Hoeve Halbach: “Azerbaijan’s multi-vectored policy is logical”

Hoeve Halbach: “Azerbaijan’s multi-vectored policy is logical”

German expert on the Caucasus from the Berlin ‘Science and Politics” Foundation, Professor Hoeve Halbach shared his view of the ongoing processes on the South and North Caucasus with a VK correspondent. Today we publish the second part of the interview, touching upon the EU energy policy in the South Caucasian region as well as the foreign politics strategy of Azerbaijan.

- Do you think the ‘South corridor’ project has a chance to succeed?

- There’s a lot of information on this topic, and it is sometime very contradictory. The same goes for ‘Nabucco’: some say it is almost ready, some say it will ultimately fail. Of course, the key-factor here is the realization of the trans-Caspian part of the project. And there are still some unresolved legal issues there. The legal status of the Caspian Sea remains undetermined.

- It is said that the trans-Caspian pipeline will be constructed in those zones of the Sea that are indisputably Azerbaijan’s and Turkmenistan’s.

- Yes, but there’s also the factor of ecology here. And economical aspects also matter. The main question is: will there be enough gas to fill the pipeline? The project’s potential gas suppliers – Iraq and Turkmenistan – are generally deemed unreliable. But the ‘Southern corridor’ project isn’t only about gas and oil, it is also about trade between the Caucasian states, and the turnover between them has recently been too low. There are always some new ideas and projects, new gas fields are being found in Azerbaijan. It is yet unclear which project – the ‘Southern Stream’ or ‘Nabucco’ will be finally chosen. One thing is clear: the EU is determined to fulfill the ‘Sothern corridor’ project. After Hunter Ettinger became Euro-commissioner for Energy the EU boosted its interaction with Azerbaijan. There’s a negative side to it: the only thing that currently interests EU in Azerbaijan is its energy resources. So such concerns as Nagorno-Karabakh conflict or Azerbaijan’s home policy became secondary for the EU.

- The ‘Eastern parnership’ program is supposed to del with such issues…

- Yes, but the program hasn’t been fully carried out in Azerbaijan: it wasn’t accepted into EU free trade zone, etc. And Azeri political élite is starting to understand that there’s not much that EU could actually give them, and thus has no right to demand much. Baku is becoming more and more self-confident backed by its economic success, and it doesn’t want anyone to make decisions for Azerbaijan anymore.

- Nevertheless, Baku holds on to a well-balances foreign policy strategy that takes the interests of all regional players into account. Is such a policy justified?

- Yes, it is absolutely logical for a post-Soviet state (I think, by the way, that the very tern is outdated and we need to think of a new one). For example, Georgian policy seems to by one-sided, West-oriented, and we all know how Russia reacted to that. So it is only logical that Azerbaijan chose multi-vectored course.

- But it seems to meet some problems as far as Iran is concerned…

- Yes, but Iran is a special case. But I think that Baku still manages to act in a well-considered manner here. For example, it doesn’t try to influence Iranian Azerbaijani. Baku is cautious and pragmatic in its relations with Tehran. But of course, their relations have deteriorated recently, especially after the ban of khijab in schools.

- What is the role of Islamist factor in Azerbaijan? And is their any ‘Islamization threat’ coming from Iran?

- If we compare Azerbaijan to the other countries of the so-called Islam revival – like the North Caucasus and the Central Asia – we will see that in this country civil traditions are relatively deep-rooted. The challenge of Islam radicalism isn’t that strong there. Not as strong as on the North Caucasus. Azerbaijan also differs from the abovementioned regions by its high level of religious tolerance: Shiah and Sunni communities peacefully coexist there.

There are three sources of Muslim influence on Azerbaijan: Iran, Turkey and the Arab world. And I don’t think that Iran is the most dangerous and radical source here. Arab salafit (or, as they are called in Russia, vakhabbit) groups are the conductors of the most radical influence. There influence is the most radical of all in the post-Soviet space, and it infiltrates Azerbaijan via North Caucasus even despite the fact that the majority of Azeri population is Shiah.

Interview by Orkhan Sattarov

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