With the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly twenty five years ago, the political and strategic orientation of its former republics changed nearly overnight. As Moscow reorganized itself, and Western capital flooded into Russia leading to the economic and social disaster of the early 1990s, the formerly Soviet Republics quickly began to realign themselves in preparation for the post-Soviet period. It is within this period of realignment that Azerbaijan first began to assert itself, charting a course for an independent foreign policy that had as its main goal the formation of economic and political relations that would lead to increased cooperation with the West.
By the mid 1990s, newly discovered oil reserves in the Caspian Sea vaulted Azerbaijan to the top of the list of potential allies for the US and Europe. Western energy companies saw in Baku a new and exciting opportunity for profit, while Western capitals saw a potential partner in a volatile region, one that could become central to strategic planning both in the context of Russia and Iran. With its complex mix of Shia and Turkic peoples, combined with secularists from the Soviet era, Azerbaijan seemed a prime candidate for incorporation into the US-NATO-Israel sphere of influence. Indeed, that is precisely what happened.
Azerbaijan has become in recent years a geopolitical crossroads. While it has long-standing ties with Washington and Tel Aviv, and a somewhat tumultuous relationship with Russia (and Russian ally Armenia), Azerbaijan should not be seen as entirely in the orbit of the West. Despite having developed close working relationships with Western energy corporations and governments, Baku has attempted to maintain a somewhat independent foreign policy, one that seeks good relations with the West while keeping it at arm’s distance. Baku has showed a willingness to work with Europe and the US while remaining leery of the West’s intentions. Indeed, the growing mistrust between Azerbaijani officials and their Western counterparts marks a decided change from the previous decade when all Western officials were greeted with open arms in Baku.
And so, the questions today are numerous and multi-dimensional. While Azerbaijan is obviously interested in cultivating a multi-vector foreign policy similar to that of other former Soviet Republics, it does so with a skeptical eye trained on the West. Likewise, despite the historical animus toward Russia, Baku is increasingly becoming friendly with Moscow, seeing in it a counterweight to the West and potentially significant market for its own exports and economic development.
In order to truly assess the political and economic calculus of Azerbaijan, one must also be aware of the various organs of western “soft power” which have taken root in the country. Through a vast network of NGOs and other institutions, the West has attempted to assert influence and indirect control over the political course of the country. In so doing, the West has in many ways alienated the government of President Aliyev, and driven it closer to Russia, particularly in light of recent events in Ukraine which have been correctly interpreted as a possible preview of what might come to Azerbaijan should Washington deem it necessary. Such forms of indirect control and influence exerted by the West further complicate an already complex relationship with Azerbaijan today reassessing many of its assumptions about the West, Russia, and its place on the regional and global chessboard.
Azerbaijan and the West
In November of 1997, the future President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, then First Vice President of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), addressed a number of political, academic, and corporate dignitaries at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. His address, intended to convince leading figures in the West that Azerbaijan’s oil boom was in full swing and that the country was open and ready for western investment, revealed a great deal about how Aliyev and his father, then President Heydar Aliyev, viewed the future of Azerbaijan. It was made explicitly clear that oil wealth would be at the heart of Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet economic and foreign policy, and that it was Western investment that it sought.
Ilham Aliyev, addressing the Harvard crowd, stated:
We have succeeded in creating very comfortable conditions for our investors because it is clearly understood that investors will come and invest only if there is stability in the region and their investments are protected… I want to mention all the companies we will work with within the frame of the oil consortia, so that you will have, perhaps, a better impression about what’s going on now in Azerbaijan. Our partners are Amoco, Unocal, Pennzoil, Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, British Petroleum, Statoil, Lukoil, Turkish Petroleum, Itochu, Delta, Ramco, OIEC, Petrofina, Deminex, Total, Elf Aquitaine and Agip. You can see that many countries are represented in the consortia in Azerbaijan. That was also part of our policy, part of our strategy, to invite companies, the biggest companies in their own countries, that [sic] represent different parts of the world.
At the time, these statements were intended to put at ease the minds of many investors and political leaders who were still unsure of Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet policy, and who were, consequently, reticent to sink large sums of capital into the country. However, the above excerpt also illustrates the psychological, not to mention political and economic, weight that Baku ascribed to the thoughts, opinions, and attitudes of the West, particularly the corporate elite in the energy sector. Not only did Aliyev hope to proclaim that Azerbaijan was open for business, but that business would be booming and, above all, that the capital flooding into the country would be safe and secure.
It is indeed revealing that Aliyev would incant this litany of partner companies, demonstrating the commitment that he and his father had towards economic cooperation with the West. At the same time, this growing friendliness towards the West should also be understood as a logical outgrowth of the humiliating defeat Azerbaijan suffered to Russia’s close ally Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. The war, which cost Azerbaijan a small but significant amount of its territory, forced Baku to seek out Western partners that could provide political and diplomatic backing to the Azerbaijani position vis-à-vis Armenia and Russia. And this is precisely what happened.
By the early 2000s, thanks to a decade-long political charm offensive, Azerbaijan had become a cause célèbre for European elites who saw in Azerbaijan both tremendous business opportunities and, perhaps more importantly, a chance to stifle Russia’s regional cooperation and reemergence as a regional power. By 2005, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) issued its Resolution 1416 which, among other things, asserted that “considerable parts of the territory of Azerbaijan are still occupied by Armenian forces,” and “independence and secession of a regional territory from a state may only be achieved through a lawful and peaceful process based on the democratic support of the inhabitants of such territory and not in the wake of an armed conflict leading to ethnic expulsion and the de facto annexation of such territory to another state.” More than a simple expression of opinion, Resolution 1416 established quite clearly the fact that Azerbaijan had been “mainstreamed” in the European community, and that Euope saw in Azerbaijan a long-term strategic partner, rather than simply another former Soviet Republic.
Essentially then, Azerbaijan’s strategy of using its oil discoveries to spur large-scale capital investment which could then be translated into political and diplomatic support, ultimately proved successful. In the span of ten years, Azerbaijan went from tiny former Soviet Republic, to an integral part of the European and American foreign policy agenda. This is perhaps best illustrated by the myriad examples of cooperation between Baku and the West.
George Friedman, founder and Chairman of Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm, is perhaps one of the prime examples of just such cooperation. Having made a number of trips to Azerbaijan to meet with high-level contacts, Friedman and his firm is considered one of the principal liaisons between the US intelligence community and Azerbaijan’s government. When WikiLeaks released their “Global Intelligence Files” exposing Stratfor’s global network of paid agents, informants, and intelligence officers, one of the most striking discoveries was the sheer volume of Azerbaijan-related material. This should have come as no surprise as Friedman and Co. have for years indicated the centrality of Azerbaijan for US power projection in the region.
Stratfor, like other organs of US intelligence, views Azerbaijan as a convenient pawn to use in advancing Washington’s agenda against both Iran and Russia. With regard to Iran, which shares a border with Azerbaijan and is home to a large ethnic Azeri minority, Azerbaijan is supposed to act as a hostile nation, playing host to Western intelligence and military; Baku has played up its role as a transit center for US forces in Afghanistan as well as its position as intermediary with Iran in the ongoing talks regarding Iran’s nuclear program. In this way, Azerbaijan has postured as an indispensible ally for Washington. Whether Washington entirely agrees with such a posture is still an open question.
Friedman and others have written that Azerbaijan represents an absolutely critical linchpin for US-NATO strategy in containing Russia and stifling its development and any regional ambitions it might have. In many ways, Friedman and his ilk see in Azerbaijan a Caspian-Caucasus variation of the Baltic model – formerly Soviet Republics that can be brought into the orbit of the West through coercion and promises of collective security. In addition, like the Baltic States, Azerbaijan presents a wealth of business opportunities for the ever-stagnant European economy. Essentially, such planners see an “eastern line” separating what they optimistically regard as “Europe” from “Russia.” In more concrete and realistic terms, what Friedman and his colleagues are actually describing is the continued eastward expansion of NATO and Europe, pushing not only to the doorstep of Russia in the Baltic, Georgia and Ukraine, but also on the Caspian Sea.
Of course, there is also the very conspicuous cooperation between Baku and Tel Aviv. Indeed, Israel has emerged in recent years as a principal partner for Azerbaijan, partnering with Aliyev’s government on a massive $1.6 billion weapons purchase, in addition to smaller contracts for drones and other high military technology. As the now infamous diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks entitled “Azerbaijan’s Discreet Symbiosis with Israel” indicated, President Aliyev described the state of Azerbaijan’s relationship with Israel as “nine-tenths of it is below the surface.” A widely read 2012 article from Foreign Policy magazine entitled “Israel’s Secret Staging Ground” noted that:
Four senior diplomats and military intelligence officers say that the United States has concluded that Israel has recently been granted access to airbases on Iran’s northern border… ‘The Israelis have bought an airfield…and the airfield is called Azerbaijan.’ Senior U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly concerned that Israel’s military expansion into Azerbaijan complicates U.S. efforts to dampen Israeli-Iranian tensions.
The military and strategic imperatives for the West in Azerbaijan certainly do not end with bases, airstrips, military contracts, and intelligence cooperation. Rather, perhaps the primary driver of Western strategic planning in Azerbaijan has to do with energy and pipelines. Seen as the gateway to the Caspian’s vast energy riches, Azerbaijan is a critical link in the West-sponsored “Southern Corridor,” an energy development plan that envisions a basket of pipelines bringing Caspian energy from Azerbaijan through Georgia and the Caucasus region, across Turkey, and into Europe. The centerpiece of this development model is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (BTC). While it has been hailed as a major achievement, the BTC has changed the dynamics of the region only slightly, and provides a negligible amount of energy to Europe.
Once seen as part of a comprehensive strategy to undermine Russian energy dominance in Europe, recent developments have cast doubt on the viability of the Southern Corridor entirely, making the fanciful notion of countering Russia’s primacy in the region all the more absurd. Additionally, as Russia brings online its South Stream pipeline, Azerbaijan’s once vaunted position vis-à-vis Europe is now in question. Perhaps it is this loss of strategic importance that has made the West more belligerent and condescending toward Azerbaijan’s government. Indeed, a close analysis of recent developments signals a marked shift in the political and business elites’ attitudes toward Azerbaijan.
Part 2 of this article will examine the changing and coercive nature of the West’s relationship with Azerbaijan, including the mechanisms of soft power being used to undermine the government. Additionally, it will focus on recent developments in relations with Russia, and how those might affect the political alignment of Azerbaijan in the years to come.
Eric Draitser is an independent geopolitical analyst based in New York City, he is the founder of StopImperialism.org and OP-ed columnist for RT, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.