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Why Is Azerbaijan So Important To U.S., Europe?

President Ilham Aliyev and one of his daughters, Leyla (corrected)
President Ilham Aliyev and one of his daughters, Leyla (corrected)

Government officials in Europe and the United States have offered only muted criticism of Azerbaijan throughout a year of rampant human rights violations that included the arrest of journalists and activists and the closure of numerous NGOs.

For a possible explanation, we look at Western strategic interests in the energy-rich Caspian nation.

It Offers Energy Diversity

Europe has learned the hard way what it means to depend largely on Russia for your gas. January cutoffs in 2006 and 2009 left a lingering chill. And Russia's ongoing conflict with Ukraine -- which currently pipes the majority of Europe's Russian supplies -- means continued risk of a repeat, particularly now that plans for an additional Russian pipeline, South Stream, have fallen through.

Azerbaijan is not a complete solution: Its annual output of natural gas is roughly equal to just 5 percent of Russia's. But the completion of its Southern Gas Corridor -- which in 2019 is scheduled to begin piping gas to southern Italy via Georgia, Turkey, and Greece -- will contribute to pricing competition in Europe and weaken Russia's ability to use energy as a political weapon, a stated aim of both EU and U.S. policy.

But it also puts Azerbaijan in the uncomfortable position of risking Moscow's displeasure, meaning Brussels and Washington must act as a staunch ally to Baku to keep Azerbaijani gas flowing west.

It Stands Tall In A Strategic Neighborhood

Some small nations might feel nervous wedged between powerful neighbors like Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Not Azerbaijan.

Baku, with its massive wealth, has been able to withstand revanchist pressure from Moscow in ways that its poorer neighbors, Georgia and especially Armenia, have not. It's historically and linguistically close to Turkey. And the sizable -- and voluble -- ethnic Azeri minority in northern Iran has raised the specter of a "greater Azerbaijan" separatist conflict that Iran is desperate to avoid.

It's Muslim, Secular, And Friends With Israel

At a time of rising Western concern over Islamic extremism, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev represents an increasingly rare exception -- the happily secular Islamic leader.

Even as Turkey's pendulum has swung sharply back in favor of Islamist rule under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Aliyev and his often-revealingly dressed wife, Mehriban, prefer to pose as the faces of modern Shi'ite Islam. The Aliyev regime has sought to crack down on Muslim worshippers whose practices fall outside government guidelines for acceptable worship, and supports only mainstream clerics licensed by the state.

Its insistence on religious moderation has made Azerbaijan an appealing Muslim ally to the West. Baku is also Israel's closest Muslim partner -- and its top oil supplier, receiving advanced missile systems and drones in exchange.

It Supports Culture And Sports

Azerbaijan learned early on that it's possible to buy legitimacy. Mehriban Aliyeva, who became a UNESCO goodwill ambassador in 2005, spends generously and cleverly, financing renovations at the Louvre, the Palace of Versailles, and Strasbourg Cathedral. The ruling regime has also invested at home to refashion itself as a hub of culture, both high and low.

The opulent athletes' village in Baku, the site of the first European Games in June 2015
The opulent athletes' village in Baku, the site of the first European Games in June 2015

Baku spent upwards of $75 million to host the glitzy Eurovision Song Contest in 2012; it has spent millions more to stoke its reputation as a fine-arts mecca, bringing in French architect Jean Nouvel to build its contemporary art museum and extravagantly promoting the work of its native artists abroad. And in June 2015, Azerbaijan is set to become the first country to host the European Games, a kind of mini-Olympics featuring 6,000 athletes competing in 20 sports. Some observers have already criticized the decision to award the event to a country with a customary neglect of even basic human rights. But organizers may be more impressed by reported estimates of $10 billion in new sporting infrastructure.

It Has Well-Connected Friends

Azerbaijan has long stood accused of "caviar diplomacy" -- using vacations, carpets, jewelry, and fish eggs to win friends and influence policymakers. Critics say such tactics have already won desired results with bodies like the Council of Europe -- Europe's main democratic watchdog -- which in recent years has dramatically softened its censure of Azerbaijan, even as Baku continued a fierce crackdown on opponents while chairing the CoE's Committee of Ministers this year.

In the United States, a number of former diplomatic officials have segued comfortably into positions tied to the Azerbaijani regime. One former ambassador to Baku, Matthew Bryza, sits on the board of an Azerbaijani energy company; another, Stanley Escudero, serves as a private consultant to businesses looking to invest in Azerbaijan. Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage once served as co-director of a Washington-based Azerbaijani lobby group. Three former political advisers to President Barack Obama were paid to speak in Azerbaijan. Britain's Prince Andrew has faced criticism over his frequent meetings with Aliyev and visits to Baku in recent years. And Brenda Shaffer, a visiting researcher at Georgetown University and one of the most visible figures touting Azerbaijan's role as a pro-Western energy partner, has worked as a strategic-affairs adviser at Azerbaijan's state-owned SOCAR energy giant.

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