili, Russia may have decided to try to edge the United States out of the Karabakh mediation process under the auspices of the OSCE. Over the past several years, Aliyev has repeatedly criticized that mediation framework as incapable of producing a solution to the conflict on conditions acceptable to Azerbaijan.

Medvedev was quoted on September 17 by both Russian and Azerbaijani media as saying Moscow sees no alternative to a peaceful solution to the conflict; advocates direct talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents to that end; and is prepared to mediate such talks. "Kommersant" on September 16 reported that Medvedev intends to host talks on Russian territory between Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian, to which Sarkisian has already given his consent.

The newspaper, which has a track record of disseminating disinformation with regard to alleged progress in resolving the Abkhaz conflict, further quoted an unnamed official within Sarkisian's administration as saying Russia has its own blueprint for resolving the Karabakh conflict. The first stage of that plan allegedly addresses modalities for allowing the use by both Armenia and Azerbaijan of the strategic Lachin Corridor that connects Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, without placing it under Armenian jurisdiction. A secure land link between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh has long been one of Armenia's three fundamental preconditions for a settlement.

The Nagorno-Karabakh leadership, however, has made clear that it favors the continuation of negotiations within the current OSCE Minsk Group framework. RFE/RL's Armenian Service on September 17 quoted Karabakh President Bako Sahakian as telling Ambassador Bernard Fassier, the French co-chairman of the Minsk Group, the previous evening in Stepanakert that the unrecognized republic will continue to lobby for direct participation in those negotiations.