On June 7, Azerbaijan Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov made a sensational announcement. According to him, President Ilham Aliev plans an official visit to the United States, and Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Washington, Hafiz Pashayev, is in talks to determine the date of the visit.
The news, which might seem routine for others heads of state, is highly important for the Azerbaijani president and regional politics in general. For nearly two years, since his election to the presidency in October 2003, President Aliev has waited for an official invitation from U.S. President George W. Bush for him to visit Washington. While his Georgian and Ukrainian counterparts Mikheil Saakashvili and Viktor Yushchenko were given warm welcomes at the While House immediately after their elections, the extended delay in the invitation for Mr. Aliev had become embarrassing, to put it mildly. Aliev and Bush have met on several occasions during summits of international organizations, yet only a handful of Azerbaijani watchers believed these get-togethers could compensate for the humiliation that the Azerbaijani authorities were forced to experience.
The Azerbaijani opposition has cheered the cold shoulder from Washington, pointing to the allegations of election fraud in 2003 and the stated unwillingness of the American president to “work with authoritarian regimes.” Indeed, the majority of local experts believe that the 2004 U.S. presidential election made it impossible for the incumbent Bush to invite President Aliev to Washington, in order not to risk attacks from his opponents. The lack of democratic developments in Azerbaijan, particularly evident with the ban on public rallies and the crackdown on opposition parties, further delayed the invitation. This, in turn, worsened bilateral Azerbaijani-American political relations. In Azerbaijan, a country where symbolic gestures carry considerable significance, the lack of attention from the American political leadership was perceived as a slap in the face.
Immediately following the recent invitation, local analysts began speculating on the causes for the changed American attitude. Some believed that it was tied to the recent opening of the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, actively supported by the White House. After all, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman participated in the inauguration of the pipeline in May and brought with himself a congratulatory letter from President Bush. Others argued that the invitation was a reward for the Azerbaijani consent to host mobile American military bases. The rumors about such bases have been in the air for more than a year, and the repeated visits by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to the Azerbaijani capital only further increased them. The ongoing negotiations over the Karabakh conflict and the seemingly growing rapprochement between the Azerbaijani and Armenian positions are cited as another possible reason for the invitation.
Yet, there are also those who believe that the invitation from President Bush is related to the November parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan and the desire of the American policymakers to encourage free-and-fair elections. This interest can be tied to President Bush’s recent drive for freedom and democracy in the world, and his enthusiastic support for democratic reforms in the post-Soviet space and Middle East, shown during his visit to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, last month.
Indeed, experts on Azerbaijani politics believe that only through engagement and active lobbying can the U.S. administration achieve tangible results in this country. Immediately after the U.S. State Department condemned the crackdown on the Azeri opposition rally on May 21, the Azerbaijani authorities, for the first time in 19 months, allowed the opposition to stage a street demonstration on June 4. And it is not a coincidence that the invitation from the White House came at a time when Senator Charles Hagel (R-NE), chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on International Economic Policy, Export, and Trade Promotion, visited the Azerbaijani capital and stressed the importance of democratic elections.. “At the meeting with President Ilham Aliev we discussed the necessity of providing transparency, fairness, and democratic parliamentary elections,” Senator Hagel reported during the press conference in Baku. Similarly, on June 7, President Bush sent a letter to the 12th Caspian Oil and Gas Exhibition, once again showing the growing American attention to the Caucasus region.
Sources close to diplomatic circles say that the American administration will use Aliev’s visit as an opportunity to show their support for more political and economic reforms in Azerbaijan. This, in turn, might untie President Aliev’s hands in his efforts to modernize the country and fight the conservative old guard that maintains tight control over the political and economic life of the nation.