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26 Apr 2010

Alienating Azerbaijan?

Baku Old City, by Indigoprime\Flickr.com
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Gates to the Old City, Baku

US relations with Azerbaijan, its key Caspian strategic ally, have plummeted to a new low in recent weeks, punctuated by a wave of anti-American sentiment in the Azerbaijani press after several months of messages from Washington, some oblique and others more direct, Karl Rahder writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Karl Rahder for ISN

Among the messages was Washington’s decision not to invite Azerbaijan to the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on 12-13 April, although next-door neighbor Georgia and Azerbaijan’s nemesis Armenia were asked to come.

And noticed by everyone in Baku, Anne Derse, the previous US ambassador, has still not been replaced, despite the fact that she was rotated out of Azerbaijan last summer. Derse replaced her predecessor Reno Harnish almost immediately after he left Baku for Washington in April 2006.

In response to these and other messages, Azerbaijani media have increasingly published interviews and printed articles with an anti-American tenor. And key members of the highest echelons of Azerbaijan’s government have begun to speak out, sometimes in harsh terms. Complaining of alleged American bias toward Armenia, Ali Hasanov, a close advisor to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, told Reuters last week that Azerbaijan might “reconsider” its relationship with Washington. 

Novruz Mammadov, head of the Foreign Relations Department in Aliyev’s administration, wrote an op-ed last week for Radio Free Europe in which he also charged that “U.S. policies have become increasingly pro-Armenian - and exclusive of Azerbaijan.” 

Just in case the message from Baku was not quite clear, on 19 April the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry announced that it would “welcome” mediation of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute by Iran, despite the long-term mediation role of the OSCE’s Minsk Group, co-chaired by France, Russia and the US. The following day, Azerbaijan pulled out of a scheduled military exercise with the US. 

All roads lead to Nagorno-Karabakh

Two intertwined themes emerge from Azerbaijan’s messages to the US: Azerbaijan profoundly disapproves of US efforts to normalize relations between Turkey and Armenia, and believes that rapprochement between these two countries diminishes Azerbaijan’s aspirations to regain control of Nagorno-Karabakh, the province fought over between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the 1992-1994 war. 

In the thicket of Azerbaijan’s geopolitical landscape, all roads lead to Nagorno-Karabakh, and it is the Karabakh issue that has, more than any other factor, derailed Washington’s efforts to normalize relations between Armenia and Turkey. Washington’s understanding that ‘reconciliation’ - the term used for the normalization process - and a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh stalemate were not linked was evidently shared in Ankara in April 2009 when the process was announced. 

But the response from Baku was one of dismay and even betrayal, with key public figures speaking out against Turkey (as they are doing now, with more vigor, against the US), and some analysts anticipating that Azerbaijan might move closer to Moscow - something that could wreck the proposed Nabucco natural gas pipeline, which will be routed through Georgia and Turkey, providing it is built.

As reconciliation seemed to be gaining momentum last year, Turkey further harmed its relations with Azerbaijan by reportedly demanding 15 percent of Nabucco gas for itself, to be either stored or exported for a profit.

A major premise of the reconciliation process was the re-opening of the border between Turkey and Armenia, closed by Turkey in solidarity with Azerbaijan during the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Opening the border, effectively ending the 16-year economic blockade of Armenia by Turkey, would, for Baku, remove an important bargaining chip in its efforts to regain all or most of the territories seized from Azerbaijan during the war.  

The diplomatic sting

Stung by the reaction in Baku, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan soon ruled out normalizing relations with Armenia without a solution to the Karabakh issue. Despite the pledge from Ankara, the US has continued to push for reconciliation while simultaneously isolating Baku.

Analysts based in Washington and Baku say they are puzzled and even astonished by the messages the Obama administration seems to be sending. Efforts to propel reconciliation at the cost of America’s relationship with a critical ally in the Caucasus, they say, are misguided.

One Azeri source told ISN Security Watch on condition of anonymity that the current policy out of Washington risks not just its relationship with Azerbaijan, but its entire strategy in the Caspian region.

“America always employs one-dimensional, short-term political agendas,” he said. 

“They are doing the same with reconciliation. Someone told them that it is a good idea to reconcile Turks and Armenians, and they are going like a bulldozer. They think the only thing they need to do is open the border between Armenia and Turkey. And they are going to sacrifice the whole region, the whole strategic arrangement of the region to get there.”

Dr Stephen Blank, research professor at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, agreed that the administration’s policy toward Azerbaijan was perplexing, and that in alienating an ally, the Obama administration risked sabotaging the Nabucco pipeline and aiding Russia’s long-term interests in the Caspian region.

“On the one hand, we undermine them with regard to Karabakh: we don’t send an ambassador to replace the previous ambassador, we dump on them over democracy, we don’t invite them to the nuclear summit,” said Blank, “so it is no surprise that they have launched an anti-American campaign in the media and refuse to participate in the joint drills with the US military. The only people who benefit from this are the Russians, because the Azeris will come to them with gas, and when that happens, Nabucco is over. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

But Ali Karimli, chairman of the opposition Popular Front Party, had a different take on the genesis of the current US-Azerbaijani difficulties. Karimli, who ran for president in 2003 and recently wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post excoriating Azerbaijan’s government for corruption and its human rights record, laid the blame mostly on Aliyev. In an email reply to questions from ISN Security Watch, Karimli agreed with the prevailing opinion in Azerbaijan that the 'Armenian lobby' has distorted US policy regarding Nagorno-Karabakh. 

“However,” Karimli wrote, “this tendency has existed for the whole history of the conflict.” 

He pointed out that recently US efforts regarding the OSCE Minsk Group’s so-called ‘Madrid Principles” (which address issues such as Armenian withdrawal from districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and the return of refugees) were agreed to by Azerbaijan but rejected by Armenia. 

“For this reason, public opinion finds it hard to believe that the Azeri government’s anti-US policy is based upon the US’s policy towards the Karabakh conflict,” he said. 

Karimli speculated that a number of other issues were responsible for the current anger in the Azerbaijani government toward the US, among them American displeasure over the imprisonment of democracy activists Emin Milli and Adnan Hacizade and a recent Washington Post article revealing the apparent purchase of a number of expensive homes in Dubai by Aliyev’s family. 

He believes that the Azerbaijani government interpreted the appearance of the article, which was embarrassing for Aliyev, as a veiled message from the Obama administration, since the Azerbaijani government “cannot accept the fact of the Washington Post being independent from the US government’s control.”

Reconciliation already dead?

In any case, the reconciliation process may now be dead, a casualty not just of Azerbaijani efforts to kill it, but a long history of mutual mistrust between the two sides.

In a televised address to the nation on Friday, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan announced that he was instructing parliament to suspend ratification of Turkish-Armenian normalization. It was not immediately clear if this signaled an end to reconciliation or was a tactical shift in order to extract concessions from Turkey. 

Meanwhile, on Saturday, US President Barack Obama released a statement commemorating the 95th anniversary of the start of the systematic massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish empire.  Despite a campaign promise to acknowledge that ‘genocide’ took place, the president has avoided the term since taking office, saying on Saturday that “1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their death” in “one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.” 

The president’s statement was examined closely in the region, where most Turks and Azeris deny that genocide occurred, often saying that Armenian civilian deaths should be understood in the context of the chaos World War I and its aftermath. In March, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Washington after the US House Committee on Foreign Relations voted by a narrow majority to recognize the Armenian genocide. 

Finally, two recent developments - if true - may signal that the Obama administration has come to the conclusion that it is time for relations with Azerbaijan to be repaired. On 13 April, the Turkish newspaper Sabah reported that, according to a Turkish diplomatic source, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had called Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov to discuss a visit by Aliyev to Washington in the near future. 

And journalist Steve LeVine reported on his blog on Wednesday that Obama would soon submit Matthew Bryza’s name to the Senate to fill the long-vacant post of US ambassador to Azerbaijan. Bryza, a career diplomat and former US representative to the OSCE Minsk Group, has extensive experience in the region. The White House and US Department of State declined to comment on either report for ISN Security Watch.


Karl Rahder was the South Caucasus correspondent for ISN Security Watch and currently writes the Caucasus Blog for the Foreign Policy Association. Aside from his work as a journalist, he also teaches International Relations at universities in the US and the former Soviet Union.

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