US sanctions against Azerbaijan: how real is the threat?

US sanctions against Azerbaijan: how real is the threat?

Azerbaijan sticks to a multi-vector policy in order to maintain friendly relations with all countries. Experts admit that the country carries out an independent policy based on the interests of its people, so the leadership cannot be influenced by the larger players and it doesn’t terminate relations with friendly countries at the external requests. Baku has supported Moscow in political and economic ways during the most difficult times when anti-Russian sanctions were imposed. Baku didn’t follow many other countries and didn’t turn its back on its neighbor. The correctness of this position was realized after US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow in order to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The beginning of restoration of relations between the two leading countries was welcomed in Baku, which considers the normalization of cooperation between Moscow and Washington as necessary in order to preserve and maintain peace in the world and put an end to the confrontation between the US, Europe and Russia.

Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani public has been agitated recently by news spread by a number of mass media about the US intention to impose sanctions against the Azerbaijani government in connection with alleged violations of human rights. The bill is intended to introduce restrictions on visits to the US by representatives of the highest-ranking Azerbaijani leadership (the senior leadership of the government), their close relatives, as well as representatives of the judiciary and the security bodies involved in corruption, human rights violations, election fraud and other activities that undermine the democratic institutions of the country. In addition, the entry ban could affect the business elite, whose work is closely tied with the government and influences the functioning of democracy in Azerbaijan. The only exception are representatives of the Azerbaijani government, who enter the territory of the United States for talks on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In addition, it was expected to freeze all property and financial activity in the United States that belonged to the representatives of Azerbaijan, as well as minimize the financial and economic cooperation in all projects with the Azerbaijani government, except for the agricultural, medical and humanitarian spheres.

Speaker of the Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Hikmet Hajiyev described the bill as "unacceptable" for Azerbaijan, noting that its possible adoption would seriously undermine relations between the two countries. Meanwhile, the reason for the bill is impetuously being discussed by the Azerbaijani expert community. There are two main versions: geopolitics or the activities of Armenian lobbyists. Speaking about the geopolitical context of this legislative initiative, we should underline the unwillingness of Baku to terminate partnership with Moscow, even at the peak of the contradictions between the West and Russia. The role of Azerbaijani agricultural products for the Russian policy of import substitution, continued the expansion of trade and economic partnership between the two countries, cooperation in international venues, especially in the PACE and the OSCE. Meanwhile, world powers are increasingly trying to incline Azerbaijan, which has traditionally carried out a multi-vector policy, toward a sharp change in its foreign policy. The country’s participation in the formation of the Islamic coalition against terrorism by Saudi Arabia is being discussed now. Meanwhile, the composition of the Islamic coalition does not imply the participation of Iran, which acts together with Russia.

As for the Armenian lobby, it is not all-powerful. All attempts to get the magic word 'genocide' uttered by the US president in the symbolic 2015 year for the Armenians (the 100th anniversary of the events in the Ottoman Empire was marked this year) have failed. In general, the presence of lobbyists in the US is not always a guarantee of achieving the desired results, especially US national interests. It is enough to recall the active opposition of the Israeli lobby in the US regarding lifting the sanctions against Iran.

Speaker of the Azerbaijani Parliament Oktay Asadov said the adoption of such a bill has low probability. Moreover, it is obvious that the recent tendency in Azerbaijan to mitigate sentences of those convicted, who are advocated for liberation in the West. Thus, civic society activists Arif Yunusov and Leila are under house arrest instead of imprisonment. The step was welcomed by the European Union, as well as by the United States. Against this background, the legislative initiative of Congressman Smith is hardly to promote the continuation of the expected 'thaw' in Azerbaijan. On the contrary, it can only harden the position of Baku in the human rights dialogue. We should not exclude those people who inspired Smith to introduce a legislative initiative to Congress, intending to achieve the same effect.

In our opinion, it is early to speak about the real reasons for introducing such a bill to the US Congress. It is necessary to understand that we are speaking only about the legislative initiative introduced by Congressman Christopher Smith. The fact that Smith is the chairman of the Helsinki Commission gives some extra importance to his status, but it doesn’t guarantee that his bill will overcome all procedures. In particular, the legislative initiative will be directed to the relevant committee of the House. During hearings and debates in the relevant committee the bill will be modified and amended. Moreover, it can be generally postponed, or finally rejected after hearings, or submitted to a vote of the House. If the bill is approved in three readings in the House, ii will be directed to the Senate, where it needs to overcome similar steps. That is, the bill can be modified even in the Senate. The final version of the bill adopted by the House and the Senate will be identical. Only after this final version of the bill is sent to the US President for his signature, who can veto it.

The German expert drew attention to the fact that the possible introduction of US sanctions against Azerbaijan may significantly reduce the mediatory role of the Americans in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. "The policy of the US sanctions fully disqualified itself as a neutral intermediary. A superpower that imposes sanctions against one of the parties to the conflict due to its own interests should not expect a confidential attitude," Langner said, adding that in such circumstances the United States would be better to exclude itself as co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group: "The key to the solution of the Karabakh conflict is already in Moscow, and the solution to the conflict won’t take place as long as the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group come to a common denominator."

"Democratic development is not a straightforward process that can be forced by means of sanctions in any country," the Berlin political scientist Heiko Langner said. The expert recalled that at the end of the existence of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan was in a state of war with Armenia that continues to occupy its territories up to now. According to Langner, it could not happen without domestic policy consequences and social problems. "Despite this, the country managed to make important steps during that time on the path to democracy, in certain areas need to be improved. The development of democracy is always a task of the society of the country itself." At the same time, the analyst pointed out that a critical foreign policy dialogue on human rights could be very useful, but only if it is without double standards. "Sanctions are the wrong way, as they relate to the logic of punishment. However, early release of the famous couple Leila and Arif Yunusov from prison was without any sanctions. It is a very positive signal," Langner said.

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