On January 22 President of Bulgaria Georgi Parvanov paid a one-day visit to Baku. The issue on the agenda was obvious: diversification of the gas supply to the EU and making Caspian gas available to EU households. Discussions with President Ilham Aliyev were very useful; and Bulgaria, together with Greece and Italy, are expected to become the first purchasers of Azerbaijani gas from the Shah Deniz field. The Visit of the President of Bulgaria to Azerbaijan was connected to the gas conflict between Russia and Ukraine,” Azerbaijan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Elmar Mammadyarov told journalists on January 21 (APA News Agency).
This, however, is neither the first nor last visit of an EU official to Azerbaijan. Prior to Parvanov, EU Commissar for External Affairs Benito Ferrero-Waldner visited Baku and described the EU’s new Eastern Partnership initiative in relations with several countries in the region, including Azerbaijan. This initiative is likely to draw Azerbaijan closer to the EU, both politically and in terms of the economy and energy. Other presidents and prime ministers from the EU are scheduled to travel to Baku, and the Hungarian government has already announced plans to open an embassy there (www.day.az, January 23).
The recent gas crisis between Ukraine and Russia is portrayed in Moscow political circles as a victory for the Kremlin, which had once again successfully demonstrated Russia’s importance for the energy security and economy of EU member states. In the long run, however, this crisis might well hit Russia hard, as the EU starts looking for alternative sources of gas and oil for its domestic consumers. The unreliability of Russia as an energy partner for the EU became evident in 2005 and 2006 with respective shut-downs of gas exports through Ukraine and Belarus. This time, however, the crisis was deeper and had a wider impact in European capitals; and subsequently, the position of Azerbaijan as a potential alternative supplier and transporter of natural gas for the EU is rising day by day.
On January 26 Aliyev left for Hungary to participate in the Nabucco summit. Heads of state and government of several EU countries will also participate in the event. The presence of Aliyev in this important but politically sensitive event once again proves that Azerbaijan’s foreign policy is independent and that Aliyev is willing to take risks when the national interests of his country are at stake. Russia opposes this summit and the whole Nabucco project, and President Aliyev is showing a great deal of courage by taking part in this important meeting.
Meanwhile Iran, another fierce opponent of Azerbaijan’s energy cooperation with the EU, spoke against the trans-Caspian pipelines. Deputy Minister of Oil Hossein Noqrekar-Shirazi said that “Iran is against the construction of pipelines under the seabed of the Caspian sea, because it might damage the environmental balance of the sea” (RosBusinessConsulting news agency, January 25). Without such pipelines, including the gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, Nabucco’s fate would be questionable. Turkmenistan, with the fifth largest gas reserves in the world, is seen as one of the main elements in the Nabucco pipeline.
In an interview with www.day.az on January 22, Latif Gandilov, Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Kazakhstan, highlighted the importance of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan for EU energy consumers: “We see that the West pays more and more attention to those countries that can potentially become pivotal members of the Nabucco pipeline, including Azerbaijan and countries of Central Asia.”
It is clear that the chances for the Nabucco project have dramatically risen after the recent tension between Kiev and Moscow. The Romanian Ambassador in Baku, Nicolae Ureke, said, “In my opinion, the future of Nabucco is very bright” (www.day.az January 26). Yet, much work lies ahead in order for the project to materialize. Most of all, the EU must engage in a very courageous dialogue with Russia and prevent future threats from Russia toward the South Caucasus and Central Asian republics. Attacks on the energy infrastructure, similar to those that took place last August during the Georgian-Russia war, should not be tolerated. If they were to happen again, it would discourage political leaders, as well as Azerbaijan and Central Asia, from investing in the East-West energy corridor.
Significant support will be needed both politically and financially for the Nabucco pipeline. The EU has been too slow until now on these fronts. Without backing from the EU, private companies will not move ahead with the project. The European Union must support the governments in the region and attract additional funding in order to carry out the Nabucco pipeline and finally end the EU’s energy dependence on Russia.