Some 15 years ago Azerbaijan cast its lot in almost existential ways with the United States and Turkey. Although it was never strain-free in Washington, and fulfilled only a part of its strategic potential, the US-Azerbaijan relationship worked to mutual benefit on energy and international security issues crucial to both sides.
The relationship began fraying at the margins during the Bush administration’s final years, when Washington side-tracked the Caspian energy agenda and relegated contacts with Azerbaijan mainly to the deputy assistant secretary of state’s level. By contrast, Russia’s president, prime minister, and other top officials were personally and assiduously courting Baku, but met with a cautious response there. The US’s unedifying response to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia raised serious questions in Baku, as elsewhere, about Washington’s capacity to stand up for its friends’ and its own interests in the region. President, Ilham Aliyev, and his government responded by bidding for time, hoping that a new US administration would put the relationship back on track.
This did not happen, however. In April 2009, the newly elected US administration launched a set of initiatives toward Turkey and Armenia that discounted and isolated Azerbaijan, undermining Baku’s negotiating position on the Karabakh conflict resolution, and potentially allowing Moscow to exploit Baku’s alienation.
After a twelve-month effort, Washington’s initiatives are seen to have backfired not only in Baku, but also in Ankara and Yerevan. This was seen in the tense, fruitless meetings of US, Turkish, and Armenian leaders during the April 12-13 nuclear security summit in Washington, and the acrimonious follow-ups (Anatolia news agency, Zaman, Milliyet, Hurriyet, Arminfo, Noyan Tapan, Armenpress, PanArmenianNews, April 14–16). This allows a time-out for reflection and an assessment of what went wrong.
As is generally recognized, the Obama administration’s April 2009 initiatives were mainly driven by domestic politics. Candidates Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton had all promised during the electoral campaign to recognize the 1915-1918 Armenian events in Ottoman Turkey as “genocide.” Once in office, however, the administration could not deliver on that promise without destroying US-Turkish relations. Moreover, the administration sought a way to avoid the domestic political crisis sparked annually by the April 24 “Armenian genocide” anniversary. That crisis forces Washington every year to choose between critical relations with Turkey and vociferous US-Armenian advocacy groups with perceived electoral power.
Thus, the administration embarked on a three-pronged policy seeking to:
1. “Normalize” Turkish-Armenian relations, particularly by persuading Turkey to open the border with landlocked Armenia for trade and transit.
2. Relegate the assessment of the 1915-1918 Armenian events, from the US political arena to a historians’ commission, in effect “getting the issue off the administration’s back.”
3. Separate the Turkish-Armenian “normalization” from the long-running negotiations on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, thereby practically fracturing the solidarity of Turkey with Azerbaijan.
The administration hoped to deliver the Turkish-Armenian border re-opening in lieu of Armenian genocide recognition. In return, it expected at least some US-Armenian groups to accept a historical commission, and Yerevan henceforth to abstain from the genocide recognition campaign. Washington tried hard to persuade Turkey to abandon its long-standing policy, whereby opening the border for Armenian trade and transit is conditional on a withdrawal of Armenian troops from Azerbaijan’s interior districts (apart from Karabakh itself). Breaking that conditionality would gravely compromise Azerbaijan’s position in the negotiations to resolve the conflict.
From Baku’s perspective, Azerbaijan is being asked to pay the price of a domestic political bargain in Washington and of a US overture towards Yerevan. At times, Baku (where no US ambassador is stationed) was not even asked, but was rather expected to acquiesce. Azerbaijan feels that its interests did not seem to enter Washington’s calculations, except as a potential currency of exchange in the ongoing negotiations among other parties.
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