Newly elected President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev paid his first official visit to Azerbaijan where he met with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev and leaders of the various religious denominations in the country. He also visited the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, which preserves the legacy of the late President Heydar Aliyev. During the visit, five documents were signed between the two governments, including a declaration on friendship and strategic partnership, an agreement between the foreign ministries to cooperate in the sphere of archives, a memorandum between the ministries of internal affairs on the protection of transit cargo, an agreement between customs committees, and a memorandum between agencies on the management of state properties (APA, July 3).
Both Medvedev and Aliyev hailed the results of the visit. “Russia and Azerbaijan have strong economic ties, which help us in the resolution of other issues. We are close to achieving our target of a trade turnover of $2 billion. In the past four months, trade between our two countries has increased by half. It shows that there is very good potential,” said Medvedev (RIA-Novosti, July 3). President Aliyev echoed these words and also praised the growing economic cooperation between the two nations. He specifically stressed the growing cooperation in humanitarian affairs. Azerbaijan recently agreed to host a Baku branch of Moscow State University, a new initiative by the Russian Federation to foster its public diplomacy in post-Soviet areas. Aliyev focused on the efforts of the Azerbaijani government to protect and develop the Russian language and Russian minority in the country.
Other issues on the two presidents’ agenda were the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; regional security cooperation, especially within the framework of the Caspian Sea and the resolution of its legal status; and issues of religious tolerance and trade. Medvedev praised the efforts by President Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict and added that “Russia will do its best to help this process” (Novosti-Azerbaijan, July 3). Last month, Medvedev hosted both Presidents in St. Petersburg for the first time to discuss the conflict. Some pundits in the country speculated that this was done at the insistence of Sarkisian, with whom President Aliyev refused to meet at the Bucharest NATO summit in order not to strengthen his legitimacy after the reportedly fraudulent elections.
Although both Medvedev and Aliyev said that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the main topic of discussion, it was clear from commentaries before and after the visit that the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is only a bargaining chip in the larger game around Azerbaijan’s growing gas exporting capabilities and the Russian state company Gazprom’s desire to prevent Azerbaijan from being the alternative gas provider to European markets. In Baku in early June Gazprom President Alexei Miller offered to buy all Azerbaijani gas at the market price. Although no official offer has been made yet, local analysts rushed to comment on this proposal, stating that Russia wanted to monopolize Azerbaijan’s gas exports.
Medvedev did not shy away from openly declaring Russia’s interest in energy trade with Azerbaijan. “Russia and Azerbaijan will develop cooperation in the energy sphere. Energy, transport and industry are the focus of both presidents. And cooperation in the trade of energy products will increase in the near future,” said Medvedev (Novosti-Azerbaijan, July 3).
Russian officials have even tried to entice Azerbaijan by offering vague promises about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Russian ambassador to Azerbaijan Vasiliy Istratov said prior to the visit, “Russia will play a more constructive role in the resolution of the conflict” (www.day.az, July 1).
Official Baku, however, does not seem to be too excited about the Gazprom offer for reasons that are very clear: why sell gas to Russia at market rates, if it is possible to do the same for the European countries and use the energy card as leverage in bilateral relations with the EU? Khazar Ibrahim, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said, “Any sort of pressure from outside on Azerbaijan on the issue of energy supplies is impossible” (www.day.az, June 28).
Thus, it is likely that Medvedev’s visit, although a very positive step in bilateral relations, will not result in too much of a change in Azerbaijan’s foreign policy. A balanced foreign policy will be continued.