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Behind the US-Azerbaijan row, CU Issue 70, May 6, 2010

It has been obvious for some time that the Caspian region is not Washington’s main area of focus right now. Its attention has been patchy, and the area has been defined principally through the prism of Russia. Now, this strategic drift has led to potentially serious damage to the relationship with Azerbaijan. How the US decides to proceed could have serious implications for its Caspian policy.

The Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, when it emerged a year ago, caused serious consternation in Baku. Azerbaijan felt under-appreciated by Turkey, supposedly a key partner and close ally. Baku’s position was, and remains, that opening the Turkish-Armenian border would reduce pressure on Yerevan to withdraw troops from occupied territories of Azerbaijan.

Harsh rhetoric from Azerbaijan at being insufficiently consulted was followed by tangible effects. Gas tariffs and transit negotiations with Ankara collapsed, and Baku signed gas supply deals with Russia and Iran. Facing also a significant public protest at home Ankara backed down, explicitly linking the Armenian rapprochement to progress in Karabakh.

The initial round of the thaw between Ankara and Yerevan was a Turkish initiative. But the US strong pressure on Turkey to open the borders before resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has led to steadily increasing concern in Baku.

For Azerbaijan this seriously undermines Washington’s impartiality as a Minsk Group mediator and threatens to undermine the careful balance in the South Caucasus. How, the argument runs, can the US be seen as an impartial mediator, when it is actively backing a process which affects one party to the conflict to the detriment of the other (RFE/RL, April 21)?

So far, so frustrating for Azerbaijan. As Steve LeVine noted, the failure to provide a US ambassador to Baku for eight months has added a symbolic insult to the injury; it has also, critically, deprived Washington of a high-level diplomatic channel to the Azerbaijani government (Oil and Glory, April 21). Although experienced Caspian hand Matt Bryza (formerly the US Minsk group co-chair) has been slated for the post, the eight-month gap during a critical period in relations is alarming.

However, the ambassadorial post has remained vacant. And Washington’s “parallel tracks” stance has also been clear for months. The additional trigger behind Azerbaijan’s anger, it seems, was the lack of an invitation to the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 12-13 (Washington Post, April 13), where President Obama held talks with Armenian President Sargsyan and Turkish Prime Minister Erdoghan on the issue directly concerning Azerbaijan. This fact and the fact that Azerbaijan was the only state from the South Caucasus not receiving an invitation to the summit fuelled Baku’s sense of isolation.

Given that the summit addressed nuclear non-proliferation, and particularly Iran’s suspected covert nuclear programme, Azerbaijan has grounds for irritation. In 2008 it halted Russian equipment destined for Iran’s Russian-built nuclear plant at Bushehr, which was travelling through Azerbaijan (Eurasianet, May 4 2008). Citing concern over whether the shipment violated international sanctions on Iran’s nuclear programme, the shipment was detained for weeks, causing irritation in both Moscow and Tehran. Azerbaijan also hosts the Qabala radar station, which was proposed as a central element of a joint US-Russian missile defence system.

The snub was taken in Baku as confirmation of Washington’s pro-Armenian bias, which had been reinforced earlier in the year by the active lobbying of the Armenian diaspora against Turkey and Azerbaijan. Baku’s response was furious. Joint military exercises with US were cancelled (ISN, April 26). A series of high-profile articles by senior government figures were published, criticising US policy as “increasingly pro-Armenian” and “short-sighted”.

The public nature of the response may be blustering, but there are good grounds for believing that the threats to “reconsider” relations are genuine (Reuters, April 16). For one thing, Baku has positively reacted to Tehran’s mediation proposal in Karabakh. The Iranian foreign minister is reportedly to hold a meeting with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts soon.

Russia may be the biggest beneficiary. Despite technically being in a similar position to the US – it is a Minsk Group mediator which supports a “parallel tracks” approach – Moscow is far more finely attuned to regional politics and to Azerbaijan’s frustration. It is also showing more willingness to offer concrete assistance, such as lucrative energy contracts and the possibility of increased diplomatic and economic pressure on Armenia.

Turning to Russia, let alone Iran, would not necessarily be in Baku’s long-term interest but it is a genuine risk. Azerbaijan has invested a lot of political capital in allying with the West over the last sixteen years. If this is ignored, Moscow’s embrace may look far more appealing.

America’s apparent failure does not appear to be a genuine attempt to abandon Azerbaijan (unlike the deliberate cooling of ties with President Saakashvili’s Georgia, seen as a liability after the 2008 war with Russia). It seems more likely to be a lack of institutional focus. Lacking a coherent Caspian policy, Washington has been driven by other forces, chiefly the Armenian diaspora and the need to restore relations with Russia.

But the implications are concerning. Apart from its vast energy resources and energy transit capacity Azerbaijan is central to a raft of other US interests in the region. Most obviously these include two of the Obama Administration’s priorities, Russia and Iran. Azerbaijan is also key to the ‘central corridor’ through which NATO supplies to Afghanistan pass. Whilst the northern corridor remains underused and susceptible to Russia’s whims, maintaining the central route is essential.

Washington’s lack of attentiveness to the relationship with Baku –the summit snub, the lack of an ambassador, and most critically the approach to Nagorno-Karabakh – is alarming in itself. But, given its repercussions, it also suggests that the US has not developed a fully integrated strategy for some of its main foreign policy concerns. This is perhaps the most worrying implication of the current dispute.

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