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A frozen conflict in the Caucasus reaches a boiling point

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap]s most of the industrial world and major powers focus on the conflicts in the Middle East, the obstinate behavior of North Korea, and the deterioration in the relationship between Russia and the West, there exists a “frozen conflict” that has the possibility of affecting the Middle East, Europe, and every nation within the Caspian periphery.

It is the current crisis between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region and if it is not resolved or successfully mediated soon then the possibility is high that armed conflict between the two nations will occur; an action that serves the interests of no one on the geopolitical stage outside of the jingoistic goals of the two belligerents. The territorial dispute has gone on for decades and has cost tens of thousands of lives with charges of ethnic cleansing levelled by both sides.

The Caucasus was the ancient crossroads between former empires and their heirs: Russian (tsarist and modern), Ottoman (Turkey), Persian (Iran) and Armenia, the first country in history to recognize Christianity as the official religion of the state, decades before Theodosius did so in Byzantine empire. All four, whose control of the area waxed and waned over the centuries, believe they have historical precedent in controlling the area.

The beginning of the dispute can be traced to Stalin’s decision to carve out a large district, the Nakhichevan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, and put it under the control of Soviet Azerbaijan, both to divide and rule and to placate Turkey, whose close ties with Azerbaijan convinced Stalin that the maneuver could be used to forge closer ties with the Turks. What Stalin could not foresee was the simmering discontent the region would foster over the next half century, the result being that most of those in the region were Armenian under Azerbaijani control.

Soviet control maintained a somewhat firm hand over the region until the first signs of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s. The discontent assumed organized form from 1988 to 1992 as the Karabakh movement, a nationalist movement that began in the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast that advocated for the transfer of the majority Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh region of neighboring Azerbaijan to the jurisdiction of Armenia. In 1988, the autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh region, comprised of a majority Armenian population, passed a referendum to join Soviet Armenia. This created enormous tension as Azerbaijan fiercely decried the legitimacy of the vote. This led to the intervention of Soviet troops in response to heavy interethnic conflict in the region between Azerbaijani troops and Armenian secessionists. On November 26, 1991, the Azerbaijan parliament revoked the autonomous status of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and attempted to divide the region and incorporate it piecemeal into five Azerbaijani districts, Shusha, Khojavend, Tartar, Goranboy, and Kalbajar. Because of this action, the Armenian population in the disputed region immediately declared their independence under the banner of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic two weeks later on December 10th. Full scale fighting intensified in late 1992, and the conflict quickly escalated into a full-scale war in which 30,000 people were killed and over one million Azerbaijani refugees were displaced. Over a two-year period, a succession of Armenian victories put the disputed region firmly under Armenian control before a ceasefire was brokered by the Russians and successfully implemented in 1994. At the signing of the ceasefire, Armenian forces controlled almost 20% of Azerbaijani territory.

As a result of the war, most of the former autonomous oblast has since remained under the control of the ethnic Armenian forces of Nagorno-Karabakh. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United Nations passed several resolutions recognizing the Nagorno-Karabakh region as part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. To this day, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is not officially recognized by any government outside of its own. Armenia does not recognize it because of the volatility in doing so would limit their flexibility in diplomatic negotiations; in addition, Russia, a key ally of Armenia, is resolute in not granting the area official recognition.

The ceasefire was violated hundreds of times over the last two decades until April of 2016, when heavy fighting took place along the Armenian-Azeri contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh resulting in hundreds of deaths. The clashes lasted four days and a larger conflict was avoided via the implementation of another ceasefire; however, the events highlighted the incendiary risk of a full-fledged war that has been omni-present for decades.

Compounding this problem is the labyrinthic array of alliances that rival the Byzantine foreign policy that was present in the area millennia ago. Azerbaijan has strengthened ties with Israel over the past few years. Trade exchanges, security agreements, and increased cooperation from agricultural projects to telecommunications have led to a symbiotic relationship between the two countries. Azerbaijan is Israel’s top partner in trade within the Muslim world, supplying Israel with millions of tons of oil every year, amounting to 40% of Israel’s oil being directly provided by Azerbaijan. Exports from both countries increased from a paltry $2M in the late nineties to almost half a billion at present time. In 2012, both countries signed an arms agreement totaling 1.6 billion dollars, in which the Israeli-run Aerospace Industries would provide drones, anti-aircraft and missile defense systems. After last year’s skirmish in April, Israeli media reported that Azerbaijan bought five billion dollars of Israeli weaponry, including advanced intelligence equipment. The Azerbaijanis have reportedly already put their newly acquired weapon systems to use, as the Armenians have protested to the Israeli government on the use of Israeli-bought suicide drones (the Israeli Harop) being used to seek and destroy Armenian targets.

But why this odd coupling? What are the reasons that these two countries, a Jewish state and the other being primarily dominated by Shia Muslims? There are shared mutual security concerns. Both nations view Iran as a existential threat, Israel for obvious reasons and Azerbaijan because of Iranian support for Armenia. Secondly, for Israel, the deterioration of its relationship with Turkey have forced the state to strengthen ties elsewhere within the geo-graphical vicinity. Azerbaijan shares a border with Iran, making it ideal for Israeli covert operations to have a point of access. Indeed, Iran has not failed to recognize this and has accused the Israelis of using Azerbaijan as a corridor to allow their operatives to kill their nuclear scientists, as well as provide continual ground-level Israeli spying. Additionally, most intelligence analysts have speculated that the Israelis could use Azerbaijani airfields to launch possible airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, eliminating the need for long re-fueling endeavors and other logistical obstacles. Increased cooperation and shared security concerns over oil also addresses a continual worry for Azerbaijan, countering Iranian and Russian attempts to control oil export routes, especially considering the volatility of the Nagorno-Karabakh region in destabilizing their energy industries. Minor concerns for both countries are their cooperation against smaller threats such as the Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose pan-Islamic ideology threatens both states.

Both countries try to keep their relationship discreet; this was evident in a leaked 2009 cable in which Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev was quoted as saying that his country’s relationship with Israel was as like an iceberg: “nine-tenths of it below the surface.”

Outside of the aforementioned security concerns, within the political arena Baku hopes that allying itself with a democratic nation will remove or diminish western criticism of its one-party state over which President Ilham Aliyev presides. Attention from human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, and a ranking near the bottom on the Democracy Index have plagued his government for years, with continual accusations of harassing or killing dissenting journalists, restricting opposition parties, as well as vote tampering comprising the bulk of international criticism. Armenia is subject to much of the same criticisms – the recent Armenian election, won by President Serzh Sarksyan’s ruling Republican Party, was also tainted by vote-buying according to OSCE monitors; though not to a degree previously feared by international third party observers. Both countries have modified their constitutions to allow for long term rule, solidifying inherent power structures that allow both countries to continue their militant policies toward each other.

Turkey, whose relationship with Israel is rocky, nevertheless is the other member in the trifecta opposing Armenia. They are united by economic trade and a shared defense pact ratified by both countries seven years ago, promising military and political aid against an outside aggressor. Erdogan has made the Turkish position clear concerning their support for Azerbaijan in any conflict with Armenia, telling an Azerbaijani reporter that “we will support Azerbaijan to the end.” As Turkey is also a member of NATO, there is added incentive to Azerbaijan in signing the pact, certainly cognizant of NATO’s defense policy concerning its member states, indirectly linking certain military actions that might possibly be evoked in case of Armenian aggression in response to Turkish aid to Azerbaijan. In addition, Armenian insistence that Turkey recognize the Armenian genocide of 1915 is an ongoing issue that divides the two even further.

Georgia, while having somewhat cordial relations with Armenia, clearly supports Baku’s stance, so much so that previous Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili commented in 2001 that “whoever opposes Azerbaijan” is Georgia’s “enemy.”

For Armenia, the options are limited but they include Russia, which has no desire to see their orthodox brethren subjected to Shia aggression. Ties between both countries run deep; both countries signed a defense pact in Yerevan, and there are several Russian staging bases within Armenia. Russia has also supplied Armenia with over one billion dollars in arms sales. Within Armenian infrastructure, Russian involvement has deep roots, with Russian companies controlling or owning almost all of Armenia’s railways and gas pipelines.

For Moscow, Azerbaijan is the prize and Armenia is the tool for achieving that. Azerbaijan’s geopolitical location and rich oil resources are what interest the Kremlin in addition to their suspicion of a Shia Muslim country on their periphery. While sympathetic to the Armenian cause concerning the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, the Russians have stated, however, that their mutual defense pact does not cover the disputed area and that it falls on Armenia alone to defend it if it is attacked. While the pact guarantees protective military aid for the sovereignty of Armenian territory, the Armenians know that they are alone in defending their interests in the disputed region as Russia does not recognize it as part of Armenia proper. Adding intractability to the situation is the fact that Russia has been selling arms to both Armenia (over one billion dollars’ worth) and Azerbaijani (four billion dollars) under the supposed justification that controlled parity ensures peace. In the previous conflicts that have flared up over the last year, casualties on both sides were primarily inflicted by purchased Russian weapons. Azerbaijan’s defense budget greatly exceeds Armenia’s entire national budget, and previous Armenian successes on the battlefield can no longer be taken for granted, with recent Azerbaijani spending on weapons that dwarfs Armenian expenditures in the same area. To counter this imbalance, a disturbing scenario has developed with the Armenian acquisition of the Iskander ballistic-missile systems from Russia last year. Armenia is the only foreign country to allowed to acquire the advanced Russian missile system, despite bids from much wealthier nations, indicating Russian interests in assisting Armenia to achieve parity in the face of increased Azerbaijani military spending. This was later echoed by the Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, who argued the missiles were necessary to address the growing surplus of offensive weapons procured by Azerbaijan, a strategic argument that has the backing of Moscow (a paradoxical position as Moscow has sold Tos-1A Buratino thermobaric heavy rocket artillery systems, a weapon that can reduce a city block to rubble) to Azerbaijan. The Iskander-M missile has a range of five hundred kilometers (putting it well within reach of Azerbaijani oil facilities) and is considered highly accurate. Outside of being equipped with conventional warheads, it can also be adapted to carry nuclear warheads. While this nuclear capability may seem at first glance to be an improbable scenario, there is enough circumstantial evidence to be of concern, suggesting that the Armenians are more interested in acquiring tactical superiority that will make the increases of Azerbaijani conventional weaponry redundant. At a press conference on April 29 in Armenia, MP Hrant Bagratyan, a former prime minister, claimed that Armenia has nuclear weapons, later adding that they also “have the ability to create nuclear weapons” when asked to clarify his original comment. While most of the intelligence community considers his comment to be nothing but bluster, recent arrests of Armenians in Georgia trying to sell enriched uranium, as well as recent comments by both military and civilian leaders in Armenia either claiming to have a nuclear weapon or the capability in developing them, have not put their neighbors at ease.

Iran has cordial, friendly relations with Armenia, to the extent that Iran tolerates and bestows special recognition to the Christian Armenian population present in northern Iran. The ties between the two countries run deep, during the Iran-Iraq war, a significant number of Armenians died fighting for Iran. Iran even allows them to be represented by choosing their own delegates in parliamentary elections. The coinciding interests of both Armenia and Iran result in a rarely observed phenomena within the arena of international relations, an Islamic Republic working with a Christian orthodox Armenia concerning shared geo-political interests as well as economic endeavors, such as the construction of a hydro-electric plant on their shared border. In addition, Armenia is providing Iran with electricity in exchange for natural gas imports; with the lessening of international sanctions, Iran also views Armenia as an outlet to Eurasian markets, as Armenia is the sole Eurasian Economic Union member that borders Iran.

There are large numbers of Iranians of Azerbaijani descent (more so than the entire population of Azerbaijan); as Iran has conflicting interests with Azerbaijan, there is always an ever-present Iranian fear of a possible Azeri insurrectionist movement within Iran. While not problematic to the degree that some speculate, there have been problems in the past with separatist movements, and Iran casts a watchful eye on its second largest minority. Iran considers the working relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan to be a major security threat on its Northern border. It serves Iranian interests to have a weakened Azerbaijan and supporting Armenian expansionist aims over the conflicted Nagorno-Karabakh strengthens their hand. Azeri off-shore operations have been subject to harassment by Iranian naval vessels, which have tried to disrupt Azeri attempts to mine the Caspian for oil; and the Azeri’s have accused Iran of training operatives, arresting several within the Azerbaijan border on charges of terrorism. Disagreement with Turkey over its strategic initiatives in both war-torn Syria and Iraq has led to disputes between Ankara and Tehran, which adds even more baggage to the labyrinthic relations between all the aforementioned countries.

Armenia also has strong ties with Greece, both in their historical past within their shared Eastern Orthodox faith, as well as mutual co-existence throughout the centuries under both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. They have signed bilateral treaties of cooperation, and Greece is one of Armenia’s military partners; Greece trains much of the Armenian officer corps. The fact that Greece has had a historically difficult relationship with Turkey certainly isn’t lost on Armenia and like most multi partner alliances, this relationship is useful leverage to Yerevan.

Internal turmoil in both countries, fueled by economic woes, can also accelerate the path to conflict. Azerbaijan’s currency has plummeted for several years (though it has shown recent signs of strengthening through an enlarging tourist trade); Baku is heavily dependent on petroleum and natural gas exports and falling prices have continued unabated for several years. Azeri’s have been keeping most of their savings in foreign currency, exasperating the situation. Armenia isn’t much better. Dire economic conditions in both countries could tempt the leadership on either side to engage in small scale military endeavors to shift attention away from criticism of the government’s record on repressive measures taken on dissent (opposition parties, the press, etc.), as well as shift attention away from their struggling economies. Patriotism is strong in both countries among the general populace, and serves as a ready distraction by the governments of both countries to keep internal criticism low.

The repercussions that could result from an emerging conflict could be devastating not only to the surrounding area, but could deeply affect Europe as well. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry releases almost daily reports of Armenian violations of the current ceasefire, for example: On March 23rd the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry claimed that Armenia violated the current ceasefire along the line of contact between Azerbaijani and Armenian troops 126 times in a 24 hour period; on March 30th, there were 146 violations, April 3rd 110 violations, etc. Armenia makes similar claims against Azerbaijan violations, stating similar numbers.

There are two major export routes that the Caspian region uses to export oil/gas to Europe and it is primarily Azerbaijan, which some analysts state sits on a potentially exploitable two trillion cubic meters of gas, which can provide a substantial European need. It is a symbiotic relationship for both Europe, which desires to move away from dependence on Russian gas, and Baku, where a substantial part of its revenue (20%) is derived from its energy sector. In addition to the established routes in existence, Baku is currently building what is referred to as the Southern Gas Corridor, a proposed 3,500-kilometre-long network of three gas pipelines from Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea basin that will enable Europe to offset Russian price fixing and using its supply of gas to Europe as a foreign policy tool. Russia supplies over one-third of the EU’s crude oil needs and Russian pipeline dominance is expected to continue for at least two full decades if measures are not taken to diversify the EU’s energy needs. European hope that existing and proposed Caspian oil/gas pipelines will alleviate them from relying on fickle Russian gas policy to meet their crucial energy needs could be dashed by a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, even more so considering previous statements out of Yerevan that said pipelines would be a legitimate military target if a conflict ensues. The best-case scenario in such a conflict is that Azerbaijan would likely shut down the pipelines down to avoid spillage due to leaks caused by targeting. This would be devastating, as the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline ships over one billion barrels of oil per day, supplying Turkey as well as Israel. In addition, the ongoing construction of the Southern Gas Corridor, in which a predicted ten billion cubic meters of gas could be shipped into European markets, could also be targeted in a conflict between the two countries. The economic repercussions that would happen if an emerging conflict would arise are enormous; just the mere possibility of such a conflict make emerging pipeline projects risky financial endeavors, and damaging hostility can cause a spike in the global oil market. With long term plans to add more pipelines reducing European need for Russian gas, the greater the impact if conflict arises in the future. It should be noted that it would be against Russian economic interests if the Azerbaijani-supplied Southern Gas Corridor is completed, further complicating the issue, given Russian support for Armenia.

Russian interests are best explained by Maksim Shevchenko, who has on two separate occasions been a member of the Public Chamber, a group of advisors under Putin: “If a new war erupts between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia, Georgia and Turkey will be involved in it.” The Russians fear that a war between the two countries (or an emerging civil war in either country) could descend into chaos and will provide the right fertilization for radical terrorism as an emerging vacuum would result from chaotic instability, citing examples in both Syria and Iraq as a horrifying template. Claiming that the West has little interest on the region, it is up to Russia, Turkey, and Iran to put pressure on both Armenia and Azerbaijan to reconcile their differences over the disputed region. Shevchenko stressed that the Russia-Turkey-Iran format, consisting of three countries with a shared disdain for Western influence in the region, is ideal for a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement. Criticizing Armenian support for joining the EU, Shevchenko, echoing Russian political sentiment, believes that such aspirations only make the problem worse, and will create more conflict with the addition of other countries who do not understand the instability of the Caucus region to begin with.

For the United States, their decade-long support for nations in the Caspian region Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to achieve autonomy and provide a bulwark against Russian expansion could be thwarted. Reducing reliance on Russian gas delivery weakens Russian leverage, so it serves Western interests to foster Caspian energy resource distribution to Western markets. Conflict could destabilize the entire area and lead to Russian intervention and an increased military presence within the Southern Caucus region. A protracted conflict could also lead to millions of refugees, straining the capabilities of surrounding countries like Georgia to handle the sudden influx. Of secondary concern would be the alliance entanglements that would involve both Turkey (a NATO member) and Russia.

According to the International Energy Agency, 95% of the global economy is affected by the actions of half a dozen states in the Middle East which are facing internal crisis, terrorism, corruption and a host of destabilizing scenarios; adding more convoluted problem scenarios inherent within the Caspian region and surrounding countries is problematic at best and catastrophic at worse, especially considering the close relationships that Israel, Iran, and Turkey have with Azerbaijan and Armenia.

So what can be done? What can bring peace to the region or at least a sustainable stability?

Past attempts have only been moderately successful. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) created the Minsk group in an attempt to create a peaceful resolution to the frozen conflict through negotiation, but, like the Russian attempts, nothing permanent has resulted in anything other than ceasefires. Neither the Russians nor the Minsk group have been able to de-escalate the tension between the two countries whose hatred of each other displays a depth past their respective leaderships all the way down to the community level.

The United States is limited both by geography and currently poor relationship with Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Its diplomatic initiatives would be limited to coercion, economic packaging which includes assistance and financial investments, etc., and in the same economic stratus could curtail those activities in order to exert direct pressure on either Baku or Yerevan by withdrawing economic assistance or establishing sanctions. In this regard, the United States could be joined by the EU in discouraging economic assistance and halting projects that both countries (especially Azerbaijan) need to boost their economies if there is no collective push by bother countries to mediate their differences peacefully. Putting a halt to outside projects that benefit both nations could certainly be used as substantial leverage to bring both parties back to the table.

Both the United States and the EU should encourage Russian mediation, as past experiences have shown some success in Moscow’s attempts to broker peace by dealing directly with the military leadership of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, Russia’s options are limited as well as both Baku and Yerevan express deep hesitation in accepting any semblance of Russian peace-keeping forces in the disputed region, as it would insinuate a return to the subservient roles that both countries played within the Soviet Union.

All of the major powers that are influential in this region – Russia, Turkey, Iran, the EU, and the United States – must work directly together to produce a clear schematic of how disastrous a conflict would be to both nations. Ideas that would defuse the situation must include how to deal with the sole main issue that divides the two nations so deeply, the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Various solutions have been discussed, from the obvious return of the territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijani control to awarding a limited autonomy that will allow for self-governance to a degree while still allowing for an Azerbaijani influence, somewhat like the status of Hong Kong in China. International security guarantees by Russia and the EU in addition to international peacekeeping forces along any disputed borders are also another option.

There are two specific actions that the United States could enact that will affect the two countries separately. The U.S. could threaten to pull out of the Minsk peace process and take the matter to the United Nations. Armenia would fear such an action because of past rulings where the Security Council has expressed support for Azerbaijan’s territorial claim to the disputed region. In turn, however, Azerbaijan would likely dissuade the Americans from doing this, as the Azeri’s use American involvement as a counter to Russian influence in the region, specifically in regards to the close relationship between Yerevan and Moscow. Both proposed actions come with large risks as a diminished American role in mediation in the Caucus region will be seized by Moscow as legitimately ceding the area to the Russian sphere of control.

Recent joint Russian and Turkish cooperation concerning their respective roles in the Syrian conflict gives both countries a progressive familiarity with each other and this current working relationship may yet be successful in brokering a lasting peace between their secondary allies in Baku and Yerevan. Additionally, Moscow must stop their practice of selling weapons to both sides under the bizarre notion that it achieves “parity.”

Certain steps must be taken as a resolution is being worked on. International observers must be allowed in greater numbers as well as increased and better communication on a tactical level between the military leadership of both countries, not only to minimize the chances of an incendiary spark that could ignite a conflict, but also as a step toward working to a solution by adhering to third party observation as a common denominator in solving almost daily disputes. A proposed UN Security Council resolution condemning any future substantial military action could also be used to award coveted legitimacy to the nation pressing its case.

The OSCE must realize that simply managing the current dispute between the two countries isn’t acceptable and that a resolution and the long-term commitments that come with it must be the primary goal. This includes everything from daily mediation to post-settlement security issues as well as addressing the multiple issues that come with such a resolution, such as community displacement from the previous fighting and the possibility of their eventual return. The alternative to failure would be an additional conflict (the other being the Ukrainian crisis) that the OSCE would have to manage.

In the past both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been malleable when international attention has been acutely focused on their disputes; and their belligerency toward each other manifests itself physically when international attention wanes. Vigorous attention by the major powers affecting both countries should be sharp and focused. Both countries must be convinced that their future lies in economic integration within the Caspian periphery and that open conflict will achieve nothing beneficial to either country. Armenia must understand that they stand alone in lacking international allies concerning their claim; their worsening economy and a lack of energy-producing integration projects that their Caspian neighbors have begun in their own countries only highlight their isolation. Azerbaijan must understand that procuring offensive weapons at great expense in anticipation of achieving their goals militarily will not remove the problem and in turn, will destroy the economic projects both recently created and planned to bring prosperity to their nation. There will always be violence unless both sides procure a peace agreeable to both. There is everything to gain and everything to lose.

Years ago, the late Meir Dagan, former Director of the Mossad, visited Azerbaijan. Knowing his love for chess, his Azeri hosts took him to a local high school chess club where he lost every game. His hosts were embarrassed that their honored guest was humiliated and were not expecting this outcome as Dagan fancied himself a good player. While unsettling within the narrow confines of diplomatic protocol, the current chess game being played over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region is far, far riskier.

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Eastern Europe

Azerbaijan Vision 2020

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After declaring its independence in 1991, Azerbaijan found itself fighting battles on multiple fronts against an economic collapse, political chaos, and an inter-ethnic conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. The staggering crisis within the country posed a great challenge for the Azerbaijani government under the leadership of Heydar Aliyev. However, several developmental strategies and effective policies introduced by the government helped Azerbaijan get back on its feet into time. By late 1990s,Azerbaijan was on its way to economic revival.

One of the first victories of Azerbaijan in the economic sector was brought about by the signing of “contract of the century”. New economic reforms established a favorable environment for investment and led to socio-economic development within the country. Similarly, comprehensive institutional changes allowed the government to prevent hyperinflation and regulate the macroeconomic balance. Soon, the dynamics of economic growth in Azerbaijan shifted. Through the extraction and export of natural resources, the country saw an economic boom. By 2011 Azerbaijan’s strategic country reserves reached up to 41.5 billion US dollars.

The transition was not limited to the economic sector; substantial efforts were made for the effective resolution of social problems. A new social security system was established in accordance with international standards. The quality of medical services was improved manifolds and all health-based institutions were given up to date equipment and hardware. Likewise, the educational infrastructure was also strengthened by increasing budget allocation. This allowed the government to modernize the educational system, renew the syllabus, and integrate the Azerbaijan education into the European education system. Moreover, computerizing education was one of the fundamental steps that took the education system of Azerbaijan to the next level.

Lastly, the chaos brought about due to the political transition within the country was addressed through the formation of a transparent democratic society. Political pluralism served as the basis of public progress and political parties were allowed to play a significant role in running the country’s political system and growth of the civil society. This new democratic system revolutionized the structure of the society allowing citizens to have a much active role in the politics of Azerbaijan.

The successful transition in almost all sectors of Azerbaijan was the result of a well-thought consistent state policy, strong leadership, and strategic implementation. The policy makers successfully deciphered the interconnectedness of all sectors namely: economy, health, education, and politics. Understanding this interplay between different sectors helped Heydar  Aliyev devise a policy that would help solidify the foundation of the state and this was to be done by inducing economic progress. In other words, once a strong and sound economy was established, it allowed the government to strengthen other state departments through the reallocation of budgets, thus boosting the overall progress of Azerbaijan. Soon enough the country was out of turmoil and on its way to become one of the most influential states in the South Caucasus.

Need for a New Vision

The socio-economic reforms introduced by Heydar Aliyev successfully mended various departments within the state. Once the foundation was solidified, the policy makers had a chance to dig deeper in order to resolve certain impediments that were still prevalent within the country and could hamper its progress in the future. Thus, President Iiham Aliyev soon signed a decree to approve a development concept known as “Azerbaijan 2020: A look into the future”. This concept was developed for two main reasons: to further strengthen all sectors of the country and to keep up with the rapid advancements in the world.

In the current situation, the reforms of Heydar stand short of what is required in the 21st century.The government faces new challenges that can only be addressed through the formulation of up to date policies and this development concept provides exactly that. Moreover, now the aim of the government isto not only focus on inward but outward reforms as well that would allow it to keep up with the volant spread of information and communication technologies. In addition, globalization has been affecting the socio-economic life of most countries and Azerbaijan is no exception. Thus, it needs an effectual state policy that will allow it to adapt to these changes. The Azerbaijan vision 2020 has successfully understood the challenges and provides a comprehensive outlook on how to counter them.

The principle strategic view of the concept is to avail all the current available opportunities and resources to attain sustainable economic growth, significant social welfare, supremacy of law, effectual state management and the same time ensure human rights, freedom and development of civil society[i]. The document was approved on the basis that by 2020, Azerbaijan would a competitive state that is economically and politically developed. The government wishes to increase employment, decrease poverty, develop human capital, and ensure that all citizens have access to health care and that the environment is protected. The development concept has clearly highlighted the principle agendas that Azerbaijan needs to invest its time and money into; it provides a vision of how the country should be by the end of 2020.

  1. Increasing the Competitive Power of the Economy

One of the first agendas of the concept is to ensure that the economic system of Azerbaijan is effective enough that it can compete globally. Statistics show that a state’s economic growth can increase manifolds through state regulations within the market and continuous improvement of these regulations in accordance with the market requirements. Thus, Azerbaijan must strengthen the states regulatory and administrative functions in order to improve the business environment, maintain macroeconomic stability and at the same time be able to carry out large infrastructure projects and ensure free competition. In the light of the current pandemic, the government has created four working groups that are to build special proposals to curtail the negative effects of coronavirus on the country’s economy, employment issues, macroeconomic stability and business entities thus ensuring that the country does not lose sight of the 2020 vision.

The document further states that an appropriate monetary policy will be conducted with the target to keep inflation in check and guarantee the stability of the financial sector. The development of fiscal disciple will be given special attention to increase the efficiency of expenses and the efficiency of fund distribution. Similarly, passive taxation policies are to be transformed into active taxation policies and the tax rates are to be improved to create an environment that is favorable for business activity. According to the 2019 World Bank Doing Business report, Azerbaijan reached the 24th position up from the 57th position in 2018.This brought the country one step closer to achieving its 2020 vision.

Furthermore, efforts are to be made by the Azerbaijani government to enhance and simplify foreign trade and support entrepreneurs to increase their competitiveness in the foreign market. Preferential loans given to businesses by the state will increase, the government will help small and medium size businesses to expand and strengthen their export capabilities. One of the most crucial steps taken to support small businesses was to restrict monopoly and strengthen anti-monopoly laws. This ensured that the markets had a fair competition. In addition, efforts will be made to eliminate factors that may put the local businesses at risk. In accordance with these policies in the year 2018, Azerbaijan exported goods worth $19.9 billion and imported goods worth $11.9 billion thus, resulting into a positive trade balance of 8.01billion dollars.

All the economic objectives set out in the development concept aim to modernize the economic system of Azerbaijan. It is clear that with these policies, Azerbaijan is leaning towards the west and wishes to inculcate their policies within its own sectors. The country is trying to move further away from Russian influence and wishes to abolish any major policies that were once a part of their economic system during the pre-independence era. At the same time, they want to launch their markets internationally which have been for long limited to the oil sector only.

1.1 Decreasing Dependency on the Oil Sector

While continuous work is being done on the oil sector by restructuring and modernizing the systems of extracting, transporting, and refining the oil, the government is also making efforts to develop the non-oil sector. New enterprises are to be created, other industries such as aluminum, cement and fertilizer will be developed. Alongside the development in non-oil processing industries, the main sphere of the state investment policy will be to stimulate the formation of industrial estate infrastructure in the economic districts. Similarly, foreign, and local investments in non-oil sector will be intensified through stimulating mechanisms. Creative and intellectual activities will be supported and encouraged. Special attention will be given to the agricultural sector by increasing production capability, banks will be encouraged to give out loans to farmers and modern equipment will be made available to them.

The Azerbaijani government seems ambitious and eager to reduce its dependency on the oil sector and while these reforms look promising, their proper implementation and outcomes are bound to take a lot of time. Azerbaijan for long has been generating its revenues through the export of oil and, thus a sudden shift is not only impossible but may also shake the economy. While some progress has been made in the recent years, studies show that the oil sector is still the primary economic driver as it directly makes up 44% of the country’s GDP and more than 90% of the exports however, only employs 5% of the total population of the country. Therefore, while Azerbaijan does not to strengthen other enterprises, businesses and industries, the shift must occur gradually and systematically.

  • Balanced Development and transport infrastructure

If Azerbaijan wishes to turn itself into a regional trade hub, it must make use of its geostrategic location by establishing effective transport and transit services and develop logistical centers in various regions throughout the country. This will not only lead to foreign and local investment, but also help give out employment opportunities. The development concept states that the government will take measures to integrate the national transport system of Azerbaijan with the international transport system. To stand out in the North-South and European-Caucasus-Asia transport corridors, the time of export and import operations will be reduced, the procedures will be made simpler and the cost of sending a cargo to Azerbaijani territory will be reduced. The country’s road in these corridors will be brought in line with the international standards. Similarly, new roads will be developed, and the railway system will be restored and modernized; same goes for air transport. Special development projects will be carried out to improve the infrastructure in rural areas and villages.

If Azerbaijan is successful in carrying out these plans, it will stimulate balanced socio-economic growth within all regions of the country. Inequality and sharp differences in the rural and urban areas will be reduced. Moreover, the burden on city centers will decrease and less people will migrate from the rural areas in search of jobs. Furthermore, once the time for exports and imports is reduced, more trade will be carried out using Azerbaijani territory hence, leading to greater revenue generation.

  • Development in Social Spheres

Social Developments must go by side the economic developments; thus the 2020 concept puts special emphasis on how social sectors in Azerbaijan will be upgraded.

      3.1 Health Sector

 Azerbaijan wishes to increase its funding to the health care system and aims to construct, reconstruct, and refurbish health institutions throughout the country. The extreme centralization of management will be abandoned, and the power will be distributed among various management entities. The state will work on fighting diseases and implement preventive measures. Educational programs will be carried out against smoking alcoholism and drug addiction. There will be mass health examinations and preventive checkups for children and teachers. Above all, the government will make sure that medicines are physically and economically available to the entire population and ensure that all medicines are licensed and of high quality.

3.2 Educational system

Reforms have been made to increase the quality of education; programs have been drafted and implemented to rationalize general education institutions. Systemic measures will be taken to encourage the intellectual thought process of students. Furthermore, electronic education technologies will be made available to schools in order to create a virtual yet, effective learning environment for students. The aim is that every classroom must have laptops, projectors, and an electronic table. Most importantly, teachers must be trained to specialize in interactive teaching technologies. Internationally speaking, the government wants to increase the participation of educational institutions especially higher education institutions in international programs.

One of the main objectives of these reforms is to integrate the Azerbaijani education system with the European system. Once the reforms are implemented in their full essence, the standard of their education will be enhanced, more international students are likely to enroll in Azerbaijani universities and take part in cultural exchange programs that will in turn help promote and secure the cultural heritage of the country. Increased international recognition of higher education in Azerbaijan will without doubt prove to be fruitful for their education system.

3.3 Social Security System

A new state program 2016-2020 has further deepened the current pension reforms. As a result of this, not only the state social system will improve, but in fact a saving mechanism for state pension will be established. Access to information about the social insurance fee present in an individual’s account will be made easy. Next, the process of registering insurers will be completely automated, these insures will automatically be registered in the insurance system. Unlike before, the citizens will not need to come up any documents to receive pensions. Moreover, the pensions will be appointed to citizens in an automatic way through a single center. Furthermore, the system that selects which families are in need for social aid will improve, rehabilitation centers will be created for the homeless, young displaced persons will be helped and work will be done to improve the conditions of labor that has migrated to foreign countries.

  • Protection of environment

One of the fundamental targets of this development concept is to carry out socio-economic development while keeping ecological factors in mind. For this reason, effective monitoring and supervision systems are to be developed. Measures will be taken to control deforestation and desertification. Land that has become unusable as a result of industrial activates will be restored. Progressive methods will be introduced in the waste management sector and the percentage of recycling will be increased. During construction projects the environment will be prioritized and most importantly the negative effect of extraction of oil and gas will be neutralized.

One of the biggest contributors of pollution in Azerbaijan is its oil industry; however, little attention has been given in the development concept to curtail its effects.No clear policy has been introduced to monitor the activities of oil industries that continue to degrade the air, land, and soil of the country. The Caspian Sea as a result of oil drilling has been severely contaminated thus killing the habitat of sea life. Special attention must be given to limit the devastating effects of oil industry on Azerbaijan in the long term. 

  • Strengthening legislation and government institutions

In order to achieve all the reforms mentioned above, consistent measures should be taken to improve and strengthen the legislation and governmental institution of Azerbaijan; only then will the vision of 2020 truly be achieved.

The objective of the 2020 concept in this case is to update the law enforcement agencies and bring them in line with the international standards. The infrastructure of the court must be improved, this means electronic services will be introduced and citizens will have a greater chance at getting justice. The potential of the institutions will be nourished for the effective implementation of laws and new reforms. The state will fight against corruption in all sectors, the transparency of the government will be increased, and citizens will be given greater access to state information.

Recommendations

The 2020 Azerbaijan development concept is a comprehensive and versatile understanding of the impediments currently hindering the progress of Azerbaijan and at the same time, it has successfully drafted policies that will help the government counter these impediments in order to secure and strengthen the socio-economic conditions of Azerbaijan in the long run. However, a few steps must be kept in mind for the successful and through implementation of the entire concept:

  • A new government agency must be created that determines through statistical analysis which sector should be prioritized first and how its improvement effects the other sectors
  • A special mechanized system must be established that monitors the implementation of all new reforms and finds out how they can be improved
  • Data regarding the progress in all sectors should be collected on a yearly basis
  • The reforms should not be limited to the 2020 development concept; new reforms should be introduced in accordance with the requirements as the world moves towards greater advancement
  • A special anti-corruption force should be created which keeps a check on the implementation of the reforms in their true essence

[i] Government of Azerbaijan,Azerbaijan 2020: Look into the Future” Concept of Development,(Baku, 2012),9.

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Eastern Europe

What awaits Ukraine after US presidential elections?

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Who is the man that Kiev wants in the White House – Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Joe Biden? For a country like Ukraine, so sensitive to external influences, this is an overarching issue.

Joe Biden’s election in November would bring Ukraine into Washington’s sharper focus. However, important as this may seem to Kiev, this attention may prove excessive. During Biden’s vice presidency this attention was so intense that it bordered on personal interest, and, ultimately, even interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs.

On the outside, the love affair between Ukraine and a possible Democratic president will most likely express itself in US support for Kiev’s confrontational actions and statements. With Biden at the helm, Washington could even try to influence the Minsk process. Kiev has on many occasions declared its desire to bring Washington and London into the Minsk talks. Neither the British nor the Americans have so far responded to this call, but the US Democrats are sure to ramp up their activity on this track. One should not expect too much here though, and a mere statement by Washington that the Minsk accords need to be revised will already come as a breakthough for Kiev. As for President Trump, he just couldn’t care less about the negotiations on Donbass, which he views as having nothing to do with America’s interests.

On Biden’s watch, Washington could resume the previous format of interaction between the US State Department and Kiev and bring back the post of the State Department’s special representative in Ukraine, which until the fall of 2019 was held by Kurt Volker – a semi-official channel of interaction that formally demonstrated Ukraine’s importance to the United States. The resignation of Volker, who failed to fully implement what he had been tasked by Trump in a country he did not care much about, could lead to the elimination of the position of the State Department’s special representative for Ukraine, as an unnecessary catalyst for US-Ukrainian relations. This means that the usual diplomatic channels (embassy) between countries are quite enough, that the interests of the president can be taken care of by trusted people (Giuliani), and issues of international politics should be resolved with Putin and Europe (Merkel and Macron), which is not doing enough to uphold Ukraine’s interests. To demonstrate the importance of the Ukrainian track, however, Biden may bring back the position of the State Department’s official representative in Ukraine.

With regard to Crimea, Ukraine is already urging NATO to build up its presence in the Black Sea to counter Russia’s alleged “aggression” and its “militarization of the occupied Crimea.” Ukraine’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhepparova [representative of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, banned in Russia – D.B.) has called on NATO to expand its foothold in the Black Sea region.

“The security of Ukraine and NATO are inseparable, and strengthening cooperation in the Black Sea is our common priority,” Dzhepparova wrote on her Twitter account. Under Biden, the United States can intensify its efforts in this direction.

The issue of NATO’s presence in the Black Sea region is always on the agenda, regularly escalating in connection with various events – in 2014 in Crimea, the war in Syria, etc. Last autumn, the RAND Corporation think tank published a report on how best to counter Russia’s influence in the Black Sea region. Its main conclusion is that due to the West’s shortsighted policy towards the two regional powerhouses – Russia and Turkey, as well as its underestimation of the political power wielded by their leaders, who subordinate their domestic and foreign policies to their countries’ interests, and not those of the “new world order” and “democratization,” it has lost this region and something needs to be done about it.

For Biden, the need “to do something” could become a source of confrontation with Russia. Biden could be all too happy to do this “something” through NATO, seeing this as a sign of support for Ukraine and Georgia, an opportunity to rein in Turkey’s growing assertiveness and bring Bulgaria and Romania closer into the game by stoking confrontation and militarization of the region with a possible supply to them of coastal missile systems. In general, one can expect an uptick in military-political interaction in the form of active cooperation between Ukraine and NATO, as well as arms deliveries.

The arrival of a Democrat to the White House may also ratchet up the internal political struggle in Ukraine, where the nationalist opposition, conditionally led by the “friend of the Democrats,” ex-president Petro Poroshenko, may try to regain power. Poroshenko, meanwhile, is being charged with high treason, corroborated, among other things, by his recorded conversations with Biden – both politicians have cases that they would very much like to hush up. Besides, the nationalists’ activity will inevitably impact the Minsk process, and, possibly, the situation along the disengagement line in Donbass.

What can Kiev expect from President Donald Trump? Less interference in its domestic affairs – once reelected, Trump will most likely lose interest in the active search for compromising evidence on Biden, although he is unlikely to give up this matter altogether. It will all depend on further confrontation between him and his opponents. The main danger for Trump after his re-election will be not so much the Democrats as such, but the political and social processes unfolding in the country, above all the Black Lives Matter campaign. The only thing that may get Trump interested in Ukraine is his ongoing confrontation with China. The United States is enthusiastically blocking the sale of Ukraine’s Motor Sich engine building corporation to the Chinese company Beijing Skyrizon Aviation.

The Americans see the deal as a security threat, since it would provide the Chinese with new aviation technologies. As for Motor Sich, the company has been forced to make a deal with the Chinese because of the loss of the market for its products and the breakdown of supply chains with Russia after 2014.

Blocking Russian gas supplies to Ukraine and attempts to disrupt energy cooperation between Russia and Europe (Nord Stream-2 “) is another factor that Trump and Kiev look eye to eye on, even though Kiev says that the continued transit of Russian gas across its territory is a guarantee of Ukraine’s European integration. Trump’s interest in Ukraine will depend on his pragmatic view of geopolitics and economics, as well as the political threats he may see coming from Kiev.

In an hours-long interview, President Zelensky’s former chief of staff, Andriy Bohdan, thus described the system of relations existing between the United States and Ukraine: “In general, there are three tracks, three points of negotiations with the United States. The first is intelligence and security services. We are blind kittens here, really, and all our military capabilities, the capabilities of our special services are information that the international community shares with us. And besides the war, these are drugs, crimes, security. These are plans in general, analytics – we have no analytics. The second negotiating track is diplomatic service. [On this track, according to Bohdan, conversations begin and end with the fact that NABU (National Security Agency of Ukraine, headed by Artyom Sytnik) created on Washington’s orders, is an important and untouchable organization – D.B.] And our third negotiation track is financial organizations. ‘Give me the money.’”

Democrats and Republicans alike perceive Ukraine as a buffer zone between Russia and Europe, Russia and NATO. Ukraine will remain a platform for creating reasons for sanctions, justifying sanctions, an active participant in and an accomplice to sanctions processes. Obviously, the sanctions confrontation over Nord Stream-2 is just beginning, and Ukraine, as a party fearing the loss of transit, has long been calling for sanctions against this Russian-European project.

Any of the two contenders for the White House will talk about providing financial assistance to Ukraine, with Trump being more pragmatic, and Biden – more “rhetorical.” With Biden in power, the Ukrainian economy could be reduced to handouts.

The US will not go overboard with its interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs though, because this is a costly affair (Ukrainian oligarchs have enough money to conduct any political campaign of any scale. Why would Washington spend money if it can exert influence or clinch an agreement?) Lobbying the interests of private individuals or politicians that are to Washington’s liking is no problem – suffice it to recall the story of the Burisma Company that tarnished the reputation of the Biden family. Influencing the political landscape by persecuting politicians and oligarchs is also an option (recall the recent cases of tycoons like Dmytro Firtash and Ihor Kolomoyskyi).

President Zelenskiy and many other Ukrainian politicians, dependent on Washington, now face the daunting and, at the same time, important task of choosing the right course of action before the US elections. According to some Ukrainian observers, Zelensky made his choice after long hours of brainstorming with his trusted confidants. It looks like this: “No sudden movements [until November 2020 – D.B.], no progress in the investigation of the criminal case against Biden and his son Hunter, no Burisma and no Derkach tapes. We imitate a “stormy discourse” in the Minsk format, pretend to support the “Belarusian Maidan,” but we lie low and carefully compare the ratings of Trump and Biden.”

In a nutshell, Ukraine is seen by Washington as just a platform for serving America’s geopolitical interests, which is also being used for party-political and private interests. Will anything change for Ukraine depending on who wins the November 2020 US elections? My answer is no.

From our partner International Affairs

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Eastern Europe

Azerbaijan-Russia Ties Face Increasing Challenges

Emil Avdaliani

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Russia-Azerbaijan ties face increased challenges as Baku accused Moscow of purposefully stoking the conflict by providing arms to Armenia. It is notable that this rhetoric develops when Turkey is particularly vocal in its military support for Azerbaijan. Though it still remains to be seen whether these signs evolve into a concrete policy shift in Azerbaijan, hopes for diplomatic solution of Nagorno Karabakh conflict recede, and Turkey and Russia up their military support for Baku and Yerevan.

Azerbaijan-Russia relations face increasing challenges as the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus evolves. A series of events tested the bilateral ties and there is an increasing amount of evidence that some reconsideration of foreign policy on Azerbaijan’s part could be taking place. 

The first challenge was the July fighting on Armenia-Azerbaijan frontier, far from the actual source of conflict – Nagorno Karabakh. What could have been a relatively unnoticed confrontation, it drew international attention due to the geostrategic infrastructure which runs near the fighting zone in Azerbaijan’s Tovuz region. Those are:

  • Baku-Supsa and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipelines, which deliver Caspian oil to the Black and the Mediterranean Seas;
  • South Caucasus natural gas pipeline, which will send Azerbaijani gas to the EU and plays a key component in Turkey’s emerging strategy of positioning itself as regional energy hub.

In addition, the region also has the Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars (BTAK) railroad (unveiled in 2017) and rarely mentioned the fiber-optic cables linking Europe with Central Asia. The Tovuz corridor also has a crucial Azerbaijan-Georgia highway, which allows Azerbaijan to connect to the Black Sea.

Thus in July Azerbaijan faced a threat to its major income. Damage to the infrastructure would also diminish the country’s geopolitical weight as a safe source of oil and gas. While fighting in or around Nagorno Karabakh takes place occasionally and at times reaches a serious level, such as in 2016, it nevertheless fits into the overall narrative of more or less predictable military scenarios which military and political leaders in Baku would expect. The Tovuz fighting, on the other hand, goes against most military narratives and required Baku’s tougher reaction. This is how the ties with Russia, Armenia’s major economic and military ally, come under intense scrutiny in Baku.

It is has always been a long-term challenge for Azerbaijan. Baku occasionally expresses its concerns on Russia’s military support for Armenia, but the criticism has usually been aired though newspapers and media rather than by high-level political figures. This changed following the July fighting.

Reasons are multiple. First, Russia (using its 102rd military base in Gyumri) and Armenia launched snap combat drills on July 17-20, just as the fighting in Tovuz region was still unfolding. Second, a series of flights of Russian military cargo planes to Armenia took place right after the July fighting. 

In a notable change of tone the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev surprisingly publicly complained to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, stating that the recent reports on allegedly increasing Russian military support (400 tons of military hardware) for Armenia raise concerns and questions in Azerbaijani society. Perhaps as a reaction to growing bilateral differences, the Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu visited Baku to assure the Azerbaijani public that the flights were not of a military nature, but rather transported materials for the 102nd military base.

However, the affair did not end there as a senior adviser to Aliyev, Hikmet Hajiyev, on August 29, following Shoigu’s visit, claimed that “the explanation by the Russian side is not entirely satisfactory.” This effectively meant publicly refuting the Russian defense minister’s statements, further aggravating differences between the two states.

A September 1 article by Nezavisimaya Gazeta claimed that Azerbaijan had readied 500 Syrian militants in preparation for a “blitzkrieg against Armenia” and that Turkey has its troops on Azerbaijani soil. Baku vehemently criticized the report calling it “slander and [a] dirty campaign against our country.” 

Yet another sign of troubled ties is the September 6th decision by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry opting out the Russia-led “Caucasus-2020” military drills (planned to be held in the southwest of Russia). Only two servicemen will be sent as observers. Though officially no concrete reasons for the withdrawal were given, it is possible to link the decision to Azerbaijan’s recent grievances at Russia.

Some larger reasons too might be at play motivating a change in Azerbaijan’s rhetoric. The Minsk Group, the body that aims to facilitate the negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan is faltering. No concrete way to resolve the stand-off is present and the July fighting has just showed that diplomatic tools are receding. A vacuum is being created for regional powers to fill in. This is how Turkey comes to play an increasingly larger role in Baku’s strategic calculus.

Indeed, as the July fighting unfolded Turkey has been especially supportive of Azerbaijan. For instance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan noted “Turkey will never hesitate to stand against any attack on the rights and lands of Azerbaijan, with which it has deep-rooted friendly ties and brotherly relations.” Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar even warned that Armenia will be “brought to account” for its “attack” on Azerbaijan. Then large Turkish-Azerbaijani military exercises followed.

Turkey’s calculus here is clear as the country needs to defend the vital oil, gas and railway infrastructure coming from Azerbaijan. And considering how far has diplomacy receded around Nagorno Karabakh issue, Turkey and Russia are set to play an even larger military and economic role in the South Caucasus. For the moment open rivalry will be avoided, but for Moscow and Ankara the region represents yet another area of covert competition along with Syria and Libya.

However, casting Azerbaijan-Russia relations as deteriorating is not entirely correct. Intensive cooperation still exists between the states. Azerbaijan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jeyhun Bayramov, paid an official visit to Russia on August 26 at the invitation of Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov.

In late August-early September Azerbaijani servicemen participated in the “Tank Biathlon” and also won the Sea Cup competition – both held as part of the “International Army Games – 2020” organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense.

It is still hard to see whether Azerbaijan’s changing rhetoric towards Russia is more than just a temporary, tactical maneuver. It could be a clever diplomatic game Azerbaijan has always pursued since 1990s – namely, facing its larger neighbors against one another. Nevertheless, the rhetoric and recent political decision signal a search for reconsideration of some basic elements in Baku’s strategic vision. Turkey’s bigger role is likely to be sought more intensively, while hopes for a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict would further recede.

Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch

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