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

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.