Azerbaijan, with its markets tumbling and little hope of Western support in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, is faced with a choice: to reinforce its relations with the West and hope for support from future administrations, or pivot eastward and seek new allies, some of whom it has been traditionally aligned against.
Strong Ties to Washington
Azerbaijan, a staunch ally of the United States in the South Caucasus, is pulling away from its Western relations in response to perceived unfair treatment. The last two decades, known as the Heydar Aliyev era, have sought to improve relations between Azerbaijan and the US despite differences; many analysts believe the era ended after a Russian-language publication by Ramiz Aliyevyev, Head of the Presidential Administration of Azerbaijan, slammed US foreign policy and the actions of President Obama as acting solely in the interests of the US. Since the publication, relations between the two nations have entered a critical stage.
Dissatisfaction with US policy has been brewing since Azerbaijan’s independence in 1992. FSA 907 – instituted in 1992 – banned any form of direct US aid to the Azerbaijani government in response to the Azeri blockade of Armenia until 2001, when Congress passed a measure allowing the President to waive the act by executive order. This is the only post-Soviet government to have such a measure passed against it.
Although the FSA has been waived every year since 2001, Azerbaijan still receives approximately half as much US funding as Armenia (USD 14.3 million vs. USD 27.5 million in 2014) despite Azerbaijan’s support of US policies and the US’s pro-Azeri stance concerning the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict.
Even in the face of these perceived inequalities, Azerbaijan was for years referred to as a ‘stalwart ally’ of NATO and the US in the South Caucasus. Thirty-nine Azeri peacekeepers have been deployed to Afghanistan, down from 90 before the December 2014 withdrawal, not to mention that the country has acted as a critical link in NATO’s northern supply route.
Azerbaijan has also played a central role in the Western-Iranian confrontation to the point of offering Israel use of its airfields for reconnaissance and refueling during a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The regime has a vested interest in reclaiming sovereignty over the 20 million ethnic Azerbaijanis in northern Iran who were lost to the Persian Empire in the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay. However, Azerbaijan maintains its modern anti-Iran stance at great risk to its political stability; Iranian agents are routinely arrested on charges of espionage against Azerbaijan and its allies and for plotting to destabilize the Azeri regime.
Western lack of support for Azerbaijan is far from groundless; the US’s principle reason for withholding foreign assistance stems from a long history of human rights abuses that have seen little improvement over the past two decades. To this day, political elections are still not held in a free and fair manner, the number of political prisoners held is greater than those held in Russia and Belarus combined, religious freedoms are restricted, and freedom of expression is essentially nonexistent. Nearly 200 journalists have been arrested annually over the last three years, and in 2014 Reporters Without Borders ranked the country as 160th out of 180 in its press freedom index, down from 156th in 2013.
Most recently, the Azeri government shut down the Radio Free Europe’s (Radio Azadliq) local division, a program funded by the US that started during the Cold War as a method of countering Soviet propaganda. As the raid occurred, a petition for the release of Khadija Ismaliyova, a RFE journalist being held in pre-trial detention for allegedly pressuring a man to commit suicide over Facebook, was denied. A report written by Azeri Chief of Staff Ramiz Medhiyev likened RFE’s work to treason, saying, "there is no need to prove that provision of false information is the same as working for the foreign secret service.”
Other controversies have called into question Azerbaijan’s commitment to restoring the rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 2012, Azerbaijan convinced the Hungarian government to repatriate Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani Army Lieutenant convicted of killing an Armenian officer during a NATO-sponsored English language course, under the agreement that Safarov would serve the remainder of his sentence. Upon his return, Safarov was immediately pardoned by President Aliyev, promoted to Major, received a hero’s welcome, and given an apartment and eight years of back pay to compensate his time spent in prison. In 2010, a leaked US Embassy cable published by WikiLeaks compared Aliyev to a mafia crime lord, and in 2012 the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project named Aliyev its “Man of the Year,” a title reserved for persons figuring prominently in stories of corruption and crime (citing well documented evidence of his family’s secret ownership stakes in many of Azerbaijan’s prominent companies). These accusations of corruption and human rights violations, along with many others, have kept the West wary of intervening in Nagorno-Karabakh on Azerbaijan’s behalf.
The Ukrainian Tipping Point
The West’s tough response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea was the tipping point for Azerbaijan, who sees the sanctions as a double standard when compared to the muted reaction towards Nagorno-Karabakh. In response, the Aliyev administration has become increasingly vocal about its frustrations with the West.
When the conflict in Ukraine began, Leksika assessed that the Azeri regime would likely support Western political confrontation with Russia, anticipating that it would be able to garner sympathy for its own cause. Western media did briefly headline several stories about the rising violence in NK, however the story quickly lost interest in the US and Azerbaijan saw little to no benefit as a result.
Since realizing that the West doesn’t have the will to significantly intervene in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan’s support of US foreign policy has changed drastically. Last year, Azerbaijan voted to reject Russia’s annexation of Crimea, this year it voiced opposition towards sending military aid to Ukraine. After years of openly antagonizing Iran by flaunting Western culture influences, Aliyev is now beginning the process of warming ties between the nations.
World events are threatening to sideline Azerbaijan as a significant geopolitical player, and the Aliyev regime knows it won’t last if it loses external support. It’s three main roles in the region – countering Iran, supplying energy, and linking the northern supply route – are all at risk as analysts question whether the US will attempt to normalize relations with Iran. This comes as American oil and gas plays a larger role in global markets, and as the drawdown in Afghanistan continues.
The Aliyev government, free from the roles that have traditionally tied it to western countries, is primed to pivot towards the East.
More Likely Scenario: Azerbaijan Pivots Toward the East
The simple truth of the matter is that the West is unlikely to exert sufficient political leverage to make progress on the NK conflict until Aliyev agrees to follow international laws concerning corruption and human rights. However, considering how the administration sees NGOs and foreign interest groups as actors attempting to overthrow the regime, any progress in this regard remains highly unlikely. As such, Azerbaijan’s chances of receiving external aid in the NK conflict are much higher if it sides with Eastern powers, namely Russia, China and Iran. A favorable resolution to the NK conflict still remains unlikely in this scenario, however the chance of an unfavorable resolution is diminished.
In a recent surprise development, the Azerbaijani currency was devalued by a third on February 22, highlighting the damage caused by the tumble in oil prices. The damage to its economy is uncertain at this time, however some exchange offices have already stopped selling dollars and nicknamed the occasion “Black Saturday.”
Given that the nation relies on oil for 95 percent of its exports and 70 percent of its government revenue, the smart move would be to diversify its economy, which would no doubt throw the proposed plans for an Azerbaijan-to-Europe pipeline into disarray and give the nation one less reason to maintain its ties with the West.
Early evidence of a pivot east is already present; on February 11, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)’s Chief announced that both Azerbaijan and Armenia have applied to become observers in the SCO. This comes after a July 2014 meeting between Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi in which the two nations pledged closer ties on all fronts. Furthermore, many analysts consider Azerbaijan to be a crucial link between Europe and Central Asia, meaning that Azerbaijan has much to gain from a partnership with China as its economic reach moves westward.
Less Likely Scenario: Reinforce Relations with the West
With Azerbaijan’s long list of human rights violations, there’s little the West can do to support Azerbaijan’s position on NK while avoiding international criticism. Increased oil production from the US means that Azeri oil will face an increasingly heavily saturated market, and Azeri leverage in Western politics will be significantly lessened over the next few years as less relevant to Western geopolitical interests. Azerbaijan would also be taking on considerable risk to its claim over NK, as its Western allies are unlikely to directly intervene on its behalf if Armenia strengthens its grip over the region.