Reports of potential U.S. military bases in Azerbaijan have intensified in the wake of another expected visit to Baku by the U.S. Secretary of Defense. Donald H. Rumsfeld is expected to arrive in Baku sometime this month, but this information has not yet been confirmed. While in Azerbaijan, Rumsfeld would likely meet with local military officials and possibly President Ilham Aliev himself.
In recent months, a number of high-ranking U.S. political figures have visited Azerbaijan, including former secretary of state Madeline Albright, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, as well as various diplomats and congressional representatives. Dobriansky delivered a special invitation from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister, Elmar Mammadyarov. Last week Mammadyarov flew to Washington and held talks with Secretary Rice.
The State Department’s increasing attention to Azerbaijan is not surprising, as the U.S. government has been actively trying to ensure that the November parliamentary elections will be free and fair. In addition, the Pentagon stepped up its contacts with the Azerbaijani Army after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
But the growing U.S. presence in Azerbaijan has alarmed some officials in the Azerbaijani government. Their argument for caution is based on U.S. support for the “color revolutions” that toppled the governments of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. The Azerbaijani government has been suspicious of the activities of some U.S.-based NGOs that allegedly sponsor Azerbaijani opposition parties.
Another worry is the consequences of a potential deployment of U.S. troops in Azerbaijan. Until now, President Aliev, like his predecessor and late father, Heidar Aliev, has called for a balanced foreign policy, in which the interests of several powers are played against each other, but relations with all remain non-conflictual. However, the possibility of having U.S. bases or troops in Azerbaijan runs counter to the interests of two other regional powers: Russia and Iran. Giving preference to one power over the other would change the geopolitical balance in the region, a development that the Azerbaijani government sees as destabilizing.
Finding itself in a very uncomfortable situation, Baku has been trying to maneuver within the limited space available. The non-aggression pact with Iran signed in May 2005 seeks to mitigate potential damage to Azerbaijani-Iranian relations should there be a U.S. deployment in Azerbaijan. The pact prohibits the use of either country’s military bases by a third country in order to attack the other.
More importantly, while official Baku has slowly distanced itself from Washington, it has started to move closer to Moscow. Relations between Azerbaijan and Russia have improved in recent years and increased since the beginning of this year. Several high-ranking officials from Russia, including former president Boris Yeltsin, have visited Baku. In addition, Azerbaijani officials have also promoted increased Russian involvement in the upcoming parliamentary elections. There will be Russian exit polls along American exit polls on election day.
Several opposition newspapers have argued that the warming relations between Baku and Moscow are a result of holdovers from the Soviet government who continue to hold important positions in the Azerbaijani government. These officials are the ones who feel the most insecure about the growing U.S. presence in the South Caucasus and want to secure their interests, both national and personal, playing Russia against the United States.
Even the recent scandal in which the leader of an opposition youth organization, Ruslan Bashirli, was caught on videotape receiving a $2,000 donation from representatives of supposedly Georgian and Armenian democratic movements reflected the concern over U.S. involvement (see EDM, August 8). In the videotape, Bashirli claimed that it was the United States — specifically the National Democratic Institute (NDI, which Albright chairs) — that is preparing a revolution in Azerbaijan. Some in Azerbaijan believe that the Russian security services helped their Azerbaijani counterparts secretly film this meeting, which was later used to discredit the leader of the main opposition party, Ali Kerimli.
There are also reports that if Washington secures its main demands or gets a green light for the deployment of American troops, it will not support a color revolution in Azerbaijan. However, the Azerbaijani government is not willing to say “yes” to the Pentagon, unless the United States offers substantial help in solving the territorial conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Karabakh region. Although the United States is one of the co-chairs in the OSCE’s Minsk Group that mediates the conflict, many in Azerbaijan say that Russia holds the keys to solving this long-standing conflict.
In any case, demands from the Pentagon and Rumsfeld have never been easy to satisfy, nor easy to ignore. Azerbaijan’s involvement in NATO’s Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) may help the Azerbaijani government in reaching a compromise, at least for the short-term. The parties could likely reach some sort of an agreement that would allow for the short-term deployment of American troops in Azerbaijan. However, the prospects for a permanent U.S. military base in Azerbaijan remain questionable.
Whatever the outcome of Rumsfeld’s upcoming visit to Baku, the geopolitical battle between the United States and Russia in the South Caucasus and Azerbaijan’s struggle to accommodate both will continue to intensify. The main question is whether or not the Azerbaijani government will be able to balance the interests of both states effectively or will simply favor one power over the other. The second choice would involve some geopolitical risks and would have critical consequences for the future of Azerbaijan.