Is the United States Losing Azerbaijan? : Part Two

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 79

Washington’s current policies seem about to turn the US-Azerbaijan strategic partnership, from an operational concept into an empty phrase, when it is ever uttered on the US side.

On April 19 the US-Azeri military exercise Regional Response 2010, scheduled to be held in May in Azerbaijan, was cancelled, with no reasons given and no substitute dates offered. The cancellation was announced two days after the US Undersecretary of Defense, Michelle Flournoy’s, meetings with Azerbaijan’s leadership in Baku. Publicly describing Azerbaijan as a “vital partner” of the United States, Flournoy praised its contribution to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, as well as the Azeri security services’ successful prevention of terrorism, including planned terror attacks against US interests (www.day.az, APA, Trend, April 19, 20).

Whether Baku cancelled the exercise to signal displeasure with the overall US policy or for economic reasons (as it did in Georgia recently) or in deference to Moscow, are matters of speculation. Whichever the case, it reflects the ongoing erosion of US influence in the region.

Baku, however, is left questioning the meaning of such a strategic partnership while Washington tilts toward Armenia on the Karabakh conflict, which is the main issue in Azeri national interests. Baku is also deeply concerned by a US policy bent on splitting Turkey from Azerbaijan, in which case an isolated Baku would be forced to seek rapprochement with Moscow.

Pro-Western officials in Azerbaijan’s presidential entourage and government are aghast at the post-2009 turn in Washington’s policy, a shift clearly driven by US domestic electoral politics. As Novruz Mammadov, the head of the presidential administration’s foreign relations department, points out, US policy is consumed with debating the Armenian events of a century ago (1915), even as Armenian forces today occupy seven districts inside Azerbaijan, from which 800,000 Azeris have been “ethnically cleansed.” Current US policy also seems ready to sacrifice the Turkish-Azeri connection, although the two countries are “strategic allies with deep historic ties. Turkey is important to Azerbaijan’s partnership with the West on key security and energy projects” (Mammadov’s interview with Radio Free Europe, cited by www.day.az, April 22).

Azerbaijan has spearheaded the opening of Caspian energy resources to the West; holds the only non-Russian key to Central Asia; contributed troops and other resources to NATO and US-led operations in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan; provides transit passage for US forces and their supplies en route to Afghanistan and Central Asia; has mastered terrorism challenges in cooperation with the US; promoted US-backed security and political projects in the region (NATO partnerships, GUAM, arms control); and it provides (in line with post-2001 US policy objectives) an example of successful secular development and Western alignment in the Muslim world. In pursuing these policies, Azerbaijan has incurred serious, if calculated, risks vis-à-vis Russia and Iran.

Baku, however, feels taken for granted by the United States since the 2009 turn in Washington’s policy. The bilateral relationship had flourished during the Clinton administration; coasted on those achievements during the Bush era, by the end of which it had entered a phase of benign US neglect; and it is now perceived as malign neglect, as US domestic politics and relations with Moscow seem to outrank strategic considerations in Washington’s South Caucasus policy.

Whether inadvertently or deliberately, Washington is not nominating an ambassador to Azerbaijan. From Baku’s vantage point, this omission looks like disrespect, or the dysfunctional condition of the US political system, or both; with corresponding conclusions in Baku about the US capacity for leadership in the region. Due to the long ambassadorial vacancy, feedback about Azerbaijan’s mounting alienation hardly percolates to the top US policy making levels. US working-level officials display awareness and concern in off-the-record conversations, as do Azerbaijan’s Turkish and Georgian partners.

With the strategic partnership painfully hurt, Washington nevertheless continues to expect certain deliverables from Azerbaijan. Visiting US officials from time to time are asking Azerbaijan to support various measures against neighboring Iran, or increase contributions to the Afghanistan operations, or to stop asking Turkey to maintain the linkage between Armenian border re-opening and Armenian troop withdrawal from the inner-Azerbaijani districts.

Azerbaijan was willing for many years to bear certain burdens and risks in partnership with the US. At present, however, Baku feels that its national interests are no longer taken into account or are even jeopardized by US policies. As the officially connected, staunchly pro-Western pundit Rasim Musabayov observes: “With such a one-sided approach, Washington must be prepared for receiving not support, but ‘advice’ in response to its own treatment [of Baku]. It is unrealistic to think that one can ignore the interests of Azerbaijan, or act against those interests, while extracting dividends from its partnership with this country” (www.day.az, April 22).<iframe src=’http://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>