This past month, Azerbaijan hosted two large inter-governmental gatherings: the 7thSummit of the Cooperation Council of the Turkic-Speaking States (Turkic Council), on October 15, and the 18th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), on October 25 (Turkkon.org, October 15; Turksoy.org, October 16; Azernews.az, October 25). Taken together, these events provide a useful prism through which to better understand Azerbaijan’s foreign policy strategy and priorities.
Although the Turkic Council is sometimes accused of being a talk shop rather than an effective organization, this year’s summit saw noticeable progress. First, a prominent Turkic-majority country, 30-million-strong Uzbekistan, joined as a full member. Second, a European Union member state, Hungary, participated in the summit for the second time as an official observer, with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in attendance. Third, the Turkic Council opened a representation office in Budapest, hence developing its European dimension (Hungarytoday.hu, October 15; Turkkon.org, September 19).
Furthermore, this summit witnessed quite frank discussions about the future of the Turkic grouping. Its honorary chairperson, former Kazakhstani president Nursultan Nazarbayev, suggested renaming the Council the “Organization of Turkic States” and developing a “Turkic Vision 2040” strategy. His proposals reveal an understanding of the need to advance from rhetoric to action to make the Turkic Council more effective as well as to upgrade its status (Inform.kz, October 15). Although Budapest is not a full member of the Turkic Council, Orbán made even more concrete recommendations: he emphasized the need to develop people-to-people contacts as well as greater trade and economic components among the Turkic Council countries. He noted that Turkic Council countries should be prepared to use the opportunity to sign trade deals with the post-Brexit United Kingdom. Orbán also pledged Hungary’s support to Turkic Council members to further their ties with the EU (Kormany.hu, October 15).
Uzbekistan’s full accession, the opening of the European office and the creation of various intra-organizational institutions indicate the horizontal widening of the Turkic Council. Orbán’s suggestions, however, reveal that these changes may prove inconsequential unless vertical deepening is achieved as well. That said, the Turkic Council does not appear to be a community of shared values. As the cases of Slavic and Arab countries demonstrate, shared ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds are useful but often not sufficient to foster effective inter-state unity (Cabar.asia, May 30, 2018).
Nonetheless, those vulnerabilities of the Turkic Council do not greatly bother Azerbaijan. And nor do those of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Some NAM members (such as Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba) have controversial or notorious international reputations as well as strained or downright combative relations with the West. No leading, influential, or even economically developed countries are represented within this grouping (Mnoal.org, accessed October 30; Azvision.az, October 29). Plus, many NAM countries are not in a position to offer substantial support to Azerbaijan. And yet, for several reasons, Azerbaijan was optimistic about engaging with the NAM and hosting its latest summit (Azertag.az, October 25). Every country—big or small, controversial or not, democratic or otherwise—has one vote in international organizations such as the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and this matters to Azerbaijan. The country’s election as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and the adoption of documents in support of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity within various key international forums are two cases in point. The October 2019 NAM summit’s Final Baku Document stated that “no country can recognize the legitimacy of the situation created as a result of the occupation of Azerbaijan’s territory.” This passage caused outrage in Armenia. But its foreign minister, Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, was soon challenged on essentially this very point by the BBC’s by Stephen Sackur: “When the Prime Minister [Nikol Pashinyan] declares, ‘Karabakh is Armenia—period,’ when he knows that flies in the face of international law, the position of the UN and all of the independent international agencies, I’m struggling to see how that is a move or gesture toward peace” (Azeridaily.com, October 25; BBC, October 26; Trend.az, October 27; Mfa.am, October 28).
Baku sees chairing and hosting the NAM—which, with 120 members and around 27 countries and international organizations with observer status, is the second-largest multilateral organization after the UN—as an opportunity for internationally promoting the country and reinforcing its neutrality. A paradox, though, is that Belarus is a member of both the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) alliance and the NAM, while Azerbaijan views its NAM membership as an instrument for staying out of military blocs, including the CSTO. In spite of this, Russian experts have been circulating the idea of Azerbaijan’s possible engagement with the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) simultaneously with the back-to-back Baku summits. Nonetheless, Azerbaijan—as the NAM chair during 2019–2022—will certainly not be compelled to enter any military blocs for at least the next three years (Turan.az, October 7; Politrus.com, October 25; Haqqin.az, Jam-news.org, October 27).
While Azerbaijan’s relationship with NATO member Turkey is oftentimes described as “one nation, two states,” the Turkic Council allows for a strengthening of Baku’s ties with such regional neighbors as Kyrgyzstan and, in particular, Kazakhstan, which represent a counterweight to Armenia within the Russia-led CSTO or EEU alongside another of Baku’s reliable partners—Belarus. Furthermore, Budapest’s engagement with the Turkic Council is an opportunity for Azerbaijan to reinforce its partnerships with the EU and individual members states such as Hungary (President.az, October 15; Minval.az November 12, 2018; see EDM June 14, 2018, May 24, 2017).
Azerbaijan frames neutrality as key to its independent foreign policy. However, making a sovereign choice on which bloc (if any) to join is also an independent policy. Due to its small power limitations, Azerbaijan is not in a position to influence the positions of big powers or single-handedly change the regional geopolitical situation. Therefore, Baku pursues a foreign policy strategy that seeks to alter those aspects of the status quo it sees as unfavorable, instead of siding with a specific bloc. Its view of the Turkic Council and NAM must be seen from that perspective, which serves Azerbaijan’s two major foreign policy priorities: to reinforce the country’s position on the Karabakh conflict settlement process, and to avoid becoming embroiled in a geopolitical rivalry between larger powers. Pursuit of this strategy, thus, has meant diversifying Azerbaijan’s foreign policy partnerships with different multilateral unions and military alliances by developing closer ties with individual member states but without committing itself to any one specific bloc.