Azerbaijan: Difficult Year Ahead

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 6

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (L) and Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili in Baku, December 26, 2012 (Source: Bidzina Ivanishvili Facebook page)

Several key developments in 2012 had a tremendous impact on Azerbaijan and its foreign policy. First of all, the “reelection” of Vladimir Putin as president of Russian could be considered one of the major events that influenced Azerbaijan. Putin’s triumphal return buried the last hopes of some Azerbaijani idealists that Russia would take a neutral position in the resolution of the Karabakh conflict. Instead, the negotiation process on the resolution of the Karabakh conflict stalled and reverted to where it was four years ago.

Moreover, Azerbaijan’s stance over the Gabala Radar Station greatly irritated the Russian establishment. Azerbaijan had been leasing the Gabala site to Russia since 2002. The lease expired in 2012, and the Russian side was urging Azerbaijan to extend it for another 25 years. The Russian government intended to substitute the old station with a new mobile, modular station, specifically mentioning that the new, second station would be the property of Russia. In response, Azerbaijan then increased its proposed leasing fee by 40 times, demanding $300 million from Russia instead of the current annual rate of $7 million. However, none of the visits by high-ranking Russian authorities were able to force Baku to yield to Moscow’s demands. Finally, Russia gave up all efforts and withdrew from Gabala by the end of the year (

Another important event that affected Azerbaijani politics was the agreement signed between Azerbaijan and Turkey to construct the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline (TANAP) with further connection to European markets. Natural gas shipments through TANAP would disrupt Russia’s gas monopoly in Central and Eastern Europe and diminish Moscow’s role as energy supplier to Europe. With this pipeline, Azerbaijan will thus be able to help bolster the energy security of Eastern and Central European countries.

Last but not least the election of Bidzina Ivanishvili as prime minister of neighboring Georgia had a strong effect on Azerbaijan itself. After the elections, Ivanishvili made several statements doubting the construction of the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railroad being built across the South Caucasus. The new Georgian prime minister also criticized the energy policy of his country’s previous government (Civil Georgia, December 21, 2012). Such statements could endanger Azerbaijani energy and transportation projects in Georgia and, therefore, worried Baku. However, after visiting Azerbaijan on December 26, Ivanishvili retracted his previous statements and spoke positively about future cooperation between the two countries (Georgia Today, December 27, 2012). Nevertheless, Baku remains cautious about Ivanishvili and continues to closely watch the political development in Georgia.

Azerbaijan will face presidential elections in October of 2013, and outside powers may use this event to put pressure on Baku. Russia would hardly be interested in President Ilham Aliyev losing power since Moscow does not want to destabilize the situation in Azerbaijan. Russia perfectly understands that stability in Azerbaijan is the key to stability in the neighboring, volatile Dagestan region where Avar and Lezgin separatism could take an irreversible course. Nevertheless, Russia will try to maximize Aliyev’s possible vulnerability. With political uncertainty in Georgia, Azerbaijan remains the only state in the former Soviet Union (except for the Baltic States) that is conducting a policy contradictory to Russian interests. Whether it is the intention of Azerbaijan’s State Oil Company (SOCAR) to build an oil refinery in Kyrgyzstan that would help this Central Asian country to gain energy security, or rushing to save the Belarusian enterprise Belaruskaliy from being privatized by the Russian government through a Kremlin-controlled oligarch, Baku has acted independently without looking to Moscow. Such policies cannot continue forever and it is expected that the Kremlin will sooner or later turn its attention toward Azerbaijan.

It cannot be ruled out that, in order to put pressure on Azerbaijan during the elections, Russia will use several old and traditional tools. First, the Russian establishment may use the Karabakh conflict and the fear of a resumption of war. Russia could easily initiate military clashes on the contact line between Armenia and Azerbaijan, for example, to send a certain signal to Baku. Of course, the military clashes would not be allowed to turn into a full-scale war since that would undermine Russian efforts to maintain the status quo. Nonetheless, fresh hostilities would add pressure on the Azerbaijani establishment. Second, as in Yeltsin’s time, Moscow may put pressure on Azerbaijani labors migrants and create bureaucratic hurdles for them at border crossings and checkpoints. A consequent return of hundreds of thousands Azerbaijani migrant laborers from Russia is one of the nightmares of Azerbaijan’s government. Third, Russia will continue to prolong negotiations over the Caspian Sea’s status as long as the talks of the Trans-Caspian pipeline from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and further to Europe remains on the agenda.

One also cannot exclude the possibility that Georgia under Ivanishvili will slowly become more pro-Russian. In its turn, and bolstered by such developments in Tbilisi, Moscow may act to endanger Azerbaijani energy and transportation projects. Furthermore, continued international pressure on Iran and the possibility of military strikes against Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor remain one of the problematic areas for Baku. Tehran, on the other hand, continues to watch Azerbaijan closely and from time to time warns Baku to “behave” properly. Azerbaijan will hardly participate in military actions directed against Iran. But nevertheless, any scenario involving armed strikes against Tehran will have a tremendous impact on Baku such as refugee flows, possible retaliatory attacks or the threat of domestic political violence instigated by Iranian agents inside Azerbaijan.

Overall, 2013 is expected to be difficult for Azerbaijan. Continued and mounting Russian political pressure, uncertainty over Iranian, Armenian provocations and Western indifference to the region will definitely make this upcoming year quite challenging for Baku to navigate.