On December 5, Turkmenistan’s capital of Ashgabat hosted a summit of heads of state of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. The presidents of Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan did not attend this forum, however. Instead of President Ilham Aliyev, Prime Minister Arthur Rasizade represented Baku at the summit. Around 20 agreements and declarations were signed in Ashgabat, and one of the most important ones was the establishment of the Council of Financial Intelligence, which will oversee financial flows within and outside of the CIS (Zerkalo, December 6). The forum concluded Turkmenistan’s chairmanship of the CIS and passed the chair’s position to Belarus. During the forum, Russian President Vladimir Putin told the other participants that Moscow is ready to take into consideration interests of the CIS countries during the G20 and G8 meetings to be held in Russia in 2013 and 2014, respectively (Echo, December 6).
During the forum, the heads of state also discussed free trade. The Russian president’s aide Yuriy Ushakov noted that the CIS agreement on free trade is working already in Belarus, Ukraine and Armenia. In Kazakhstan and Moldova the agreement goes into effect starting from December 9. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would ratify the agreement in the near future. “The document is open for other partners as well, including Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan,” Ushakov stressed (Zerkalo, December 6). Moscow specifically tried to emphasize economic development within CIS countries. Thus, according to Ushakov, trade turnover of CIS countries in 2011 grew by 36 percent compared to 2010 and reached $281 billion. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that in 2012 the growth amounted to only one percent. Meanwhile, CIS exports to the European Union between 2000 and 2010 increased by around 160 percent, including an 882-percent growth from Azerbaijan. Moreover, EU exports to the CIS grew by 266 percent during the same period. And Azerbaijan, in particular, saw its imports from the EU rise by 550 percent (Contact.az, December 6). CIS countries are generally skeptical about the real potential of the combined CIS market. Therefore, the Russian idea to establish an integrated foreign exchange market of CIS countries did not receive broad support, and few documents related to economic cooperation were signed.
The absence of Azerbaijan’s president at the summit was noticeable and surprising. The official reason for Aliyev’s nonattendance was attributed to the Azerbaijani president’s overly busy schedule. Even a telephone call from Vladimir Putin could not persuade Aliyev to join the summit. It is worth mentioning that the foreign minister of Azerbaijan, Elmar Mammadyarov, also missed the meeting of CIS foreign ministers held a day earlier.
Baku-based political analyst Zardusht Alizade believes Aliyev’s refusal to attend this year’s CIS summit was a veiled message to Putin that Baku is not planning on blindly following Russian policy. “If during the first years of our independence, we needed the CIS forums, now Azerbaijan has strengthened and does not need to follow Moscow. Moreover, Moscow has not helped Baku to find solutions to its problems [such as resolving the Karabakh conflict]. In contrast, we saw the continuation of support for Armenia,” Alizade concluded (Zerkalo, December 6).
Several other bilateral issues have also irritated Baku over the last couple of months. For example, Russia’s establishment of the so-called “club of billionaires,” an organization of rich Azerbaijanis, was received in Baku with hostility. Baku believes the Kremlin created this group to influence the presidential election in Azerbaijan in 2013. Moreover, the drawn-out negotiations over the fate of Russia’s Gabala Radar Station, as well as Azerbaijan’s ongoing attempts to become an alternative source of gas for energy-thirsty Europe, have dissatisfied Moscow (Regnum, December 8).
It is no secret that Russia uses the CIS forum to advance its interests, whether it is the Customs Union or establishing the Eurasian Union. The CIS is slowly becoming Moscow’s tool for bringing its members into the abovementioned, Russian-led projects. By abstaining from the forum, Aliyev expressed his denunciation of such Eurasian “integration” processes. Interestingly, on the day of the summit, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the United States is trying to prevent Russia from recreating a new version of the Soviet Union, specifically mentioning the Customs and Eurasian unions. Political analyst Fikret Sadykhov argues that Clinton’s concern is understandable. “The United States is afraid to have a powerful union in the post-Soviet space that could become a geopolitical rival for Washington,” Sadykhov stressed. (Echo, December 8)
Political analyst Parvin Darabadi also believes that Russian actions within the post-Soviet space have seriously concerned the United States. “[Clinton’s] statement may lead to the escalation of tensions in US-Russian relations since,” Darabadi claims, “there was an unwritten agreement that the post-Soviet space is the Russian sphere of influence” (Echo, December 8). “It seems that the US is [now] trying to reverse this situation and increase its influence, especially in several countries of CIS. Collision of Russian and US interests in key CIS countries is inevitable,” he added. And Baku’s blunt rejection of Russia-led integrationist processes in Eurasia will certainly place Azerbaijan at the center of this US-Russian geopolitical struggle.