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Azerbaijan-Russia Ties Face Increasing Challenges

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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

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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Crisis in Armenia Provides Fertile Ground for Russian Meddling

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The immediate cause came on February 25, when Onik Gasparyan, Chief of General Staff of the Armenian Army, and other senior commanders released a statement calling for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to step down. Pashinyan responded by firing Gasparyan.

Yet the real cause of the uproar is Armenia’s defeat in the Second Karabakh War last year, which has triggered a deeply troubled and long-drawn-out period of soul-searching and consequent instability.

Delving into the details over what are the real reasons and who is to blame may anyway be futile in the cloudy political world of all three South Caucasus states (including Georgia and its current woes). While many Armenians believe that the protests are more about internal democratic processes, there is an undeniable geopolitical context too. Perhaps what matters most is the international ramifications of the conflict, especially as the early phases of the Russian-brokered November 2020 ceasefire agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan are now being implemented.

The political crisis in Armenia does not affect the implementation of the agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on February 26. Other statements by the Russian leadership indicated that the Kremlin, which closely follows the internal development of its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) ally and the fellow member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), is nevertheless remaining aloof for now.

Over the past year, Russia has confronted multiple crises along its border with some finesse, successfully managing near-simultaneous crises in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia-Azerbaijan.

In each case, the Kremlin has sought to extract geo-economic benefits. Take the current Armenian crisis. The opposition has some support, but not as much as the current leadership. Leaders from both sides have connections with senior Russian leaders, albeit the Kremlin was far more comfortable with the pre-Pashinyan Armenian political elite. They understood what Russia likes in the near-abroad – cautious leaders mindful of Russian sensitivities and unwilling to play the reformist and Western cards that Pahinyan has used since coming to power in 2018.

And yet however much illiberal Russia feels uncomfortable with the reformist Pashinyan government, it needs for now because his signature is on the November ceasefire agreement. With the early stages of the deal being implemented, Russia is keeping its eyes on the prize — most importantly, the agreement to reopen Soviet-era railways which potentially will reconnect Russia to Armenia via Azerbaijani territory. Chaos in Armenia can only jeopardize this key aim.

Russia also understands that Pashinyan is becoming increasingly dependent as time goes by and that it can exploit this vulnerability. Equally obviously, the opposition could prevail, and that would ultimately benefit Russia too.

In the long run, Russia has caught Armenia in a cycle. To stay in power, the government would need extensive Russian economic, diplomatic, and perhaps even military support. But any new government formed by the current opposition would likely demand even more weaponry from Russia to prepare for the next confrontation, however hypothetic, with Azerbaijan. In both cases, the price for more arms would likely be deeper integration of Armenia within the EEU. And whatever remained of Armenia’s policy efforts towards the West, already under grave pressure since the Karabakh defeat, would die.

Potentially, there is a yet-greater reward for Russia – persuading Azerbaijan to allow the Russian peacekeeping mission to remain on its soil beyond the end of 2025. In which case, an openly revanchist Armenian government formed by an opposition determined to build a battle-ready military capable of offensive operations would be a useful tool for the Kremlin to justify the continued presence of its units in Karabakh.

Author’s note: first published in cepa.org

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Caspian: Status, Challenges, Prospects

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An Analysis into the Legal Classification, Security and Environmental Concerns, Geopolitics and Energy Flow Impact of the Caspian Plateau

How has the world’s largest inland body of (salty) water escaped the economic and political notice for so long? And it is for a resource-rich area of a unique locality that connects Europe and Asia in more than just geography. Simply, the Caspian Basin is an underrated and underexplored topic with scarce literature on its geomorphology, mineral deposits and marine biota, its legal disputes, pipeline diplomacy,environmental concerns and overall geopolitical and geo-economic interplays.

As the former Minister of the Canadian government and Secretary General of the OECD – Honorable Donald J Johnston – states in the foreword, Caspian – Status, Challenges, Prospects“is a fitting title for a book that masterfully gives an objective, comprehensive overview of the region. The authors have compiled an analysis of Caspian’s legal classification, security and environmental concerns, geopolitical scenarios, and energy flow impacts as they affect the world’s largest continental landmass – Eurasia.”

From comprehensive but content intensive insights on Caspian littoral states Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Russiaand Turkmenistan, to external actors like Turkey, EU, China and the United States, readers are presented how separate actors and factors interact in this unique theater. The book elaborates on the legal classification of the Caspian plateau including the recent ‘Convention on Legal Status of the Caspian,’ to the numerous territorial and environmental security concerns.

Prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic and his co-authors present Caspian as the most recent, fresh and novel way, in one stop-shop offering broad analysis on the Caspian region. It is a single volume book for which extensive information is exceptionally rare to find elsewhere. Following the read, authors are confident that a new expanse of scholarly conversation and actions of practitioners will unfold, not only focused on Caspian’s unique geography, but its overall socio-economic, politico-security and environmental scene.

Welcoming the book, following words of endorsements have been said:

The Caspian basin and adjacent Central Asian region (all being OSCE member states, apart from Iran) have, since the early Middle ages, acted as a crossroads between different civilizations and geopolitical spaces. In an increasingly interconnected world, growing geopolitical competition, economic interdependence and the emergence of new global challenges, particularly those related to water, energy and the climate emergency, have highlighted the relevance of this region, making it of increasing interest to researchers and academics. This book presents a thorough analytical compendium of historical factors, political dynamics, economic trends, legal frameworks and geopolitical interests which underpin, but also affect, the stability and development of this complex, diverse and strategically significant region.

Amb. Lamberto Zanier,Secretary-General, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (2011-2017)  OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities (2017-2020)

A thoughtful, comprehensive and balanced analysis of the complex interplay between geopolitics and geo-economics in Central Eurasia, and pivotal energy plateau – that of Caspian. We finally have an all-in reader that was otherwise chronically missing in international literature, which will hopefully reverse the trend of underreporting on such a prime world’s spot.   

Hence, this is a must-read book for those wondering about the future of one of the most dynamic and most promising regions of the world and what it could entail for both reginal and external players. 
Andrey Kortunov Director General, Russian International Affairs Council

Although of pivotal geopolitical and geo-economic importance, Caspian energy plateau represents one of the most underreported subjects in the western literature. Interdisciplinary research on the topic is simply missing.  

Therefore, this book of professor Bajrektarevic and his team – unbiased, multidisciplinary, accurate and timely – is a much-needed and long-awaited reader: A must read for scholars and practitioners, be it from Eurasia or beyond.

It is truly a remarkable piece of work!  

Authors were able to tackle a challenging subject with a passion, knowledge and precision, and turn it into a compelling, comprehensive yet concise read which I highly recommend.   

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Kazakhstan Erzhan Kazykhanov, Ambassador Embassy of Kazakhstan, Washington dc, USA 

ARTNeT secretariat is pleased to see how our initial invitation to Prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic to present at the ARTNeT Seminar Series in 2015 evolved. The talk was initially published as a working paper for ARTNeT (AWP 149). Now Prof. Bajrektarevic, in collaboration with another two co-authors, offers a comprehensive study on a nexus of legal, security, and environmental issues all emanating from and linked to energy cooperation (or lack thereof) in the subregion. This volume’s value extends beyond the education of readers on the Caspian Basin’s legal status (e.g., is it a sea or a lake?). It is just as relevant for those who want a more in-depth understanding of an interplay of economic, security, and political interest of players in the region and outside. With the global institutions increasingly less capable of dealing with rising geopolitics and geo-economic tensions, more clarity – even if only about some aspects of those problematic issues – should be appreciated. This volume offers such clarity.   

Mia Mikic, Director UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP) ARTNeT coordinator

It is my honor to reflect on this work on Caspian. Comprehensive and content rich, this book of professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic and his co-authors brings up comprehensively all the useful information on Caspian, with the geographical and historical background and cultural, economic as well as security aspects related to it.

Authors’ novel and unbiased approach shall certainly help decision makers in their bettered understanding of the region that has centuries-long history of peace and cordial neighbourly relations. Long needed and timely coming, I warmly recommend this reader to those who want to know, but more importantly to all those who want to understand, this pivotal region of the world.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh Former Ambassador of Islamic Republic of Iran to United Nations and other International Organizations in Geneva & Vienna

The book by Professor Bajrektarevic and his co-authors embodies a wide-ranging overview of the intertwined interests pursued by the young democracies of the Caspian basin, battling with inherited land and water disputes, and their interplay with regional and global powers. Apparently, supporting political independence of the formers and promoting their integration into the latter’s markets requires adequate analyses, timely outreach policies and consistent engagement. In this sense the publication serves as one of the scarce handbooks to understand diverse interests of stakeholders, dynamically changing security architecture of the region and emerging opportunities of cooperation around the Caspian Sea.

Ambassador GalibIsrafilov Permanent Representative to the UN Vienna and to the OSCE Embassy of Azerbaijan to Austria

Caspian: Status, Challenges, Prospects

An Analysis into the Legal Classification, Security and Environmental Concerns, Geopolitics and Energy Flow Impact of the Caspian Plateau

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Eastern Europe

As Georgians Fight Each Other, Russia Gleefully Looks On

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Earlier today, the leader of Georgia’s major opposition party – United National Movement (UNM) – was detained at his party headquarters by government security forces, the most recent escalation in a drawn-out political crisis. This could well be the beginning of a new troubled period in the country’s internal dynamics, with repercussions for the country’s foreign policy.

The optics favor the opposition. Images of armed and armored police storming UNM’s headquarters was damaging to the ruling party, Georgian Dream (GD). Western diplomats expressed grave concern over the events and their repercussions. Protests have been called, and will likely be covered closely in Western media.

What comes next, however, is not clear.

Much will depend on what long-term vision for the country the opposition can articulate in the aftermath of the most recent events. It was not that long ago that UNM was declining as a political force in Georgian politics. There is a real opportunity here. But the burden is on the opposition to make a play for the loyalty of voters beyond its circle of already-convinced supporters.

Appealing to ordinary Georgian voters is ultimately the key to resolving the crisis. Beyond the intra-party clashes about the legitimacy of the most recent elections, there is a growing chasm between political elites and the challenges faced by people in their daily lives. And tackling these challenges successfully will not be easy.

Both the ruling party and the opposition have been facing declining support from the public at large. Long-term economic problems, which have been greatly exacerbated by the pandemic, have not been credibly addressed by either side. Instead of solutions, both sides have engaged in political theatrics. For many voters, the current crisis is more about a struggle for political power, rather than about democracy and the economic development of the country. No wonder that most people consider their social and economic human rights to have been violated for decades no matter which party is in power. These attitudes help explain high abstention rates during the most recent election. Despite remarkable successes in the early years after the Rose Revolution, Georgia has lacked a long-term policy for reimagining its fragile economy since its independence and the disastrous conflicts of the 1990s.

None of this, however, should minimize the threats to Georgian struggling democracy. Today’s arrests reinforce a longstanding trend in Georgian politics: the belief that the ruling party always stands above the law. This was the case with Eduard Shevardnadze, Mikheil Saakashvili, and is now the case with the current government. For less politically engaged citizens, plus ça change: Georgian political elites for the last 30 years have all ended up behaving the same way, they say. That kind of cynicism is especially toxic to the establishment of healthy democratic norms.

The crisis also has a broader, regional dimension. The South Caucasus features two small and extremely fragile democracies – Armenia and Georgia. The former took a major hit last year, with its dependence on Moscow growing following Yerevan’s defeat in the Second Karabakh War. Today, Russia is much better positioned to roll back any reformist agenda Armenians may want to enact. Armenia’s current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has been weakened, and easily staged protests are an easy way to keep him in line.

Georgia faces similar challenges. At a time when Washington and Brussels are patching things up after four years of Trump, and the Biden administration vigorously reiterates its support for NATO, Georgia’s woes are a boon for Moscow. Chaos at the top weakens Georgia’s international standing and undermines its hopes for NATO and EU membership. And internal deadlock not only makes Georgia seem like a basket-case but also makes a breakthrough on economic matters ever more unlikely. Without a serious course correction, international attention will inevitably drift away.

At the end of the day, democracy is about a lot more than finding an intra-party consensus or even securing a modus vivendi in a deeply polarized society. It is about moving beyond the push-and-pull of everyday politics and addressing the everyday needs of the people. No party has risen to the occasion yet. Georgia’s NATO and EU aspirations remain a touchstone for Georgian voters, and both parties lay claim to fully representing those aspirations. But only through credibly addressing Georgia’s internal economic problems can these aspirations ever be fully realized. The party that manages to articulate this fact would triumph.

Author’s note: first published in cepa.org

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