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In Crimea, Baku's Moment Of Truth

Is Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev (left) prepared to disappoint his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on Crimea?
Is Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev (left) prepared to disappoint his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on Crimea?
"Let's speak about it after the referendum. Azerbaijan has always honored and will honor the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and inviolability of borders that are regulating relations among states," said Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov, when asked about Baku's position on the Crimean referendum to join Russia.

Well, the referendum is over. Moscow is jubilant. Crimea voted to join the Russian Federation in the referendum that the United States and the European Union have rejected on grounds it is against Ukraine's constitution and international law.

To date, Baku has been very cautious in reacting to Russia's behavior in Ukraine, essentially saying nothing. It may very well continue to do so, but its continued silence may raise questions. Specifically, what if Armenians in Azerbaijan's separatist region, Nagorno-Karabakh, decide to mimic Crimea and conduct another referendum to join Armenia? (They conducted a referendum on joining then-Soviet Armenia in 1988, but to date Armenia hasn't moved toward unification or to recognize its independence.) Will Baku affirm Ukraine's territorial integrity?

Baku's likely options are as follows:

1. To condemn the referendum as illegal and support principles of international law guaranteeing sovereignty and territorial integrity, something that Baku, which is facing separatism in Nagorno-Karabakh, has been fighting over the last 20 years. For example, in 2008 Baku rejected Kosovo's declaration of independence as a violation of international law. Similarly, Baku rejected the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in neighboring Georgia. Baku may reaffirm its stand on the issue and ally itself with the civilized world. The risk is that the Kremlin may not like it.

2. To support Moscow's position, which would be welcomed by the Kremlin, and recognize Crimea's unification with Russia. By doing this, however, Baku would risk sending a signal to Nagorno-Karabakh that it may one day join Armenia in a similar fashion. This choice goes against Baku's national interests, consistent with which the territory would be returned to Azerbaijani sovereignty.

3. To try to stay neutral and pretend that what happened doesn't concern Baku. Last week Oktay Asadov, speaker of Azerbaijan's parliament, said: "This is a conflict among two close brothers, Russians and Ukrainians. We have nothing to discuss here." In other words, let the United States, the European Union, Ukraine, and Russia figure out the crisis. Baku managed to survive the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 without taking positions, but at that time the split between Russia and the West was not so significant.

But there's an additional risk that an increasingly assertive Vladimir Putin will make it clear that neutrality isn't an option at all.

-- Kenan Aliyev

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