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Caviar Diplomacy: Working the US-Azerbaijan Relationship to Freedom’s Detriment

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Ideally located between George Washington University, my office at the Eastern Congo Initiative, and the White House is a $12 million mansion owned by the State Oil-Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR).

Depending on your degree of cynicism, this location at 1319 18th St. NW is either expected, ironic, or an affront to an American foreign policy that intends to protect and enshrine human rights around the world. For the purpose of this article I will remain agnostic on the perspective and will instead focus on the complex and at times contradictory political and economic engagement policies between the US and Azerbaijan.

The complexity can in part be described by the recent history of the building itself. In the 1980s the building housed the offices of Jeane Kirkpatrick, who was the longtime Reagan administration official and US ambassador to the UN. In 1992, the building became the headquarters of the journal of post-Soviet democratization, Demokratizatsiya. More recently, the building was occupied by Freedom House, which is a global human rights watchdog that publishes a highly regarded annual report titled Freedom in the World. Azerbaijan is and always has been since the report’s inception in 1995 regarded as ‘not free.’ Rather than view this as a strange and somewhat dark comedy, I am inclined to see the realpolitik so typical of controversy and PR campaigns. Just like all wars are supposedly waged for peace, all market expansion is meant to be waged for economic freedom. The question needed to be asked the White House is why are we giving up prime DC real estate to Azerbaijan while waging economic warfare against OPEC? The question needed to be asked Azerbaijan is what do you offer the US in order to get not only a turned cheek to political and economic repression, but also a certain degree of geographical preferential treatment in terms of real estate?

A good place to always start is to follow the money, or in this case, the energy. Azerbaijan, which is situated perfectly between Russia and Iran, could readily serve as a land bridge of military, economic, and political partnerships between ambitious counter-powers to Western hegemony. Instead, Azerbaijan maintains a healthy political distance from the two regional hegemons and moves its energy resources to the Western world – in direct adherence to US foreign policy. Azerbaijan is not only a semi-impediment to Russian and Iranian strategy, but an increasingly powerful chess piece in the US arsenal. This relationship has developed for decades but soon will be permanently bound through the $35 billion Shah Deniz-2 project and the creation of the Trans-Anatolian and Trans-Adriatic gas pipelines, deals signed in December 2013. The small Caspian state currently supplies 2% of the EU’s energy needs but is now the heart of what is described as the ‘Southern Gas Corridor.’ This aims to challenge Russia’s Nord Stream. Parallel to the geostrategic march, corporate actors are also falling in line as BP leads the Deniz-2 project in direct contestation with Gazprom’s dominance in Nord Stream.

While the lion’s share of Azerbaijan’s oil and natural gas wealth is delivered to the EU, there is one non-EU country that receives a substantial portion as well – Israel. Over 30% of Israel’s energy imports come from Azerbaijan. Perhaps this point alone grants Azerbaijan its rather curious political and real estate advantage in Washington DC? In addition to the friends-with-energy-benefits relationship, Azerbaijan holds a few other get-out-of-diplomatic-pressure-free cards. Most notably, Azerbaijan is the only majority Muslim state that is a military ally of the US and NATO in the war on terror. Azerbaijan has both committed troops to anti-terrorism conflicts and provides a strategic entry and exit point for US and NATO troop movements. Furthermore, Azerbaijan exports not only energy but its own flavor of political corruption to Western states. This flavor, which the European Stability Initiative (ESI) has coined ‘Caviar Diplomacy,’ has effectively silenced the Council of Europe. ESI’s report on this further criticized the Council of Europe by calling its members ‘apologists’ in the face of Azerbaijan’s political repression.

What is most surprising, however, is the general coherence between Western actions and words relative to Azerbaijan. One example of this is took place at the signing of Shah Deniz-2. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev did not describe this as some new and wondrous opportunity for increased economic and diplomatic engagement. Instead, he said “the agreements will change the energy map of Europe.” The EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger affirmed President Aliyev’s assessment by projecting that the corridor could “in the long term supply 20% of the EU’s gas needs.” British Foreign Secretary William Hague was also in attendance and described the deal as “welcome news.” Prior to the signing ceremony Amnesty International called on Foreign Secretary Hague to raise human rights concerns due to Azerbaijan’s “appalling human rights record.” No such issue was raised. Thus, human rights advocates were simply ignored, left out of the proceedings, and not allowed to be a priority.

Another example comes from American diplomatic signaling. The National Security Strategy (NSS), State Department country fact sheets, and the Trafficking in Person’s (TIP) report all turn a relative blind diplomatic eye to these issues. The beginning of the State Department’s fact sheet on US-Azerbaijan relations exemplifies both America’s interests and indifference: “The United States is committed to strengthening democracy and the formation of an open market economy in Azerbaijan. It stands to gain benefits from an Azerbaijan that is peaceful, democratic, prosperous, and strategically linked to the United States and U.S. allies in Europe.”(Bold text is my own) Comparative analysis between the language and volume of diplomatic rhetoric also highlights a double-standard: the US “condemns” Iran for imprisoning journalists and activists and often does so through direct statements made by President Obama or Secretary Kerry. The US only “is troubled,’ however, when Azerbaijan violates the same international law – and voices this concern via blog posts on the US embassy’s website in Azerbaijan.

It is here where we have come to the true Dark Side of the Caspian – implicit Western support of oppressive regimes in the name of geostrategic and economic advantage. It is here where Human Rights Watch both identifies the primary cause and misses the mark – “Azerbaijan’s International partners have failed to secure human rights improvements.” Azerbaijan’s human rights have not improved, but one feels compelled to ask if that was ever the West’s goal to begin with? Freedom isn’t free as the American cliche goes. Azerbaijan is undermining the freedom and human rights of its people and avoiding punishment by providing the West with cheaper energy, strategic benefits, and fine caviar. We would all do well, therefore, to don our realist thinking caps and remember that we are a community of political nations, not human rights advocates. Until liberal social policy provides greater economic benefit (or dialectically, presents significant economic loss in its absence) we will continue to see Azerbaijan succeed in political repression via the strategically-induced apathy of the West. Until those changes happen, Azerbaijani energy barons will continue to sit comfortably in their Dupont Circle mansion in the toniest section of the world’s freedom capitol. What a bitter irony indeed.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania is left in the dust

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The nearly completed Nord Stream 2 is again in focus. It has become known that the U.S. Senate on January 13 failed to pass a bill to slap sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline sponsored by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. The tally was 55 in favor and 44 against the bill that needed 60 votes to pass. Those who voted against his bill said it risked breaking unity in Washington and in Europe. U.S. senators said also Cruz sanctions on Nord Stream 2 could harm relations with Germany which is very important for the U.S. foreign policy and economy.

Top Ukrainian officials, as well as Lithuanian government supported Cruz’s bill, arguing the United States should do everything in its power to halt the pipeline project.

The link is designed to export gas from Russia directly to Germany by bypassing Ukraine, through which Russia has sent gas to Europe for decades. That would deprive Ukraine of lucrative transit fees and potentially undermine its struggle against alleged Russian aggression. The decision will allow the completion of the gas pipeline to Europe without the imposition of further US sanctions. Earlier Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that the a deal between the United States and Germany on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a “mistake”. It is interesting that the vote came as U.S. and European officials held high-level talks with their Russian counterparts. It is quite possible that the decision about Nord Stream 2 pipeline was the result of these negotiations.

This fact has sparked anger and has become great political disappointment for the Lithuanian officials who view the project as a security threat.

Lithuania, positioning itself as the main Ukraine’s patron in Europe, is confused with such U.S. decision. Lithuania promotes the U.S. interests and support all American initiatives even to the detriment of its own interests. Only this month Lithuania took a number of steps to prove its commitment to US policy. Lithuania even has dared to challenge China, one the main US strategic competitors. It continues to spend millions of dollars on military purchases from the U.S. using the narrative of “the threat from the East”. In December Lithuania signed an agreement with the U.S. to improve military interoperability.

The more so, the Lithuanian government has decided to accelerate its planned purchase of a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) amid Russia’s military buildup on its border with Ukraine. The decision to buy US’ Lockheed Martin system in 2026, two years earlier than Vilnius previously planned.

The country also regularly holds political consultations with the U.S. officials to coordinate its further actions. But the U.S. in its turn does not pay attention to Lithuania’s opinion and makes decision in its favour.

Lithuanian government should gain Lithuanians’ support and pay attention to their needs. The matter is discontent in Lithuanian society is growing every day. Thus, on January 13, the usual commemoration of Freedom Defenders saw loud booing and heckles from the crowd of protesters who called on the government (and the parliament) to resign.

It is obviously that the threat from the East is not so real as threat to be fired due to loss of confidence in near future.

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Eastern Europe

Rebuilding of Karabakh: Results of 2021

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Image source: azerfocus.com

The restoration work in Karabakh entered the active phase in 2021 as several projects had been completed and the foundations for new ones were laid down. The restoration process in Karabakh started right after the November 10th declaration that ended the 44-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the war, Azerbaijan liberated its territories that constituted about 20% of the total territory of Azerbaijan and were occupied by Armenian forces in the early 90s.

During the occupation, about thirty years, Karabakh was subject to ruthless destruction and looting by the occupants. As a result, most of the social infrastructure, including residential buildings, schools, and hospitals, were totally destroyed, and most parts of the occupied territories were left empty. Despite the fact that the total destruction in Karabakh makes the restoration process complex and time-consuming, Azerbaijan immediately started the restoration process. For this purpose, the plan for socio-economic development of the liberated territories was prepared, and for the implementation of this plan, “Coordination Headquarters” and 17 working groups on different areas were established. In 2021, $2.2 billion was allocated from the state budget for the restoration process. The same amount of funds is planned to be directed to the restoration process in 2022 as well. The allocation of the necessary financial resources and the establishment of the state bodies for the efficient organization of the recovery process led to the rapid implementation of projects in 2021.

The most notable project that was almost completed in 2021 was the Fuzuli International Airport. The inauguration of the airport took place in Azerbaijan’s liberated city of Fuzuli in Karabakh on October 26. It was the first airport built by Azerbaijan in the liberated areas, and its construction took only eight months. It was built in accordance with the highest international standards, which enables it to accommodate any type of aircraft. A runway with a length of 3000 meters and a width of 60 meters has been put into operation at the airport. The first test flight to Fuzuli International Airport was performed on September 5, 2021, when the largest passenger aircraft of Azerbaijan Airlines, named Karabakh, landed at the airport. Because of its location, the new airport is considered as an “air gate of Karabakh”. Along with Fuzuli airport, the foundations of the other two airports in Lachin and Zangilan districts were also laid down in 2021.

The year 2021 was also marked by the establishment of the Horadiz-Jabrayil-Zangilan-Agband highway. The foundation of this road was laid on October 26, with the participation of the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkey. With a length of 124 km, it is part of the Zangezur Corridor, the establishment of which was envisioned in the November 10 declaration. The Zangezur Corridor is a very important project that is going to change the transportation architecture of the South Caucasus and its neighborhood. Its proximity to the Karabakh and connection to the main roads in the region will accelerate the restoration and development of the Karabakh.

Within the framework of the restoration process, another important event in 2021 was the foundation of the first “smart village” in Agali village in the Zangilan district on April 26. As of October, the construction work on more than 110 hectares in Agali village was underway. It includes the construction of 200 ecological houses, 4 non-residential buildings, a smart school for about 360 students, and a kindergarten for 60 children. Work on establishing smart agricultural infrastructure on approximately 600 hectares of land is also ongoing. According to the restoration program, it is planned to re-establish cities and villages in the liberated territories based on the “smart city” and “smart village” concepts. Thus, after the Agali village, this concept will be implemented in other areas of Karabakh.

In 2021, the highway that connects the Fuzuli and Shusha cities was also opened. As this highway passes through the territory that was used to liberate Shusha city, it has a symbolic meaning for Azerbaijan, and therefore it is named “The Road to Victory.” The Fuzuli-Shusha highway is part of the Ahmadbeyli-Fuzuli-Shusha highway, one of the main highways in Karabakh. It is 101.5 km in length and reduces the distance from the capital Baku to Shusha to about 363 km. The foundation of another important transport project, the Horadiz–Agband railway, was also laid in 2021 and its construction continues. This railway is 100 kilometers long and has strategic importance as it will connect the mainland of Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan’s landlocked exclave, through the Zangezur corridor.

Along with the mentioned roads, the opening ceremony of the 28-kilometer highway that connects the city of Tartar with the villages of Sugovushan and Talish took place in 2021. The length of this road is 28 kilometers, and as planned, the extension of this project will include 22 kilometers of highway from Talish to Naftalan. Construction and planning work on various transportation projects such as the Barda–Aghdam railroad, the Fuzuli-Shusa railway, and the Toganal-Kalbacar highway were also continued.

Comprehensive works in the energy sector were also carried out within the framework of the restoration program, based on the strategy for transforming the liberated territories into “green energy” zones and connecting the energy infrastructure in those territories to Azerbaijan’s general energy system. In 2021, with a total capacity of 20 megawatts, “Gulabird”, “Sugovushan-1” and “Sugovushan-2” small hydroelectric power stations (HPS) were reconstructed and put into operation in the liberated territories. In total, nine digital substations were built in the Karabakh and East Zangezur regions. Simultaneously, in the Aghdam and Jabrail regions, the construction of “Aghdam-1,” “Aghdam-2,” and “Jabrayil” substations as well as the Karabakh Regional Digital Management Center has been completed.

The other important project in the energy sector was the foundation of the Digital Station Management Center in Fuzuli. This project, implemented for the first time in the South Caucasus, allows through automation to reduce the impact of the human factor on the operation of the network, increase reliability and reduce losses during the transmission of electricity. All these projects in the energy sector serve to maintain the energy security in liberated territories and to transform these territories into “green energy” zone.

All the mentioned projects show that Azerbaijan has actively worked for rebuilding Karabakh in 2021. It will enable Azerbaijan to fully integrate the Karabakh economy into the Azerbaijan economy and to use its economic potential in upcoming years. As the liberated territories have great potential in sectors such as agriculture and energy, it will also positively affect the development of the non-oil sector in Azerbaijan. Implementation of all projects that were started in 2021 will not only contribute to the economic development of Azerbaijan, but will also transport Azerbaijan and Karabakh to the transport and economic center of the region.

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Eastern Europe

No borders to struggle against COVİD-19: Solidarity of humanity can help the situation

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Just as COVID-19 does not recognize borders, it is necessary to build the struggle against it on the basis of organization, solidarity, mutual assistance, the use of positive experience, and it should not recognize borders.

2021 was a year of continued struggle against the pandemic and of the emergence of new variants of the virus. The South Caucasus also was not away from COVID-19 and its variants. Azerbaijan continued its effective fight against COVID-19, making the most of the lessons of previous years and the opportunities for rapid response. The vaccination campaign, which was conducted as well as in highly developed countries, is a real sign of performance in this sector. During the year Azerbaijan gave humanitarian and financial aid to more than 30 countries in order to fight the pandemic, made a voluntary financial contribution of 10 million US dollars to the World Health Organization and freely donated 150,000 doses of vaccine to four countries.

The newly appointed head of the EU delegation to Azerbaijan, Petr Michako, also stressed the high level of vaccination in Azerbaijan. The capital – Baku is working closely with The European Union in this direction. The European Union and the World Health Organization have supported the fight against COVID-19 in Azerbaijan with the necessary medical equipment. Medical personnel in Azerbaijan have been repeatedly provided with respirators, goggles, transparent masks and overalls for this purpose. All equipment sent for the safety of medical personnel fighting the virus on the front lines was tested for compliance with quality and safety standards. Kestutis Jankauskas, Head of the EU Delegation to Azerbaijan, said that his organization, as a “Team Europe”, is helping to prevent, detect and combat the COVID-19 pandemic. “Healthcare workers are at the forefront of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, which increases their risk of contracting the virus,” he said. -They are our heroes and they need protection. “As part of the Team Europe initiative, the EU has launched an individual COVID-19 package with a budget of around € 32 million to support urgent needs and socio-economic recovery.

In 2021, Azerbaijan achieved major progress in combating the pandemic and the global economic crisis and in mutual cooperation. As a chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, Azerbaijan put forward an initiative to establish a UN High-Level Panel on global restoration after COVID-19. The member states of the Non-Aligned Movement took a unanimous decision to extend Azerbaijan’s chairmanship of the movement for another year, until the end of 2023.

Azerbaijan proposed a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement on equal and universal access to vaccines for all countries and the resolution was passed unanimously in March 2021. This resolution showed Azerbaijan’s stance on the increasing vaccine nationalism in the world and became an international success.

As a result of all measurements now the number of people receiving the second,third and further doses of the vaccine in Azerbaijan has exceeded 40 percent. Azerbaijan is one of the countries in the continent where the number of virus infections is rapidly declining. Azerbaijan is doing its best to observe this trend around the world. Solidarity can help the situation.

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