Perspective: Azerbaijan’s Foreign Policy Shift and the Threat of Isolation (4/30)     Print Email

Armen Sahakyan

 By Armen V. Sahakyan, Master of Arts candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Over the course of the past 18 months a new foreign policy doctrine has emerged in the Republic of Azerbaijan. This shift was formally codified on December 3, 2014 in a largely unnoticed 50-page Russian language memo penned by Ramiz Mehdiyev – the long-serving chief of President Ilham Aliyev’s Administration – who calls primarily for a distancing from the West because of the latter’s “unfair” criticism of Azerbaijan and “unthankful” attitude for all the sacrifices that Baku has made.

This shift comes at a troublesome time, as the deterioration of relations between the West and Russia have placed Baltic, Eastern European, and South Caucasian states alike on heightened alert due to the increased unpredictability and volatility of the geopolitical situation. Azerbaijan is no exception.

Until now, the cornerstone of the Azerbaijani foreign policy has been the desire to maintain full sovereignty and independence from any outside power – an ambitious goal in today’s regionalized world. This ideology was inspired by the late Heydar Aliyev – a former Soviet KGB general and half-a-century-long leader of Azerbaijan – whose political platform was based upon the idea of ensuring Azerbaijan’s sovereignty through nonalignment, facilitated by profits from hydrocarbon extraction in the Caspian basin. (Although Azerbaijan’s oil and gas reserves are not large in comparative terms (e.g. Azerbaijan cannot supply more than 2% of EU’s gas demand), they provide sizeable revenue for the government.) Aliyev senior’s school of thought has been carried forward by his son Ilham Aliyev, who is currently serving his third uninterrupted term as president-- after amending the constitution to allow him to do that. However, it is becoming increasingly hard to maintain the current foreign policy posture in the face of Azerbaijan’s declining oil production and low global energy prices. The leadership in Baku is caught in an environment of heightened security considerations, rigid foreign policy ideology, a faltering economy, post-communist inertia and creeping authoritarianism--which all converge to create increased isolation.

Azerbaijan is a predominantly Shia Muslim country with a 9 million population and territory roughly the size of the state of West Virginia, located on the west side of the Caspian Sea, with Russia and Georgia to the north, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh to the west and Iran to the south. The ethnic composition is mainly Azerbaijani (over 90% of the total population) with small minorities of Russians, Lezgins, Avars, and Talysh scattered throughout the country.

Map Azerbaijan NK                                                                   Azerbaijan and its neighbors
The Aliyev family has been caught in many international scandals over the past decade, which in 2013 earned President Aliyev the title of “Corrupt Person of the Year,” awarded by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. The so called “Caviar Diplomacy” undertaken by the Aliyev regime has been aimed at softening the international criticism. However, more recently the international community has again become vocal on the human rights violations and crackdowns on dissidents by the regime. President Aliyev has increasingly tightened the screws on media outlets (e.g. banishing Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and BBC) and cracking down on domestic civil society organizations.

The unresolved Nagorno Karabakh conflict complicates the security calculus for Baku. Between 1991 and 1994 Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) and Azerbaijan fought a war which resulted in a ceasefire agreement and the inception of the Minsk Process shortly after to try to resolve this frozen conflict. Currently, Armenia – as the security guarantor of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic– negotiates with Azerbaijan within this mutually-agreed framework. 

The elite in Azerbaijan have developed an increasing sense of abandonment by the West, including within the framework of the Minsk Group Co-Chairmanship of Russia, France, and the United States within the Nagorno Karabakh conflict resolution process. It views the West as inherently pro-Armenian. The leadership believes that there is an outright conspiracy plan targeted against Azerbaijan by the Western powers in the form of a “color” revolution, similar to the 2004 Orange revolution in Ukraine, and other which have occurred elsewhere throughout the region.

Azerbaijan’s economy has suffered in recent times due to the heavy reliance on hydrocarbon exports (and the resulting inability to diversify the economy into other sectors), low global oil prices and rising competition from shale oil and gas. As a result, in February the national currency, manat, has registered a devaluation of more than 30%. The fuel running the foreign policy engine has thus shrunk by a third.

Furthermore, Russia’s attempts to reassert regional hegemony, especially within its “near abroad”, cause uneasiness in Baku. Despite the large-scale military hardware sales by Russia to Azerbaijan, the Aliyev Administration continues its efforts not to fall back under the influence of Moscow. Yet, with the Western retrenchment from the region and Azerbaijan’s parallel drift away from the West, the prospects of Russia’s gambit for greater influence are strengthening.

Possible Iran-West rapprochement and the expansion of Iranian influence throughout the South Caucasus poses yet another challenge to Azerbaijan, which has historic animosity with Iran. Israel and Azerbaijan have developed a close partnership over the past decade, which has resulted in billions of dollars worth of arms purchases by Azerbaijan and lease of Azerbaijani territory as a launching pad for Israeli spy drone missions into Iran. A resurgent Iran means trouble for Azerbaijan.

The projected decline of Azerbaijan’s relative regional power and diminished role in energy diversification for the EU caused by competing Russian and other sources of gas further decrease the geopolitical sway of the country on the West. Although the profits from the energy sector will continue to come into the country, they are expected to decrease.

Ilham Aliyev par Claude Truong-Ngoc juin 2014

Keeping the above-listed and other regional factors in mind, the Azerbaijani leadership has become increasingly paranoid as it has watched the various revolutions, uprisings, and conflicts taking place in the region − including the color revolutions and the Arab Spring – fearing that it may be next. Against this fluid backdrop, the crux of the influential Mehdiyev memo accuses the West of double standards and of preparing a coup against the Aliyev regime. This is a foundational document for the beginning of a new phase of Azerbaijani politics, foreign and domestic, which commenced with the attempt to fully control the media, manage public perception domestically, and curtail the activities of NGOs that do not serve the elite’s socio-political strategies.

Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan

Over the past several months an unprecedented crackdown has been underway against Western-sponsored media and civil society organizations as well as independent domestic actors who are striving for democratic and human rights norms. A new set of laws was passed that significantly restricts freedom of the press and expression. As a consequence over a hundred political prisoners are currently in jail.

 

With America’s pivot (or at least feint) to Asia, its disengagement from Afghanistan and Iraq, the West’s cautious rapprochement with Iran and the shale revolution, the geo-strategic importance of Azerbaijan is weakening. Hence, Azerbaijan’s dilemma: Can it continue to maintain ties with all major regional powers and the West whilst refraining from allegiance with any one bloc or state? Or does the long held doctrine of non-alignment result in Baku becoming increasingly isolated as regional integration pressures from both the East and the West intensify.                                                          

While it is difficult to predict any future long-term scenario, there are a few relatively clear patterns emerging that will likely persist in Azerbaijan

1. The Azerbaijani elite will continue its consolidation of power around Aliyev and his closest allies;
2. Western-sponsored organizations and employees will continue to be rejected in their bids to operate within the country, as exemplified with the recent case of Human Rights Watch employee who was denied access into the country;
3. The leadership will attempt to remain non-aligned for as long as it can;
4. Anti-Western sentiments and jingoism will continue to be propagated.

These developments will certainly hurt the regional interests of Western powers, but current trends all point in the direction of the inescapable isolation of Azerbaijan – at least for as long as the current leadership and its ideology persists.

Armen V. Sahakyan serves as the executive director of the ERA Institute and as analyst of eurasian affairs at PDRC think tank based in Yerevan, Armenia. He is also an international political economy fellow at the BIED Society. Sahakyan is a Master of Arts candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and has previously served as an adviser to the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Armenia to the UN in New York.