Azerbaijan: Hedging Toward Russia and Europe
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Azerbaijan on December 2–3. This came after his November 11 Yerevan visit, which caused an uproar in Baku due to Lavrov’s reference to the ethnic-Armenian population in Karabakh as the “people of Nagorno-Karabakh” and his oblique suggestion of possibly including the separatist Azerbaijani territory in future talks as a third party at the negotiating table (TASS, Armenpress.am, November 11; Report.az, November 14). In Baku, Lavrov tried to appease Azerbaijan but was not particularly successful. On one hand, the top Russian diplomat was careful to use such phrases as “Karabakh communities” and “the entire population of Karabakh,” which are acceptable to Azerbaijan. But when Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov emphasized the need for “substantive negotiations,” Lavrov responded by voicing support for people-to-people contacts between Azerbaijanis and Armenians. This type of proposal is seen in Baku as serving the longevity of the status quo and a deviation from substantive negotiations at the state level, which Azerbaijan believes contradicts its interests (Moscow-Baku.ru, Musavat.com, Turkustan.info, December 3; Trend.az, December 4).
Several weeks earlier, November 20–25, Azerbaijan’s First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva paid a high-profile official visit to Russia. She was warmly welcomed by President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Putin personally decorated her with a Russian state award—the Order of Friendship. The Russian media also attached special importance to the visit, accepting and treating her as the most important Azerbaijani state figure after President Ilhan Aliyev himself. The first deputy general director of the major Russian state news agency TASS, Mikhail Gusman, personally interviewed Aliyeva. The interview was conducted jointly by TASS, governmental newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta and Russian state TV channel Rossiya 24 (Mehriban-Aliyeva.az, TASS, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, November 24; Vesti.ru, November 25; President.az November 26).
While speaking with Azerbaijan’s first vice president, Putin voiced the hope that his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, would attend the informal summit of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), to be held in St. Petersburg on December 20 (Kremlin.ru, November 22). During the last Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit, in Ashgabat, on October 11, Putin had explicitly invited the leaders of CIS countries that are not members of the Eurasian Union to the informal gathering in St. Petersburg (Sputnik News, October 11). That invitation notably echoed the call President Putin made on January 18, 2018, to promote what he had called “the deeper pairing of the formats of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Commonwealth of Independent States” (Kremlin.ru, January 18, 2018).
At the October 11 CIS Ashgabat Summit, President Aliyev lambasted Armenia for allegedly glorying Nazism by erecting a monument to Garegin Nzhdeh, in central Yerevan, and urged the authorities to dismantle it (President.az, October 11). Nzhdeh is considered a “national hero” in Armenia, particularly for his role in the formation of the First Republic of Armenia (1918–1921). For a time, during World War II, he recommended providing support to the Axis powers; he was subsequently arrested by Soviet authorities for collaboration with Nazi Germany and died in prison. On November 30, a memorial plaque in the Russian city of Armavir to honor Nzhdeh was removed (Newsarmenia.am, Vestikavkaza.ru, Media.az, December 1). The removal of the plaque triggered outrage in Armenia against Russia, and a monument to Russian writer and diplomat Alexander Griboyedev was vandalized in Armenia. Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian dismissed the Nzhdeh plaque controversy as a “weird story” (Jam-news.net, Armenia Sputnik, December 3).
Against this backdrop, the wife of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Anna Hakkobyan, made a provocative statement on December 4, “inviting” Azerbaijani First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva to visit an internationally recognized part of Azerbaijan as a “guest” (BBC—Azerbaijani service, Aysor.am, December 4). Her remarks sharply diverged from normal diplomatic etiquette as well as, arguably, the spirit of the Karabakh conflict settlement process. One way to read the incident, however, was that it was another reflection of Yerevan’s combined dissatisfaction with Aliyeva’s Moscow visit as well as the removal of the Nzhdeh memorial plaque.
What the last several months have again illustrated is Moscow’s routine efforts to appease Yerevan on one occasion and Baku on the other. This is in line with what expert Eduard Abrahamyan, who now serves as an aide to the president of Armenia, called “symmetric separatism” in Karabakh. Accordingly, Russia tries to cultivate “separatism” between the separatist regime in Karabakh and Armenia proper while Moscow’s position has played a special role in the formation of Karabakh separatism against Azerbaijan (see EDM, June 5).
As the complex diplomatic exchanges with Russia unfolded, the Azerbaijani president delivered a speech on November 26 in which he rebuked the European Union’s ambiguous position vis-à-vis Karabakh, in contrast with Brussels’ much firmer stances on similar conflicts in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. As a result, he stated, “We will categorically not integrate there [with Europe]” (President.az, November 26). He also referred to what he once described as Europe’s “unilateral instruction list” to Baku (see EDM, May 22).
In his speech, Aliyev additionally referenced ongoing domestic developments, including a challenging phase of government reshuffles and reforms. Particularly notable has been the dismissal of Ramiz Mehdiyev, the long-term head of the presidential administration, widely viewed as the country’s most influential top official after the president himself, and portrayed in the media as a skeptic about the West. Furthermore, Azerbaijan will hold snap parliamentary elections in 2020. Astonishingly, President Aliyev publicly stated that there were forces within the government that opposed reforms and had already warned them, on October 15, to back down (President.az, October 15; Carnegieeurope.eu, November 5; Jam-news.net, November 30; Azertag.az, December 5).
Amidst this sensitive period of engagement with Russia, dissatisfaction with Europe, and ongoing domestic shakeups, another significant event took place that will more closely connect, if not “integrate,” Azerbaijan with Europe—at least in the energy sphere. Namely, on November 30, the European link of the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP)—a major segment of the Southern Gas Corridor—was inaugurated. Along with the pre-existing Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, these energy projects underpin what Azerbaijan proudly calls its “independent foreign policy” (President.az, March 14; Azernews.az, December 1). Baku is also well-aware that Russia, though a great military power with significant leverage in the region, has an economy smaller than Italy’s (Tradingeconomics.com, accessed December 10). Earlier this year, President Aliyev explained that Azerbaijan was not pursuing a “balanced foreign policy” but rather one based on national interests (President.az, February 12). Keeping that in mind, Azerbaijan’s current foreign policy strains can be regarded as trying to hedge against the simultaneous risks coming from Russia and Europe but not balancing their interests in the traditional way.