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Unblocking the US-Azerbaijan Relationship, CU Issue 80, October 07, 2010

The relationship between domestic politics and foreign affairs is often complex. Not so in the case of Matthew Bryza’s nomination for the post of ambassador to Azerbaijan. Bryza’s lengthy confirmation process has been repeatedly held up in the Senate; opposition has been led by two senators from states with significant Armenian lobbies.

Given the looming mid-term congressional elections, the opposition of California’s Barbara Boxer and New Jersey’s Robert Menendez is openly political. Under pressure from the Armenian diaspora, spearheaded by the Armenian National Committee of America, they have helped to ensure that one of America’s key partners in Eurasia has been without an ambassador since July 2009.

Having undergone months of grilling in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about his alleged pro-Azerbaijani bias, and postponement requested by Senator Boxer, Bryza was finally confirmed by the committee on September 21. But shortly after the vote, Boxer and Menendez postponed Bryza’s confirmation by the full Senate, necessary before he takes up his post (Eurasianet, September 23).

Vetting ambassadors falls under the purview of the Senate, and the Obama Administration has not been particularly eager to get involved in the dispute. However, the delay in sending an ambassador to Baku has moved beyond a normal assessment. Neither Boxer nor Menendez has been willing to alienate their influential Armenian constituencies, which have agitated strongly against Bryza’s appointment (Armenian National Committee of America, September 21), in the run-up to the midterms. Foreign policy has been held hostage to domestic politicking.

The delay comes at a critical juncture in relations between Washington and Baku. President Barack Obama met with President Ilham Aliyev on the margins of the UN General Assembly on September 24th. The meeting was, in part, an attempt by the US to mend relations after eighteen months of gradual decline. Baku has been deeply concerned by American support for a rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia which ignores any linkage with the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

More generally, a perceived lack of US attention to the bilateral relationship has raised suspicions in Azerbaijan that the Obama Administration is less committed to the partnership with Azerbaijan, despite Baku’s increasingly critical role in the NATO logistics corridor to Afghanistan. The lack of an ambassador is taken as a clear sign.

The meeting between the two presidents is the first step towards a much-needed revitalisation of ties. New ambassador’s confirmation – which is likely, although probably not until after the midterm elections – would be another boost.

Leaving the ambassadorial post in Baku vacant for much longer would contribute to the perceived decline of US involvement in the South Caucasus (Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 28). Already the Obama Administration’s cooling ties with Georgia and awkward relationship with Turkey have led many to assume that Washington is disengaging from the region. This would be a clear mistake, given strong US interests there – in particular, containing Iran and ensuring a supply route to Afghanistan.

Both of these policies require a peaceful settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Without a successful political settlement to the stalemate, developing a unified and workable policy towards the region’s wider problems is not feasible.

Over the past months, the US has been insufficiently engaged as one of the three mediators of the OSCE Minsk Group. This has allowed Russia to take the lead, using its influence and offering tangible incentives to both Armenia and Azerbaijan (chiefly military hardware and energy deals). As a result, Russia has been able to unilaterally set the agenda for peace talks over Nagorno-Karabakh. Although neither Baku nor Yerevan fully trust Moscow’s motives, inaction by the US – and almost total absence by the third Minsk Group mediator, France – has left them little choice. Russia has virtually marginalized the US and France since President Medvedev tabled a new draft of the so-called Madrid Principles of the conflict's resolution last June in St. Petersburg without consulting them.

This situation is unlikely to change without active efforts by the US. On a wider level, American interests in Eurasia are difficult to pursue successfully without seriously engaging Azerbaijan. For energy security, containing Iran, and supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan, Baku is pivotal.

An ambassador is clearly critical to rebuilding the US-Azerbaijan partnership. Congressional oversight is essential, but the repeated stalling over Matthew Bryza’s confirmation is, rather, political manoeuvring. The Obama Administration should make stronger efforts to support their candidate for ambassador to Baku or risk a gradual stagnation of the relationship.

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