The escalating conflict in Georgia–with its unexpected military developments and great humanitarian losses–seems to have caught Azerbaijani officials and the public off guard. Azerbaijanis are not new to the world of Russian political games in the Caucasus. Baku itself suffered greatly from Russian intervention in 1990 and after that from the military conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet, the rapid and aggressive style of Russian intervention in Georgia in the past few days has created far greater security and economic dilemmas for Azerbaijan than even the most pessimistic analysts in the country could have predicted only a week ago.
Russian jet fighters have bombed both civilians and military airports in Georgia, forcing all airlines, including Azerbaijani Airlines (AZAL), to stop flights. Moreover, for several days in a row the Russians bombed the Black Sea port of Poti, which serves as the main terminal for the export of Azerbaijani energy products as well as other cargo. With the explosions on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline last week, Azerbaijan was looking for Georgian railways, ports and pipelines as an important alternative for the export of Caspian energy supplies to Western markets. All of this has stopped, putting both Georgia and Azerbaijan in economic difficulties. Nonetheless, there is little fear in official circles in Baku that Russia will bomb the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and other energy-related infrastructures to destroy the successful East-West transport and energy corridor between Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Azerbaijan is Georgia’s strategic ally. Both countries are united not only by geopolitical interests and world-class pipelines, but also by the regional security organization GUAM. GUAM, although passive for most of the decade, has lately been re-energized and even played with the idea of establishing its own peacekeeping and security forces. Under such a situation, it seems like GUAM would be a convenient venue to express support and solidarity with the Georgians.
Azerbaijan, however, finds itself in a very difficult situation. On the one hand, there is enormous public support for Georgia throughout Azerbaijan. In private conversations, almost all Azerbaijanis blame Russia for aggression and express frustration with the imperialist policies of the Kremlin in the South Caucasus. A group of intelligentsia went to the Russian embassy on August 10 to protest against the military actions in Georgia (http://ilgarmammadov.livejournal.com). This was repeated by members of youth organizations (www.day.az, August 11). The main opposition party Musavat issued a statement on August 11, calling for “respect of the territorial integrity of Georgia and an immediate stop to the aggressive policy of Russia” (Musavat party press release). The party called on the Azerbaijani government to show a “principled position” on the conflict. A similar statement came from the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan.
For its pro-Georgian coverage of the events, the most popular Azerbaijani news website www.day.az was attacked by Russian special forces on August 11 and had to cease its activities temporarily (www.day.az press release, August 11). Elnur Baimov, the editor in chief of www.day.az said on August 11 that “we all saw the diplomatic loss of Russia.”
Government officials have been relatively calm about the situation, considering the fragile relations between Moscow and Baku and the desire of the latter not to ruin bilateral relations between the two countries. The spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Khazar Ibrahim told journalists on August 8, however, that “Azerbaijan favors the solution of the South Ossetia conflict based on the territorial integrity of Georgia and Georgian adherence to international law” (www.day.az).
On August 11, ANS TV reported that 50 Azerbaijanis had gathered in Georgia’s Azerbaijani-populated provinces to go to the war for the defense of their country. It is noteworthy that Russians have bombed Azerbaijani populated areas of Georgia for three days in a row, killing four and wounding dozens. The possibility is not excluded that this was done in hopes of fomenting strife between Azeris and Georgians.
The present situation in Georgia presents huge security concerns for official Baku. If Russia manages to squeeze Georgia, then it would put an end to the economic independence of Azerbaijan as well. Many analysts in Baku believe that the real purpose of the pressure on Georgia is the Kremlin’s desire to control Azerbaijan.
Thus, it is vital for Azerbaijan to provide all necessary assistance to its strategic ally. Considering the political realities between Baku and Moscow, it is unlikely that the Azerbaijani government will provide any military assistance to Georgia. Economic and humanitarian assistance, however, is definitely an option. Azerbaijan remains the only viable international outlet for Georgia, and many Georgians have already started using the territory of Azerbaijan to travel abroad.
Azerbaijani political analysts believe that the war in Georgia is a long-term loss for the Kremlin. By showing its neo-imperialist face, Russia may have lost the Caucasus forever. The political analyst Ilgar Mammadov says that “If Georgia stays strong for few more days, we will all see the defeat of Russia from the Caucasus.” Another analyst Vugar Seidov says “The departure of Russia from Abkhazia and South Ossetia is historically inevitable” (Regnum, August 10).