The Azerbaijani government recently announced further steps aimed at strengthening its strategic ally and neighbor Georgia and improving the post-war conditions there. This tangible help to Georgia, Baku believes, is more important than the political declarations often desired in the Georgian capital.
Foremost, the Azerbaijani state oil company SOCAR has agreed to supply natural gas to Georgia for a period of five years. A memorandum signed in Baku will serve as the basis for a forthcoming bilateral contract (APA News Agency, December 11). Rovnag Abdullayev, President of SOCAR, informed the media after the signing of the memorandum that 85 percent of Georgia’s natural gas supply will come from Azerbaijan by 2010. It should be noted that under the agreement, 452 million cubic meters of gas will be provided to Georgia in 2009 at reduced prices. A total of 892 million cubic meters of gas will be supplied to Georgia. Abdullayev did not exclude the possibility of supplying additional gas to Georgia over the five-year period, but at commercial prices (www.day.az news agency, December 12).
The memorandum signed with the Georgian Ministry of Energy also envisages the transfer of several gas-distribution networks in Georgia to Azerbaijan, which will mean a large Azerbaijani investment in the economy of Georgia. President Mikheil Saakashvili, who took part in the energy summit in Baku in November, welcomed the agreement and expressed his hope that “uninterruptible supply of gas to households in Georgia will make it possible to open new enterprises and reduce the problem of unemployment” (www.day.az, November 14).
Moreover, SOCAR has promised to fund the studies of 60 ethnic Azerbaijani students in Georgia, who have entered universities and colleges in that country, according to Ganira Pashayeva, a member of the Azerbaijani parliament and the head of the parliamentary Georgia-Azerbaijan friendship group (www.day.az, December 13). SOCAR’s office in Georgia decided to take this action in order to relieve the difficult financial situation in which ethnic Azerbaijani students in Georgia have found themselves, but it also encourages high school students to enter the university. The educational level and knowledge of the Georgian language among ethnic Azerbaijanis still needs to be improved in the Azeri-populated regions of this country.
During a recent visit to Georgia, Pashayeva also informed the ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Georgia that the government of Azerbaijan would provide them with medical and surgical care free of charge. The Ministry of Health of Azerbaijan has already sent seven doctors to Georgia to start the program. Treatment is being offered in the ethnic Azerbaijani regions of Marneuli, Dmanisi, Gardabani, and Bolnisi. The possibility is not excluded that some of the patients will even be transferred to Baku for further treatment.
Such economic and humanitarian assistance from Azerbaijan to Georgia is not new. Azerbaijan has supplied energy and other resources to Georgia in the past in order to help its strategic ally and neighbor survive difficult times. Yet, during the August military conflict between Georgia and Russia, some members of the Azerbaijani opposition and Georgian politicians called on the government in Baku to use harsher language in objecting to the Russian action. The Azerbaijani leadership refrained, because of the sensitivity of the situation and the recently warming relations between Baku and Moscow. Instead, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported the territorial integrity of Georgia, and the Cabinet of Ministers sent humanitarian aid to the devastated regions of the country.
Indeed, a pragmatic policy and the avoidance of strident statements have been at the core of recent Azerbaijani government policies, in order to ensure the continuity of a balanced foreign policy and to maintain internal political stability. While, Baku wants to strengthen its vital ally Georgia, it prefers to help it through economic and humanitarian, rather than political, actions. Recent investments in the Georgian energy sector, opening new gas stations throughout that country, the purchase of the Kulevi oil terminal, and more strategic projects such as the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway are all vivid examples of this policy. For the railway project, it should be noted that Azerbaijan has provided a loan of almost $300 million to Georgia at a symbolic interest rate of 1 percent for a period of 25 years.