Last Friday, May 5, Azerbaijan hosted the ninth summit of the ten-member Economic Cooperation Organization. The meeting convened in Baku and was attended by Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, Daniyal Akhmetov, prime minister of Kazakhstan; Medetbek Kerimkulov, first vice prime minister of Kyrgyzstan; Shaukat Aziz, prime minister of Pakistan; Akil Akilov, prime minister of Tajikistan; Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister of Turkey; and Erkin Khalilov, speaker of the parliament of Uzbekistan (Day.az, May 5; www.ecosecretariat.org).
During the summit, the participants discussed the need to expand cooperation in various fields under the framework of the ECO and reaffirmed their support for the objectives and goals of the organization. The ninth ECO Summit was preceded by a Senior Officials’ Meeting (SOM) on May 2-3, and a Council of Ministers’ Meeting (COM) on May 4. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov chaired the COM meeting. At the summit, ECO Excellence Awards 2006 were presented to eight citizens of the ECO member states in the fields of economics, history, culture and fine arts, science and technology, education, agriculture, and environment.
At the conclusion of the summit, participants unanimously adopted a “Baku Declaration,” that provides future guidelines to the organization in terms of priority as well as non-priority areas of ECO. The leaders welcomed Pakistan’s offer to host the tenth ECO summit in Pakistan (www.ecosecretariat.org/ftproot/High_Level_Meetings/Summits/9th_summit/Baku_declaration_2006.htm).
The high-profile attendance and significant media attention accorded to the Baku Summit turned the meeting into an important regional event. Yet despite its valuable agenda and fruitful multi-party talks, the actual work of the ECO was overshadowed by several bilateral meetings that took place on the sidelines of the summit.
Foremost, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s meetings with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Afghan President Karzai were very interesting although from different perspectives. While the meeting with Karzai highlighted the importance of Azerbaijan as a regional hub for transportation, energy, and development, his meeting with Erdogan was rather ordinary and once again highlighted the reduced symbolism and import accorded to Azerbaijani-Turkish relations, which have gradually shifted from a privileged status in the 1990s towards ordinary interaction in the 2000s.
Nevertheless, the tête-à-tête meeting between Aliyev and his Iranian counterpart, Ahmadinejad, drew most of the attention. The ongoing speculation over a possible military conflict between the United States and Iran keeps the issue of Azerbaijan’s participation in this conflict on hold. During the meeting, both presidents highlighted the importance of regional cooperation and the resolution of all conflicts though peaceful means. However, it is clear that Azerbaijani authorities seemed frustrated with the inopportune timing of Ahmadinejad’s visit.
President Aliyev has just completed his historic tour of the United States, where he met with the top U.S. political and military leadership. This was a chance he has been waiting for since his election in 2003. The visit was so important and beneficial for Azerbaijan and its political leadership that even the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party organized a major roundtable discussion in Baku in May to discuss the U.S.-Azerbaijani strategic partnership. Usually, YAP is very conservative when talking about Azerbaijan’s integration into the West.
Thus, the Iranian president’s visit, coming right after Aliyev’s warm reception in Washington, can be termed as either “bad timing” or Tehran’s intentional effort to draw Azerbaijan into the neutral space. Azerbaijan has indeed pursued a balanced foreign policy and this is even more clearly visible with Aliyev junior than with his late father, former President Heydar Aliyev. The balanced foreign policy relates not only to the issue of the Iranian-U.S. conflict, but also to the presence of Russia and the West in Azerbaijan as well as the general integration of Azerbaijan into the larger Western or Eastern sphere. For example, lately Azerbaijan has been paying as much attention to the Islamic countries as to the European ones and in June Baku will host the 2006 summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, whose membership overlaps with that of the ECO.
Yet, the growing world attention on Iran and the efforts of the United States to make Ahmadinejad a pariah statesman put pressures on the Azerbaijani leader as well. This was Ahmadinejad’s second visit to Azerbaijan since his election in August 2005, and, in the eyes of Western politicians and policymakers, President Aliyev does not earn points by building cozy relations with him. It must be clear in the Azerbaijani capital that a balanced foreign policy has a very fine line separating advantages and disadvantages and that sooner or later official Baku might be confronted with the harsh reality of making a choice regarding which side to back in the growing dispute — Tehran or Washington.