Following Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, political analysts predicted that the Kremlin would step up its efforts to conquer the hearts and minds of people living in the post-Soviet region. This “soft diplomacy” has long been a powerful tool for Western democracies, and it is no longer a secret that Russian political experts have advised official Moscow to use similar tactics to overcome the Soviet successor states’ obsession with Euro-Atlantic integration.
Russia’s soft-power policies have been particularly evident in Azerbaijan. For example, Moscow State University (MGU) has decided to establish a branch in the country. This idea first appeared last year when MGU Rector Viktor Sadovnichi visited Baku. But the idea turned into reality on January 15, 2008, when President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree to establish a branch of this prestigious university in Baku. A plot of land has already been zoned for construction of the MGU branch campus. According to Azerbaijan’s minister of education, Misir Mardanov, “The educational process at this branch will start from 2008-2009, and, at the moment, the charter of the branch is under development” (Novosti-Azerbaijan, February 20).
The majority of the faculty at MGU–Baku is expected to be comprised of visiting professors from the Moscow campus. Deputy Minister of Education Elmar Gasimov confirmed these expectations in an interview with Day.az news site on January 30. Although there is a clear need for a strong educational institution in Azerbaijan to train the next generation of professional cadres, especially to manage the booming economy and public administration, the presence of a strong Russian university in the country will certainly influence the minds of the younger generation and encourage grassroots support for pro-Russian policies.
Russia is also making inroads into Azerbaijan’s energy sector. The press service of “Azerenerji,” a joint-stock monopoly in Azerbaijan’s electricity sector, reported on February 25 that an agreement had been reached with a visiting delegation from Unified Energy Systems (UES), the Russian electricity giant, on supplying Russian electricity to Azerbaijan. Thus, UES has once again become an important player in the domestic energy market of Azerbaijan, despite the fact that it has increased the price of electricity supplies. During his February 22 visit to Moscow, President Aliyev was thanked by his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, for “providing comfortable conditions for Russian companies to work in Azerbaijan” (1news.az, February 23). Putin noted that “more and more Russian investors are coming to Baku” (Izvestiya, February 22).
Overall, Russia has long eschewed its traditional methods of influence in Azerbaijan, such as military actions, harsh policies, and support for ethnic separatism and internal coups. All of these approaches were commonplace in the early and mid-1990s. Since Putin came to power, and especially in the past three years, the Kremlin has favored educational, cultural, and economic policies to gain a solid ground in Azerbaijan.
In this context, a statement made by Aliovsat Aliyev, the head of the Migration Center of Azerbaijan NGO, merits special attention: “Seventy percent of the income for the rural population of Azerbaijan comes from remittances” (Day.az February 25). It is estimated that close to 2 million Azerbaijanis live and work in Russia.
Azerbaijan celebrated a “Year of Russia in Azerbaijan” in 2006, with dozens of cultural and educational events held throughout the country. Russian universities also hope that the lion’s share of Azerbaijani students going to study in other countries under the new “Study Abroad” program signed by President Aliyev will enroll in their institutions.
Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Khazar Ibrahim told the Azerbaijani media on February 27 that “Russian-Azerbaijani relations are on high level and it is expected that they would remain so after the [March 2] Presidential elections in Russia.” Referring to Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s likely successor, the Russian ambassador in Azerbaijan, Vasily Istratov, noted, “Azerbaijan is not a blank spot for Medvedev” (Day.az, February 19).
Many observers have speculated as to why Azerbaijani political leaders allow their country to be gradually enveloped by Russian soft power and economic diplomacy. The answer lies in the political complexities and insecurities that accompany Azerbaijan’s geopolitical position, and the fact that Moscow believes it can play a critical role in terms of influencing the decisions of the Azerbaijani leadership.