Opposition parties in Azerbaijan were not happy with President Ilham Aliyev’s invitation to visit the United States and were even hostile about the warm welcome he received from the White House. Referring to the contested presidential election in 2003, opposition parties criticized U.S. President George W. Bush for betraying his “freedom agenda” and cooperating with a foreign authoritarian leader. Some politicians even described Aliyev’s invitation from Washington as the final humiliation for the domestic opposition. They predicted that the visit would turn the opposition away from Western liberal values.
Surprisingly, the domestic opposition’s initially chilly reaction toward the president’s visit has begun to thaw and refocus. Some senior opposition activists are trying to sugarcoat the “damage” done to the Azerbaijani opposition’s attitude toward the U.S. government and downplay the initial criticism of the Bush administration. Speaking to the opposition daily Yeni Musavat on May 3, Hikmet Hajizadeh, a member of the Supreme Council of the leading opposition party Musavat, observed, “America is busy now with the third World War [i.e. the War on Terrorism] and just like the Second World War brought freedom to many nations, this one can also bring freedom to many peoples. We often seek a quick resolution of our problems, but it is not possible. The U.S. is now trying to fight for democracy and economic freedoms globally. No one except the U.S. is doing this and wants to do this. Thus, we should help the U.S. in this.” Hajizadeh also heads Far Center, one of Azerbaijan’s preeminent think tanks.
Another prominent opposition activist similarly commented that the ongoing crisis around Iran was the real motivation for inviting President Aliyev to Washington. Fuad Mustafayev, deputy chairman of the opposition Popular Front, commented, “That is why I believe that [the opposition’s] relations with the U.S. will remain the same as before despite this invitation. The Popular Front party has never expected anybody from abroad to come and build democracy for us here. It is our own duty” (Yeni Musavat, May 3).
Meanwhile, other experts clearly focused on the benefits of the visit. According to independent political analyst Rasim Musabeyov, “for a [country the] size of Azerbaijan, such a visit and talks with the sole superpower in the world have extraordinary implications. It shows the growing geopolitical role of Azerbaijan in the region” (Echo, May 2).
Another expert suggested that the visit had actually strengthened Aliyev’s position as head of state. Echoing the opinion of some Western analysts, Zardush Alizadeh speculated that President Aliyev might change his mind regarding Iran should the time come for Baku to take a stance.
Aliyev’s visit to the White House brought new dimensions to U.S.-Azerbaijani relations. Henceforth, bilateral ties will no longer be evaluated through the prism of oil and gas alone. Now cooperation between the two countries has shifted to address issues of geopolitical strategy and the global fight against terrorism, both of which are ongoing priorities for Bush and Aliyev in the region.
At the same time, opposition parties are now focusing on the Iranian issue more and more, trying to draw Tehran into the critical discourse regarding Aliyev’s visit. On May 3, Yeni Musavat reported that the United States is building a military base in the south of Azerbaijan, which will host a radio-location station and air-defense equipment. Such capabilities could be called into service should Washington launch an attack on Iran.
Aliyev’s visit raised the U.S.-Azerbaijani strategic partnership to new, higher levels, but it still left many questions unanswered. Pundits in Baku continue to wonder what will be Azerbaijan’s role should the U.S.-Iranian conflict intensify, and what will be the future of the peace talks with Armenia over the disputed Karabakh enclave. The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict was expected to be on the agenda of the Bush-Aliyev meeting, yet it still is unclear exactly what they discussed and what will be the consequences of this meeting.
Meanwhile, the co-chairs of the Minsk group gathered in Moscow this week to discuss the ongoing peace process around the Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijani politicians and experts believe that the results of Rambouillet talks in February between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan are not as dead as they initially seemed. The Day.az Internet news service reported, “At this stage, the U.S. is taking a lead in the peace process.”