The US Embassy’s February 25, 2010 report from Baku opens an almost panoramic view on the current state of the bilateral relationship (http://cablegate.wikileaks.org). Two aspects stand out in this comprehensive account of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s discussion with the visiting US Under-Secretary of State William Burns (the State Department’s top-ranking career diplomat). First, that Azerbaijan continues turning to the US for understanding and, possibly, some form of support regarding security risks and challenges in the region. Second, that Washington seems oblivious of the growing gap between its insensitive handling of Baku, on the one hand, and its demands from Baku on the other hand. The net result is a take-for-granted approach to Azerbaijan.
Burns opened the discussion with a statement that he “was sent with the simple message that Washington wants to build our bilateral relations and create a stronger partnership.” The record of conversation does not seem to bear that out, however. The opportunity was a rare one, given the vacancy in the US embassy there during the preceding seven months (and continuing to date).
In one of the major revelations of this cable, the US is asking Azerbaijan to deploy an additional, battalion-size contingent to Afghanistan. (Azerbaijan currently deploys a company-size unit there, up from a platoon). The government of Azerbaijan takes the position that it could deploy one half of the proposed battalion to Afghanistan but, for political reasons, would have to use the other half in Azerbaijan itself or in some international mission elsewhere. Burns replied that, in that case, US train-and-equip funding for that unit would run into “problems.” He was alluding to section 907 of the US “Freedom Support Act,” which restricts US government aid to Azerbaijan at the behest of US Armenian advocacy groups and Yerevan. Similar domestic political considerations have discouraged the Administration, first from nominating an ambassador to Baku and then from duly supporting its nominee.
Burns pressed Baku to go along with the US-brokered Zurich protocols, which (if ratified) would have severely undermined Azerbaijan’s negotiating position on the Karabakh conflict, and driven Baku into Moscow’s arms (EDM, Part One). The Obama administration takes the position that re-opening the Turkey-Armenia border would “improve the atmosphere” and “create political space” for Armenia to become more flexible in negotiating a resolution of the Karabakh conflict. Conversely, Burns warned President Aliyev that the protocols’ failure would “almost certainly result in serious negative consequences” for the conflict-resolution process. The envoy made no attempt to persuade Baku of either of those postulates. Washington had all along discounted Azerbaijan’s view while negotiating the protocols with the other parties.
In fact, the protocols were already collapsing at that juncture, despite Washington’s efforts to keep them alive. Turkey would not break ranks with Azerbaijan; while Armenia chose to pursue the genocide recognition campaign in the US, rather than muting it in return for the proposed opening of the Turkey-Armenia border. Meanwhile, Ankara and Baku remain concerned that Washington would renew its efforts to re-animate the Zurich protocols.
Each year in the run-up to the April 24 Armenian Remembrance Day in the US, and to defuse that domestic political problem, the Administration seems intent at that time of the year to press Ankara to deliver the border-opening to Yerevan, at Baku’s expense. Thus, Aliyev termed April 24 a “sword of Damocles” suspended on US-Azerbaijan relations in his discussion with Burns.
Aliyev shared the whole range of Azerbaijan’s security concerns in the discussion with Burns. He called for a more active, more senior-level US involvement in mediating a solution to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. He voiced concern over Iran’s sponsorship of two recent, violent religious processions in Azerbaijan, as well as Iranian Seher TV propaganda broadcasts beamed to the country. He decried the outcome-changing fraud in Iran’s presidential election, which returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to that post. And he reconfirmed that Azerbaijan would adhere to UN Security Council sanctions on Iran [though sanctions not approved by the UNSC are seen differently by Iran’s neighbors]. Aliyev also voiced concern over the Turkish government’s alienation of its traditional friend Israel. He also assessed the Obama administration’s promotion of “moderate Islam” in Turkey as counterproductive (a concern shared by many in Washington outside the administration).
With the ambassadorial post in Baku vacant, the US has been represented by two charges d’affaires in succession since July 2009. The holder of that post in September that year wrote a lengthy composition drawing parallels between Azerbaijan’s leadership and the Corleone family of “Godfather” cinematic fame (US Embassy Baku report to the State Department, September 18, 2009; http://cablegate.wikileaks.org). The composition is clearly intended for entertaining effect, rather than serious reporting. In common with some other reports posted on the WikiLeaks it tends to rely on unverified information (“it is said”) while failing to reflect strategic vision or purpose. Deprived of an ambassador in place, bereft (for that reason) of constant top-level access, and without a regional strategy emanating from Washington, some diplomats may well find themselves with time on their hands sometimes. The risk of leakage, and the ensuing damage to relations with a strategic partner, could not have been anticipated.