Ambassadorial Vacancy Disables US Policy in Azerbaijan and Beyond

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 174

Matt Bryza, nominated to the position of US Ambassador to Azerbaijan.
Washington’s failure to send an ambassador to Azerbaijan for well over a year now, as well as the hold on the ambassador’s confirmation, must look like a case of systemic malfunction from Azerbaijan’s perspective. However, Turkey remains a keenly interested observer, while Russia waits to become a potential beneficiary of any damage to the US-Azerbaijan strategic partnership.
US Ambassador, Anne Derse, had completed her tour of duty and left Baku in July 2009. By that time, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Matthew Bryza, was rumored to be in line for nomination as ambassador to Azerbaijan. However, the State Department waited until May 2010 to announce the nomination; an Armenian advocacy group then launched a campaign to block the nomination in the US Senate, during which two Senators (out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s 19 members) placed an indefinite hold on the nomination on September 21. The hold seems opportunistically linked to the November mid-term elections. However, one of these two Senators has had a track record of blocking nominations including that of the US ambassador-designate to Armenia from 2006 to 2008, asking that nominee and the Administration to recognize an Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey (Militant Armenian Group’s Senate Allies Oppose US Ambassador To Azerbaijan, EDM September 28).
During his campaign, President Barack Obama, had pledged to deliver the genocide recognition if elected, but could not deliver it as president without antagonizing the crucial partnership with Turkey. In lieu of this, the administration proposed to deliver a unilateral opening of the Turkish-Armenian border, at Azerbaijan’s expense. This move would have eliminated the main positive inducement for a peacefully negotiated withdrawal of Armenian troops from Azeri districts.   
With the ambassadorial post in Baku vacant, Washington urged Turkey to open the Turkey-Armenia border, no longer conditioning this on progress toward resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Washington’s policy shift also risked undermining the package solution proposed by the US-Russia-France trio of mediators. That package envisaged (inter alia) the opening of both Turkey’s and Azerbaijan’s borders with Armenia, conditionally linked with the withdrawal of Armenian troops from certain inner districts of Azerbaijan. The Obama administration, however, sought quite a different trade-off through the Turkey-Armenia October 2009 Zurich Protocols. In return for re-opening Turkey’s border with Armenia, Washington expected Yerevan (along with mainstream US Armenian groups) to help remove the genocide recognition campaign from the US political arena. Ultimately, however, Turkey refused to break ranks with Azerbaijan, while the Armenian government proved unwilling or unable to desist from genocide recognition efforts. Even after this, the administration failed to invite Azerbaijan to the Washington nuclear-safety summit.
At least some of those missteps were soon acknowledged as such in Washington. The administration seems no longer to press for an unconditional opening of the Turkey-Armenia border. It announced the Bryza ambassadorial nomination in May, then dispatched Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, and Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, for brief separate visits to Azerbaijan in July (as part of a region-wide, get-acquainted tour in Clinton’s case). Whether those visits were mere box-checking exercises or intended to spur a US policy review, remains unclear. President Obama’s September 24 meeting with Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York does not seem to have answered that question. The hold on the ambassador’s confirmation has added an element of uncertainty, although the administration does stand by its nominee (VOA, September 24).
Baku is watching these developments in Washington with concern over the fate of the US-Azerbaijan strategic partnership. Azeri officials are characteristically restrained in their public comments. Meanwhile, an analysis signed by Zaur Shiriyev from Azerbaijan’s Center for Strategic Studies under the country’s Presidency, published in the Turkish press, may offer a rare insight into Baku’s concerns (Hurriyet, September 23).
Thus, from Baku’s vantage point, the long delay in the ambassadorial nomination looks like “US disrespect and disinterest in the development of bilateral relations…or dysfunction in the US political system, or both. As a result, conclusions are being drawn in Baku about the US capacity for leadership in the region. Following the push to open the Turkey-Armenia border at any cost, the Obama administration not only failed to develop, but even decreased the importance of the US-Azerbaijan strategic partnership…On one hand, Azerbaijan needs US assistance for resolution of the Karabakh conflict and balancing regional actors like Russia and Iran. On the other hand, a strong partnership with Azerbaijan answers to the consolidation of the US presence in the South Caucasus-Caspian region” (Hurriyet, September 23).
If any policy review is quietly underway in the US administration, it must proceed from three basic premises. First, it must stop viewing the policy through the prism of US domestic politics, instead of strategic interests. Second, the US should take the initiative in promoting the resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, as part of a region-wide US policy in the South Caucasus. At its best, that policy operates as an extension of US-Europe relations, with focus on energy security as a common trans-Atlantic concern. Thirdly, any US policy review ought to stipulate proactive steps for reversing the perception of an incremental, undeclared US disengagement from the South Caucasus. That widely perceived disengagement adds to the region’s deficit of security.