The Blog

America's Last Hope in the Caucasus

The past year has been a difficult year for the whole region. Cold War rhetoric returned to the former Soviet Union and was met with rejection and, at times, with fear. Azerbaijan was not different...

"Do you know where Azerbaijan is? Well, one day there came in a very dignified and interesting group of gentlemen who were from Azerbaijan. I didn't have time, until they were gone, to find out where they came from. But I did find this out immediately: that I was talking to men who talked the same language that I did in respect of ideas, in respect of conceptions of liberty, in respect of conceptions of right and justice" - were the words of none other than the devoted Presbyterian, the twenty eighth President of the United States Woodrow Wilson in 1919. It has been ninety-six years since the creator of the Federal Reserve and the proponent of women's suffrage met the representatives of the world's youngest Caucasian democracy in Paris. Today, very few on both sides would probably remember the history of that civilizational splash that was already then showing promise for Azerbaijan's almost unimaginable spiritual recovery, which neither Tsarist Imperialism nor Stalinism succeeded to eradicate completely. Those in Baku who heard the story would certainly tell you that President Wilson should have responded to the country's requests by then recognizing its independence and establishing diplomatic relations with the Democratic Republic. Instead, he declined and advised that "the Azerbaijani question could not be solved prior to the general settlement of the Russian question". They would not be entirely wrong, since the Paris Peace Conference was possibly one of those rarely occurring chances, at least in the modern history, which if exploited appropriately, could have affected the status quo that had been formed in the aftermath of the collapse of the Russian Empire. Whether that was an unused opportunity on America's behalf or a well-calculated decision should be examined with regard to that particular historical context. But, what makes contemporary Baku different from Kyev, Tbilisi and Teheran and makes it an irreplaceable regional partner is its almost unimaginable symbiosis of spiritual secularity, eastern wisdom and western rationalism, each acquired at different stages of its exceptional history of having been the tidbit of incompatible imperialistic predilections. As Peter Savodnik put it for The New York Times in 2013, "few countries have come as far in mastering the art of geopolitics as Azerbaijan".

The country has recently faced a flurry of western criticism in regard to its human rights record. That happened before and should certainly be perceived in accordance with one's own opinion and reaction. What is worrying, however, is that it comes in the middle of the geopolitical rivalry that has imperceptibly crept into the former Soviet Union and was intensified after Russia's annexation of Crimea. Georgia and Ukraine, seen as American allies in the region, both encountered strong opposition from Moscow. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan have recently joined the Russian-led Eurasian Union in addition to Kazakhstan and Belarus. Loosing Azerbaijan would be an enormous oversight for the U.S., since Baku is perhaps the only self-sufficient and independent bridgehead in the Caucasus, that successfully walks the thin line between the Russian world and the West.

Savodnik's view on the country's diplomacy was demonstrated in the aftermath of Russo-Georgian war, where Baku being in solidarity with its western neighbor by having stated its support for Georgia's territorial integrity, abstained from assuming part of political responsibility for the sharp political statements by then President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili, who was calling to "stand together against the powerful invaders". Yet those statements were made from the Azerbaijani Parliamentary tribune, which aroused surprise and interest not only in Baku. In line with the Abkhazian and South Ossetian logic, Russia could also recognize Nagorno-Karabakh's independence, which is an unacceptable scenario for Baku and is not subject to negotiation by the government. Besides, both Azerbaijan and the West view Georgia as a secure transit zone to Turkey, which is crucial for the European markets, since most of Azerbaijan's energy infrastructures are laid down through Turkey. The recently announced Trans-Anatolian and Trans-Adriatic gas pipelines are essential for Europe's Southern Gas Corridor and strengthen global energy security.

Today, Baku has smooth diplomatic relations with each and every of the above-mentioned states, which should please all the energy projects' participants, especially after the tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated into an armed conflict and the West is determined to reduce its energy dependency on Moscow. Baku proved to be equally consistent by having not recognized the Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol as part of Russia in the UN vote last year, which further confirmed the similarity of views between the Caspian state and the West and highlighted the convergence of Azerbaijani-U.S. interests in the region.

How can Baku get away with all this, one could ask, especially in the epoch of Maidans and a geopolitical rivalry? The answer would be the same as twenty-two years ago, when the country happened to be the only former Soviet republic after Baltic states to become free of the Communist military presence and to once again embrace the geopolitical reality that it found itself in. The stake was made not on the pure Europeanism, which could have been crushed under the fist of nationalists and Chechen Islamists (Popular Front had close ties with the Chechens, many of whom fought in Karabakh), but on self-sufficient, multicultural and emancipated Azerbaijan. Its position is complicated only by the fact that it never courted the U.S. and the European Union the way Poland and the Baltic states did. It hasn't applied to join either the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the European Union and has instead pursued an independent foreign policy. At the same time, Azerbaijan provides a secure route for forty percent of NATO's International Security Assistance Force's transit into Afghanistan and its military assisted American efforts in Iraq and in the Balkans. Baku is closely watching the situation in both, Tbilisi and Kiev, making its own conclusions. Every reference to the Caspian state coming from the U.S. state department is not only seriously processed, but it also receives a transparent reaction.

The past year has been a difficult year for the whole region. Cold War rhetoric returned to the former Soviet Union and was met with rejection and, at times, with fear. Azerbaijan was not different. A long road has been travelled to achieve the level of cooperation that the country enjoys with the U.S. and there is no wish to risk that at this particular historical moment, when the temptation of such a risk is great and often constitutes malignant provocations. We ended up with having a military conflict-torn Ukraine with its Eastern part leaning towards Russia; some anti-Europeanism and a homophobic twist returning to Georgia; Armenia and Kyrgyzstan aiming to join Belarus and Kazakhstan in the Eurasian Union; and two failed deadlines of the Iranian-Western nuclear deal. The question should be whether America is fading in the region and if it is not, then who are going to be its reliable partners. The conclusion seems to suggest itself.