Officials in Baku are rejoicing. Three years after his election, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has received an official invitation to visit the White House and meet with U.S. President George W. Bush. In a press release issued by the White House on April 10, the invitation was justified by the fact that “Azerbaijan is a key ally in a region of great importance and a valued partner, making important contributions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo.” The meeting with President Bush, set for April 28, will include discussion of a wide range of issues, including democracy promotion and cooperation in the Caucasus, energy diversification, and the shared U.S.-Azerbaijani commitment to working together to advance freedom and security.
The invitation comes as a slap in the face to the Azerbaijani opposition, which has long complained about election fraud in the country and the lack of adequate pressure from the Western community on the Aliyev administration. The Azerbaijani opposition has often cited the continuing refusal to invite President Aliyev to Washington, while Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili were welcomed immediately after elections in their countries, to show the international community’s negative assessment of the state of democracy in Azerbaijan. Now this trump card has disappeared.
Local analysts predict that two issues will dominate the talks between Aliyev and Bush: Iran and Azerbaijan’s long-standing conflict with Armenia over the Karabakh enclave. “There will be a set of complex issues on the agenda, but Iran will dominate it with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict being included into the discussion through the prism of the Iranian question,” independent political analyst Ilgar Mammadov told Jamestown. “Everything tells us that the negotiations will focus around the Iranian and Karabakh problems,” according to an editorial in the opposition Azadliq newspaper on April 9. Consequently, the long-anticipated invitation from Washington might not be the blessing that was expected by official Baku.
Political scientist Fuad Gahramanli believes “Aliyev is not interested in participating in possible military operations against Iran and actively tries to stay away from this process.” For that reason, the invitation to the United States at this particular moment might not please Aliyev that much, concludes Gahramanli (Azadliq, April 7). Mammadov also believes that Azerbaijan will try to play a careful game, but “It is not for sure yet if Azerbaijan will stay completely outside of the process.”
Still, some other experts forecast that the Karabakh conflict will top the discussions, as Washington is re-energizing peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan and trying to save the failed talks in Rambouillet, outside Paris, on February 11. The intensive trips by the OSCE’s Minsk group co-chairs into the region in the last few weeks have raised speculations about the possibility of reaching an agreement on this conflict in 2006. U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Reno L. Harnish III, has told the local Azerbaijani media that there are good prospects for settling the conflict in 2006. Furthermore, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said after his trip to the Washington last week “some new, interesting proposals regarding the solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have been offered and the Azerbaijani government will discuss them” (Turan, April 10, also see EDM, April 12).
“The United States is interested in a quick resolution of the conflict this year,” Mammadov told Jamestown, “but whether Russia will help in this process is still not clear.” ANS-TV radio quoted Yuri Merzlyakov, the Russian co-chair of the Minsk group, as saying that there is no competition between the co-chairs and that President Aliyev met with Russian President Vladimir Putin long before he is scheduled to meet with President Bush (ANS-TV, April 13).
Much is expected from Aliyev’s upcoming trip to Washington, yet most local analysts agree that the negotiations will be tough for the Azerbaijani president. Particularly, any possible pressures on Aliyev to agree to the terms of the referendum that is being proposed for the resolution of the Karabakh conflict might produce counter-productive results domestically. The Azerbaijani opposition is carefully watching what will happen in Washington and they will try to dampen President Aliyev’s excitement about the long-anticipated meeting with President Bush by focusing on the failures of Azerbaijani diplomacy regarding the Karabakh conflict. As for President Bush, he is no longer feeling the necessity to postpone this invitation, as his re-election in 2004 has removed the need to take domestic considerations into account regarding such an action. Now the emphasis is on security and foreign policy, areas in which Azerbaijan could be a key ally.