Azerbaijan: Subversion and the Possibility of Realignment (Part 2 of 2)

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AzerbejanTroopsBy Eric Draitser

[Azerbaijan troops courtesy NEO.]

Part 2 of 2. Link to Part 1.

Part 1 of this article examined the nature of Azerbaijan’s political and economic development since the end of the Soviet Union nearly twenty five years ago, with specific attention paid to the country’s relations with the West.

[T]here is a perception among political observers who monitor the Caspian region that Azerbaijan is a staunch ally of the West, that its military and intelligence cooperation with the West, coupled with its reliance on Western oil investment for the continued exploitation of its Caspian reserves, has transformed Azerbaijan into an unshakeable ally of Washington and Brussels. In some ways, this has certainly been true in recent years. The deals with European and American energy corporations have infused the Baku-Washington relationship with billions of dollars in investment. The military and intelligence cooperation with Israel has certainly fostered the perception that Azerbaijan is closer to Israel and the West than to Russia, Iran, or any of its regional neighbors. And yet, from the perspective of the West, there is undoubtedly something rotten in Baku.

The once rock-solid alliance has become far more unstable in recent years as Azerbaijan’s importance and image in the eyes of the West has, in many ways, declined. While western leaders have been quick to point to Baku’s crackdown on western-sponsored NGOs and so called “democracy activists,” the reality is that material concerns dominate the changing nature of the relationship. Where once the West, in particular the United States, saw in Azerbaijan and the Caspian region a potential bonanza for energy revenue and decreasing Europe’s reliance on Russian gas, today serious doubts exist about the sustainability, let alone total capacity, of the Azerbaijani reserves. While it was quite fashionable to see Baku as a staunch ally against Moscow, today doubts about this too have emerged as Russia looks to promote cooperation and business relations with the country as a counterweight to US machinations in the region.

In order to fully appreciate the changing nature of Azerbaijan’s geopolitical and strategic alignment, one must first examine how and why Azerbaijan has begun to move out of the West’s orbit. In so doing, the aggressive attitude and seemingly belligerent approach from western leaders toward Azerbaijan begins to become clearer. In particular, the levers of power that the West is using against Azerbaijan are well known both in Baku, and in Moscow. This is critical because, as was the case during the Soviet era, Russia is in many ways still an alternative to US domination. And so, the question becomes: Is Azerbaijan charting a truly new, independent path for itself? Or, is the country merely continuing its multi-vector strategy of playing Russia and the West off each other?

Azerbaijan and the West: From Cooperation to Coercion?

As outlined in Part 1 of this article, Azerbaijan has promoted close relations with the West since the 1990s, seeing in Europe and the US not only sources of much needed investment revenue, but also political and diplomatic backers in a region still reorganizing itself in the post-Soviet period. This made Azerbaijan a fashionable poster-child for post-Soviet US foreign policy, one which made a central priority of encroaching ever further into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. Seen in this way, it is understandable that Baku would seek powerful patrons, hoping to guarantee its own security while furthering its regional and economic interests.

In the wake of the disastrous Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia, Azerbaijan sought out partners that could act as a counter to Russia’s longtime alliance and close cooperation with Armenia. As such, Washington was only too willing to answer the call, using Azerbaijan as leverage against Russian interests. Conversely, Baku understood that if it ever wanted to gain concessions from Armenia and its Russian ally, it would equally need powerful allies. But, as has often been the case with US friendship, yesterday’s ally is today’s adversary. Indeed, Washington and Brussels have seemingly abandoned their friendly attitude toward Azerbaijan in recent months, instead choosing to rebrand the country from “post-Soviet success story” to “anti-democratic, authoritarian regime.” The question is, why?

One obvious explanation for the dramatic shift in attitude toward Azerbaijan is the growing realization that the so called “Contract of the Century” was as much hype as it was substance. Recent studies have suggested that Azerbaijan grossly overestimated (whether unintentional or deliberate exaggeration is a matter of opinion) their true oil reserves. Energy analyst and researcher Patrick Eytchinson wrote back in 2003:

These Caspian ‘oil riches’ are essentially a myth manufactured by the United States Geological Service (USGS), the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), governments of some of the newly independent Soviet states of the Caspian Region, as well as the early hopes of some Western oil companies at the time of the breakup of the USSR. Deconstructing the myth of Caspian oil is important both for understanding how misinformation is created and manipulated in the present world, and for understanding the United States elites’ true geopolitical goals in relation to energy. 

Eytchinson here notes the critical fact that US policy toward Azerbaijan has always been a strategic calculation, one that has aimed at controlling and stifling Russia’s post-Soviet development, rather than being purely interested in profits. While there was plenty of money to be made in Azerbaijan for energy corporations, it was never the “rival to the Middle East” that many had pretended it would be. In fact, the gross miscalculation may have been less of an error than an intended consequence of the Big Lie of Azerbaijani oil wealth – a lie propagated both by Baku and westerners keen to do business in Azerbaijan. Undoubtedly, the growing consensus that Caspian oil in Azerbaijan is far less lucrative than once imagined plays a big role in the growing animus towards Baku. Seen as far less important than it once was, the Azerbaijani government has come under much more scrutiny in recent years, souring relations with the West in ways unimaginable even five years ago.

As a corollary to the exaggerated oil reserve estimates is the fact that the much touted Nabucco, Trans-Caspian, and other pipelines of the Southern Corridor project have been either scrapped or dramatically scaled back. Originally envisioned to supply Europe with Caspian gas from Azerbaijan, in addition to a number of other countries, this basket of pipelines has never come to fruition to a number of issues including cost, political barriers, Caspian Sea rights, and the successful development of Russia’s South Stream, the primary rival of the Southern Corridor. Because of the failure of these West-sponsored projects, Azerbaijan has decreased in importance to western political and corporate elites.

And so, the US and its allies have retreated to their usual demagogic talking points about “human rights,” “civil society freedoms,” and “democracy” in a transparent attempt to demonize and ultimately, if need be, destabilize the Aliyev government. Leading the charge is US envoy to Azerbaijan Richard Morningstar who, despite being America’s top diplomatic official in the country, has made repeated disparaging remarks about the country and its commitment, or lack thereof, to human rights. In an interview with the US Government-sponsored Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Morningstar opined that:

There are trials that are going on now…We’ve certainly been troubled by some of those trials…I think fair results with respect to some of those trials and appeals would show progress. I think that fewer attacks on journalists during the period would show progress. I think the reopening of the civil society dialogue would show progress…A couple years ago, after one of [U. S. Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton’s visits, the government agreed to hold a civil society dialogue. I think there was one session and there has not been one since then. I think that would help. There seems to be a huge amount of pressure right now on international NGOs that are working with respect to civil society – investigations by the Tax Ministry, by the Justice Ministry…Again, I don’t understand why these investigations are taking place other than to harass these organizations and the people who work for them. Lightening up on that, I think, would show progress…Who else is going to speak up for Azerbaijan sovereignty and independence vis-a-vis Russia — particularly after Ukraine?  Who else is going to be a buffer to make sure that the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations are fair or don’t go in an unfairly bad direction. Who else is going to work with Azerbaijan on…counterterrorism problems?…I know that people think we care too much about energy. Yeah, we care about energy, but we are not going to see any Azerbaijani oil or gas — but we do think it’s important as a counter to Russian monopolization in some places. 

While Morningstar strikes a conciliatory tone, his measured comments belie the venom with which he speaks. Though he discusses US “hopes” regarding Baku’s actions, what he’s actually articulating are thinly veiled threats regarding how the Aliyev government should conduct its internal affairs. Morningstar intimates that, unless the outcomes of the trials of key western-sponsored NGO officials and political opponents are favorable, Washington would regard them as politically motivated and damaging to the overall relationship between the countries. Naturally, Morningstar speaks to an audience that is willfully ignorant of the key role that NGOs and so called “civil society” organizations play in the projection of what US planners call “soft power.”

ndiIf Morningstar were serious about being truthful, honest, and providing full disclosure, he’d explain that a number of the organizations in question are directly funded by the US and its allies and proxies. For instance, one of the so called “political prisoners” in Azerbaijan is Anar Mammadli, Chairman of the Training Center for Monitoring Elections and Democracy (TCMED). The organization has been, from its very foundation in 2002, an appendage of US soft power. TCMED was formed in 2002 with funding from the infamous National Democratic Institute (NDI), an arm of the National Endowment for Democracy, a US Government-funded project designed to project power throughout the world using NGOs and civil society organizations.

Although it is no secret in Azerbaijan, Morningstar and his ilk would prefer that westerners remain in the dark about the fact that Mammadli, like his fellow “political prisoners” is in fact an agent of the US and its allies, one whose political and public life is owed entirely to western organizations. Of course, it is self-evident why the US would want well-placed agents whose responsibility is to cast doubt upon elections, thereby forcing governments that have fallen out of favor into a submissive position. Should one require examples of this, look no further than the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia in 2003 which brought to power the neocon darling Saakashvili, the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004, and a number of other instances.

Indeed, if one looks closely at the list of alleged “political prisoners” held up by Washington and Brussels as crusaders for democracy, the reality is that many are, like Mammadli, merely acting on behalf of foreign interests whose goal is to coerce Azerbaijan into acting in accordance with US diktats. This is of course nothing new as the US has used civil society organizations and NGOs around the world to effect regime change, color revolutions, etc. where it has so desired.

If there were any lingering doubts as to the attitude of the Obama administration toward Azerbaijan, they have been put to rest by Obama himself when he singled out Azerbaijan (among other countries) as a violator of human and civil rights. In a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, Obama stated with a straight face:

It is precisely because citizens and civil society can be so powerful – their ability to harness technology and connect and mobilize at this moment so unprecedented – that more and more governments are doing everything in their power to silence them. From Russia to China to Venezuela, you are seeing relentless crackdowns, vilifying legitimate dissent as subversive.  In places like Azerbaijan, laws make it incredibly difficult for NGOs even to operate.

Keen political observers would do well to note that, aside from Azerbaijan, the singling out of Russia, China, and Venezuela is telling as to how Washington interprets freedom and “civil society” – it is the countries which pose a political, geopolitical, and economic challenge to US hegemony that are the “worst violators.” It is Russia, where such organizations and their support are dwarfed by the exponentially more powerful base of support for President Putin and the Russian government, that is called out for its anti-democratic character. It is China, with its now number 1 economy in the world which is challenging US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region that is attacked for its “repression” of civil society. It is Venezuela, with its socialist Bolivarian government and refusal to be cowed by Washington and its proxies in the ruling class in that country that is demonized as a serial violator of human rights. It is of course hypocritical of Obama to make such accusations, considering his unlawful actions abroad and domestic repression at home are far more egregious, far more widespread than anything seen elsewhere in the world.

But Obama’s words are quite revealing insofar as they lay bare the fact that US interest in NGOs, civil society organizations, and human rights are directly proportional to the geopolitical advantage to be gained from a given country. Put another way, civil society is coded language for US soft power. And so, any crackdown on such organizations (including the reasonable demands made by Russia, Azerbaijan and others that such organizations register as agents of foreign governments, which they are) is seen as a means of undercutting US power, an action deemed unacceptable by the strategic planners in Washington. And this is precisely what Baku has done. The Aliyev government has moved to freeze the assets of the National Democratic Institute, Transparency International, and the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), all of which are funded directly by the United States and powerful individuals and organizations within the western ruling class.

The crackdown on these organizations working to advance the US agenda has been presented in the West as an anti-democratic move by an authoritarian regime. However, perhaps the individuals most vocal in their criticism of Aliyev’s government should face more scrutiny. The most prominent voice in this regard is Carl Bildt, former Swedish foreign minister and aspiring European Commission chief. Bildt, who was perhaps the most belligerent European voice on the issue of Ukraine, described Azerbaijan as an “authoritarian regime” and expressed doubts about the sincerity of Azerbaijan’s commitment to the Eastern Partnership (an initiative that would de facto expand NATO to the borders of Russia). In response to Bildt’s attacks, the Deputy Head of the Azerbaijani Presidential Administration Novruz Mammadov stated:

Unfortunately, there are many such politicians in the international community. They think that everybody should accept and obey what they say. However they don’t understand yet that their irresponsible and narrow-minded thoughts have led the world to such a situation. Today, the ongoing negative processes, conflicts, political instability and tensions in different countries are the result of their thoughts and activities. They are unable to understand the essence of processes in the world. They just memorize some expressions and words, like parrots, and think that they fulfill their duties by using them as a means of pressure

Indeed, Mammadov is absolutely correct in his assessment. Not only is Bildt speaking more out of a vainglorious attempt to position himself in Brussels than out of genuine concern, he is once again meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state in an attempt to destabilize the government, just as he did countless times in the Ukraine crisis. In fact, Ukraine is instructive for the Azerbaijani government, as some officials correctly view it as a template for the sort of destabilization that could be carried out in their own country.

Russia and Strategic Realignment?

Although the legacy of the Soviet Union has engendered mistrust on both sides of the Azerbaijan-Russia relationship, the reality of global politics is bringing the two closer together than they have been at any point since the collapse of the USSR. Undoubtedly, the increasingly bellicose rhetoric coming from the West in regards to Azerbaijan is a driving factor in the burgeoning relationship between Baku and Moscow. Additionally, the continued sanctions war waged by the West against Russia has opened a window of opportunity that Baku is quickly seizing. Such expanded cooperation bodes well for Russia’s ultimate goal of Eurasian economic integration, while obviously worrying many in the western foreign policy establishment.

In August, a Russian delegation headed by President Putin himself visited Azerbaijan to engage in high-level discussions about a variety of issues. The visit, unprecedented in recent decades, represented a decided change from the previously rocky relations between the two countries. Although there remain obstacles, the two leaders and their delegations agreed to a number of significant deals, including for increased energy cooperation. While Russia is certainly not wanting for energy, it does view Azerbaijan as a crucial partner both in terms of Caspian cooperation, and as a bulwark against encroaching western interests.

As RIA Novosti reported:

A cooperation agreement was signed by Rosneft and SOCAR respective chiefs…The two oil giants also said they would cooperate in marketing and sales of gas and oil products. Rosneft has shown interest in joining the development of the Apsheron gas field in the Caspian Sea, whereas Russia’s largest privately held oil company, LUKoil, is participating in the development of the Shah Deniz gas field in the Caspian Sea and owns a network of gasoline-filling stations in Azerbaijan.

While the deals seem comparatively small, the larger ramifications are clear. Moscow and Baku also agreed to closer military and security cooperation, a signal that Azerbaijan has no interest in pursuing the path of NATO cooperation and integration that Georgia and the Baltic states have. Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev noted that military and defense cooperation with Russia amounts to $4 billion annually, with that number expected to rise in coming years. Although Azerbaijan has long since been wooed by powerful military contractors from Israel and the West, it seems that the tide has turned, and Baku is now content to look to Russia for its military hardware.

Although Azerbaijan and Russia’s ally Armenia remain adversarial in regards to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, there are increasing signs that Russia could be seen by Baku as more of a good faith mediator than it once was. Although the Russia-Armenia alliance remains strong, Moscow is clearly interested in finding a lasting solution that could benefit all involved. Indeed, that would be a tremendous diplomatic breakthrough, and one that could usher in the accession of Azerbaijan to the expanding Eurasian Economic Union, which recently accepted Armenia as a new member.

Finally, the sanctions imposed on Russia by the West, and Russia’s counter-sanctions, have created new spaces in Russia’s domestic market, particularly in the area of agriculture. Russia, which had largely relied on European countries for its fruits, vegetables, and many other products, is now increasingly looking to countries like Turkey and Azerbaijan to fill the void. As Chairperson of the Russian Council of the Federation (upper house of parliament) Valentina Matviyenko noted during a recent trip to Azerbaijan, “A project on increasing agricultural supplies and its efficient delivery to the consumers is being thoroughly discussed…I am sure that these volumes will increase. Moreover, Azerbaijan itself has shown interest in increasing agricultural supplies to Russia.” In response to the sanctions, Russia has sought new agricultural producers, with Azerbaijan topping the list.

The opportunity for increased Russia-Azerbaijan economic relations bodes well for both countries and the region as a whole. Naturally, the West, along with Israel, view any warming of relations as a direct threat to their own interests. And so, the proxy war expands into a new theater, with the West heating up its rhetoric. Baku would do well to examine the precedent set in Ukraine to understand what might lie in store for it. Rather than pursuing a true multi-vector strategy within which President Aliyev and his government perceive Russia and the West as equally dangerous, it is time that political realism caught up with outmoded ways of thinking about the world. Baku might finally be realizing that the western wolves in sheep’s clothing really do bite. Perhaps it is time that Aliyev & Co. recognize that the notion of a multi-polar world is not mere rhetoric, but a strategic necessity.

Originally published at New Eastern Outlook.

Eric Draitser is an independent geopolitical analyst based in New York City, he is the founder of StopImperialism.org and OP-ed columnist for RT, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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