Azerbaijan and EU: Cooperation instead of integration

Azerbaijan and EU: Cooperation instead of integration

According to recent news, the European Union and Azerbaijan are negotiating to finally sign a historic agreement within the framework of the Eastern Partnership. The talks kicked off in February 2017 and are allegedly in the final stage, New Eastern Europe вreports in its article Azerbaijan and the European Union: Cooperation instead of integration. Azerbaijan holds a unique position among the six Eastern Partnership countries. Unlike Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, which have prioritised a set of pro-western policies and Armenia and Belarus, which are officially in the pro-Russian camp, Azerbaijan has become totally neutral without any sign or hint of joining any bloc.

In the beginning, Azerbaijan was more optimistic about its pro-western policy and designated the European path as a priority in the 1990s. Since then, the country has joined various European institutions. When Azerbaijan became admitted to the Council of Europe (CoE) in 2001, it was celebrated in the country as a big and historic event. En route to the Council of Europe membership, Azerbaijani authorities had to re-adjust its national legislation to CoE standards. I myself remember how membership in the CoE was cheered on by the local public, who saw this accomplishment as a first step towards ultimately joining the European family.

Azerbaijan’s relations with the European Union was first formalised with the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which came into force in 1999. Up until the mid-2000s, Azerbaijan’s westward integration was considered and discussed in the country as something natural, historically necessary and irreversible.

In recent years, however, Azerbaijan’s pro-European course was reversed and replaced by the so-called balancing policy. As a result, the negotiation of the Association Agreement, launched in 2010, was stopped in 2013 when the Azerbaijani authorities stated that they were no longer interested in the deal, and instead offered agreements to individual European Union states on policies like energy cooperation and strategic partnership. Unlike Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, all of which have signed association agreements, comprehensive free trade agreements and reached visa-free regimes with the European Union, Azerbaijan seems more interested in cooperation rather than integration, thus stopping short of regulatory alignment.

So what happened to Azerbaijan’s European Union policy? Why did Baku decide to distance itself from the European integrationist projects unlike its partners in GUAM?

There are several reasons for this policy change. The overall policy of balancing was implemented by required the Azerbaijani authorities to alienate Baku themselves from any political and military blocs. By avoiding commitments international and supranational organizations, the Azerbaijani authorities Baku desires to maintain an independent foreign policy and not get involved in confrontations between large powers.

According to the vision in Baku, strategic cooperation should take place in the form of energy security — such an energy cooperation agreement was signed in 2006. It has also created a certain dissatisfaction as some critics reiterate that the European Union’s energy agenda has always shadowed its policies on human rights and democracy, despite the European Union’s claims of representing a value-driven identity, democratic principles and its claim to support democracy in other countries. These values and norms can be assessed to be obstacles that keeps the Azerbaijani authorities out of the European Union’s framework.

On the other hand, from the mid-2000s onwards, Azerbaijan became the recipient of huge dividends generated by its petroleum industry. It boosted resource nationalism in Azerbaijan: the government became less interested in any type of integration in order to not share its control over national resources. This factor led to and financially enabled Azerbaijan to pursue a relatively independent and neutral policy by avoiding the integration frameworks of any blocs and resisting the need for financial aid from them.

Pragmatic approach

Europe’s unclear position toward the Karabakh issue also contributes to downgrading its relations with Azerbaijan. At the Munich Security Conference in 2017, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev summarised the government’s reasons for the rejection of the Association Agreement, which he called a “unilateral instruction”. The main reason he cited was the lack of “a very precise wording about resolution of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan based on territorial integrity of Azerbaijan”. Similar agreements, as well as other documents by European institutions, “regularly highlight the occupation of Georgian, Moldovan and Ukrainian territories, but simultaneously neglect the case of Azerbaijan”.

Parallel to the government’s reluctance, the Azerbaijani society over the years has become disillusioned with the prospect of integration with the west. While the popular narrative among the Azerbaijani public still sees Azerbaijan as a secular and European country, it also asserts that not all European values and norms (namely, gay rights) may comply with Islamic and Caucasian elements of the local values. You can now hear among ordinary Azerbaijanis, sometimes even among the intelligentsia, that by pushing Turkey aside the European Union demonstrated that it prefers to be a Christian club that would not welcome Azerbaijan.

One should underline the Karabakh issue again: the public has been disappointed with the so-called double standards the European Union has demonstrated. More actions and tangible results are obviously expected from the European Union. In recent years, Brussels has shown clear support for the territorial integrity of Georgia and Ukraine, with some European countries targeting Russia, the aggressor, with sanctions for the occupation of Ukraine. The European Union’s position regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict looks rather vague with no measures being employed against another invading state, Armenia.

Therefore, it is no coincidence that skepticism about European integration both at governmental and societal level strengthened in Azerbaijan in the late 2000s and early 2010s, when oil revenues to the country increased and geopolitical confrontation in Eastern Europe escalated. Nevertheless, the EU-Azerbaijani relations are well developed, especially when it comes to trade. The European Union currently represents almost half of Azerbaijan’s trade, accounting for 48.6 per cent of turnover and remains the largest foreign direct investor in the country’s oil and non-oil sectors. Over the past six years, European countries have invested about 16 billion US dollars in Azerbaijan’s economy.

Expectations and understanding

Azerbaijan’s current government is definitely interested in keeping itself out of closer integration with the EU and instead is strengthening cooperation through energy and transport projects. It suits the Azerbaijani government more in terms of keeping tight control over the country and its resources.

Baku expects an unambiguous stance from the European Union on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict instead of its current double standard. In return, Brussels looks forward to more activity from Baku on political and economic reforms.