What hides behind US activity in Baku?
Late July was marked by growing diplomatic activity on the part of the USA in Azerbaijan. In a short period of time the country was visited by two top American officials – an aide to the Secretary of State, Richard Hoagland, and the Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs of the US Department of State, Amos Hochstein, who is well-known to experts as one of t “gravediggers” for Russia's Turkish Stream project. It is notable that even though journalists asked direct questions, representatives of the State Department openly rejected criticism of the Azerbaijani government in the context of the arrests of some civil activists who used to have Western support.
The head of the Headquarters of Azerbaijan, Najmeddin Sadygov, made a proposal on reconstruction of American-Azerbaijani military cooperation. At the same time, he urged the State Department not to interfere in the plans of cooperation between the militaries, hinting that such procedures took place in the past. Visits by US representatives and Sadygov’s statement are actively discussed in the media, which reports on a “reboot” in relations between the two countries. Considering the fact that US-Azerbaijani relations have been far from perfect in recent times, some experts even spoke about a strategic reorientation of Azerbaijan towards Russia, with the last visits by US representatives and warmer rhetoric on both sides causing justified interest.
Some analysts even thought that a recent spike of violence in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone was Moscow’s warning, as it was dissatisfied with such developments. There could even be a link between the two processes: in the past, political shifts of a regional scale had many times echoes in the front line. The same reaction could be caused by the proposal by the head of the Azerbaijani Headquarters to restore cooperation with the Americans – as a reaction to Russia’s loan of $200 million to Armenia for reconstruction of the army. However, both ideas are quite speculative, as well as talks about the “pro-American” character of Azerbaijan. Geopolitical orientation cannot be changed through a couple of visits by an aide and an envoy of the Secretary of State.
Moreover, the policies of any independent state – and Azerbaijan has fairly presented itself as the country with the highest level of independence in the South Caucasus – cannot be pro-Russian, pro-American, pro-Iranian, and so on; it cannot start from ‘pro-’ at all. It is based on national interests, which define the necessity of following a balance between various regional and international centers. Armenia, which has recently joined the EAEU, is trying to find the balance unsuccessfully at the moment. Its representatives continue to speak in European capitals about their secret European integration dream (which they are afraid of fulfilling, fearing Russia’s anger). Georgia is trying to provide a multi-vector policy as well. However, the Georgians have no intention of dealing with the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And it seems impossible to reconstruct relations with Russia in such conditions; it makes the shift from a directly pro-Western policy to a more balanced regional policy impossible as well. Unlike its neighbors, financially more prosperous Azerbaijan managed to preserve a bigger space for diplomatic maneuver, declaring itself to be a non-aligned state.
Following the multi-vector policy in the foreign political concept of Azerbaijan, which was established under former president Heydar Aliyev, is not a whim of official Baku, but a matter of national security and geopolitical survival in a region full of conflicts which is an arena of clashing interests of international and regional powers.
It is too early to speak about the more or less significant rapprochement between America and Azerbaijan after two visits and warming rhetoric from Washington and Baku. For example, look at the statement on the reconstruction of military cooperation. What form of cooperation could be meant here? Obviously the US, which didn’t dare to send lethal arms even to the highly supported Ukrainian authorities, wouldn’t help Azerbaijan with weapons. Azerbaijan buys modern arms in Russia and Israel mainly, as they have successfully provided multibillion deals already. Cooperation with the Americans can be expressed in the training of officers, coordination in the anti-terrorist struggle, participation in joint war games, and possible cooperation in preservation of energy infrastructure in which a lot of American money was invested. However, there is no certainty yet.
The same thing applies to forecasts on political rapprochement between Baku and Washington. Relations worsened because the US didn’t want to consider the interests of Azerbaijan in the matter of Turkish-Armenian peacemaking, they tried to influence the internal political situation in Azerbaijan through ‘institutions of civil society,’ there was no practical support in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on the basis of international law by the West, and finally, Baku rejected participation in the anti-Russian coalition. Azerbaijan hasn’t changed its position on all these issues, as each of them directly touches on the prior national interests of the country.
However, Washington’s foreign political agenda is changing in the region, as well as its interests and priorities. This February Amos Hochstein said that the participation of Iran in the project of the South Gas Corridor was impossible due to sanctions. Today the expected elimination of the anti-Iranian sanctions makes the problem of delivery of Iranian energy resources to the European market topical. The current Azerbaijani infrastructure and its planned and implemented projects are only one of the possible topics for a discussion between the Americans and the Azerbaijanis in the context of the nuclear agreement with Iran. The inevitable growth of Iran’s influence in the South Caucasus was also discussed by Washington and Baku. Finally, Richard Hoagland discussed with Azerbaijan cooperation within the project of the New Silk Road and announced an increase of American investment in the country. The long period of low oil prices has damaged the Azerbaijani economy, and American investments in strategically important transport projects will meet the interests of both countries. At the same time, official Baku has many times demonstrated that it is very pragmatic to follow the unwritten rules which are common to the region in cooperation with third parties.