TODAY.AZ / Analytics

U.S. - Azerbaijan relations at risk of failing?

29 July 2010 [13:53] - TODAY.AZ
Though sometimes overlooked, Azerbaijan’s geopolitical status far outweighs its size. Located just north of Iran and just south of the volatile Caucuses, it sits on the Caspian Sea, astride major oil and gas transshipment routes that avoid Russia. While not a perfect democracy, Azerbaijan clearly presents an alternative to the theocracy advocated by Iran and militant Islamists, as well as to the Central Asian alternative of increasingly brutal authoritarianism. Azerbaijan is therefore important geopolitically, in terms of energy access, and as an acceptable if not perfect model of governance.

Yet, Baku has been moving away from the United States. Recently, Baku cancelled joint maneuvers with the U.S. military. At the same time Azerbaijan has been increasing its cooperation with Iran and Russia on energy and other matters. Beyond this, rhetoric from high level Baku officials has become progressively more anti-American. Though U.S. policy makers have sought to discount the significance of these signals, there is little doubt that U.S. – Azerbaijani relations are undergoing a change for the worse. The questions are why and what can be done.

Azerbaijan’s post-independence quest for a closer relationship with the U.S. was driven by at least two objectives. First, and most importantly, Azerbaijan sought to reclaim territory lost to Armenia in the Nagorno – Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and seven regions adjacent to it. Second, Baku sought economic growth through integration with the West. While Azerbaijan has made progress in accomplishing this second goal, it has been bitterly disappointed on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The hopes Azerbaijan pinned on its relationship with the U.S. were demonstrated in 1994 when the U.S. signed an agreement for cooperation in the energy sector. Though Baku sought economic benefits from this deal, it realized the agreement had geopolitical ramifications as well. Azerbaijan supported U.S. interests by promoting the first pipelines in the post-Soviet Eurasia that avoided Russian territory. The Baku – Supsa and Baku – Tbilisi – Ceyhan oil pipelines and Baku – Tbilisi – Erzurum gas pipeline are products of that era. As demonstrated in Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and other former – Soviet republics, displeasing Russia can have severe ramifications for nearby states. Yet Azerbaijan was willing to take the risk.

Following the Sept.11 attacks against the U.S., Azerbaijan cooperated again. Baku opened its airspace for the transfer of coalition troops to Afghanistan, contributed peacekeeping forces to Afghanistan and Iraq, and supported U.S. efforts to combat terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Azerbaijan’s close engagement with the U.S. in the energy and security sectors satisfied many of Washington’s desires. But from Baku’s perspective there was no quid pro quo – there was no progress toward the resolution of its conflict with Armenia over Nagorno – Karabakh, a key objective on which engagement rested.

There have been several disappointments in U.S. policy for Azerbaijan over the last two decades. First, in 1992 the U.S. Congress adopted Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, making Azerbaijan the only country in the region following the dissolution of the Soviet bloc deprived of the U.S. financial assistance. Second, Washington has never recognized Armenia as an aggressor state in the occupation of an inalienable part of Azerbaijani territory and even voted against the March 2008 Baku-sponsored U.N. General Assembly resolution reaffirming the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and “demanding the immediate withdrawal of all Armenian forces from all occupied territories there.” Third, the U.S. Congress has repeatedly offered Armenia far more aid than Azerbaijan even though Azerbaijan has diligently supported U.S. interests in the region. Even more disturbing, the U.S. has been offering separate financial support to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Since President Obama’s election, U.S. policy toward the region has been marked by increasing disinterest, as reflected in no less than five policy shifts.

First, the replacement of Matthew Bryza by Robert Bradtke as a U.S. co-chair in the OSCE Minsk Group indicates a more passive approach to both the Minsk Group and the Nagorno – Karabakh negotiation process. France and Russia, the other two co-chairs in the Minsk Group, are both involved in the Nagorno – Karabakh negotiation process at the presidential level. Conversely, the U.S. seems apathetic.

Second, the U.S. has increased its criticism of Azerbaijan’s democracy and human rights record, but has failed to apply a similar approach to Armenia, especially given the protests and deaths in the wake of the Feb. 18, 2008 Armenian presidential elections.

Third, since Anne Derse left Baku for Vilnius, the U.S. kept the post of its ambassador to Azerbaijan vacant for nearly a year, something many in Baku have assessed as a sign of the U.S. indifference toward Azerbaijan. It took Washington over 10 months to finally name its new ambassador to Azerbaijan.

Fourth, the U.S. failed to invite Azerbaijan to the nuclear security summit Washington hosted on 12-13 April, the biggest international meeting hosted by the U.S. since 1945. This was also viewed in Baku as a reflection of Washington’s growing neglect toward Baku, especially given Azerbaijan’s potential role in non-proliferation efforts. This sense of disappointment was even deeper given the fact that Azerbaijan’s two regional neighbours, Armenia and Georgia, did receive invitations to attend the summit.

Finally, the largest source of disappointment came as a result of the Obama administration’s efforts in 2009 to push hard for the Armenian – Turkish rapprochement. From Baku’s perspective, the resolution of the Nagorno – Karabakh conflict should be linked to this rapprochement lest the Armenian’s feel no pressure to settle the matter. The Armenian – Turkish engagement deprives Azerbaijan of the little leverage it possesses to encourage Armenia to withdraw from the Azerbaijani territories it occupies. The U.S. has seemingly penalized Baku’s growing constructiveness in the Nagorno – Karabakh negotiations and rewarded Armenia’s obstructionist approach. Unlike Baku, Armenia has so far failed to approve the renewed version of the Madrid principles regarding settlement of this conflict. In Baku, this last policy shift is viewed as a victory for the Armenian lobby and narrow domestic political considerations in the U.S.

It is thus U.S. reluctance to become more constructively involved with Baku’s outstanding security problems, especially the Nagorno – Karabakh conflict and its ignorance regarding the rationale driving Azerbaijan’s quest to integrate with the West that have been key in alienating Baku in recent months. To make sure that these tactical shifts do not translate into a strategic transformation of Baku’s foreign policy as well as into a deeply embedded mistrust of the U.S. amongst the society at large, the U.S. should reassess its policy toward a valuable partner on a key international fault line. The recent nomination of Matthew Bryza as Washington’s new ambassador to Azerbaijan is a first move in the right direction, but much more remains to be done to salvage this important relationship.

Murad Ismayilov
Program Manager for Research and Publications
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy


Michael Tkacik, J.D., Ph.D.
Professor of Government and Director of the School of Honors
Stephen F. Austin State University

/Hurriyet Daily News/

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