Without Friends and Foes

9 august 2008

Sergey Markedonov, Ph.D. (History), is assistant professor at the Regional Studies and Foreign Policy department of the Russian State University for Humanities.

Resume: Azerbaijan has received greater international interest due to its hydrocarbon resources and the increased importance of the Caspian region at large as an alternative source of energy for the European market. Located at an intersection of interests of various countries, Azerbaijan has to conduct an accurate and flexible foreign policy.

It has become common practice for Russia’s expert community to categorize countries as either “pro-Western” or “pro-Russian.” However, this duality cannot be applied in the case of Azerbaijan. Moscow and Baku have basically different views on the “Big Game” in the South Caucasus; at the same time, Azerbaijan demonstrates its commitment to building solid neighborly relations with Russia. Baku needs Russia’s actual (as opposed to simply formal) presence in the North Caucasus.

Likewise, Moscow is interested in maintaining close ties with Azerbaijan and assisting it with stable development. Baku’s significance for Moscow was confirmed by Vladimir Putin when he proposed to George W. Bush that Russia and the U.S. jointly operate the Gabala radar, leased by Russia from Azerbaijan, for solving missile defense tasks. One of the first visits made by incumbent Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was to Baku.

Azerbaijan has received greater international interest due to its hydrocarbon resources and the increased importance of the Caspian region at large as an alternative source of energy for the European market. Located at an intersection of interests of various countries, Azerbaijan has to conduct an accurate and flexible foreign policy.


Unlike Armenia, which withdrew from the Soviet Union on the basis of Soviet legislation, Azerbaijan did not create its statehood from scratch but rather restored it. The first Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) was proclaimed on May 28, 1918. At the Paris Peace Conference in early 1920, the Allied Supreme Council extended de facto recognition to Azerbaijan. However, the ADR was not admitted to the League of Nations because, as a memorandum of the League of Nations Secretary-General explained, the territory of Azerbaijan had been part of the Russian Empire, which brought up the question as to whether a declaration of independence and recognition by the Allied Powers was enough to regard Azerbaijan as de jure a “full self-governing State.” The problem was “solved” very soon: in April 1920, Soviet power was established in Azerbaijan.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Soviet (parliament) of Azerbaijan, in a declaration adopted at its extraordinary session on August 30, 1991, said that the republic was restoring its national independence. The newly independent Azerbaijan proclaimed its political and legal succession from the “old” republic.

The “restored” Azerbaijani statehood has existed for 16 years now, demonstrating its viability and effectiveness. In the first quarter of 2007, for example, the national economy grew by 40 percent.
Azerbaijan is a Moslem country, and in October 1991 there was established the Islamic Party of Progress of Azerbaijan, followed some time later by the creation of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (IPA), which declared the achievement of “social and economic independence of Azerbaijan through the establishment of Islamic laws in the country” as its main goals. Azerbaijan also has its share of extremist organizations, among them Jeishullah (“Army of God”) and Hezbollah (“Party of God”).

At the same time, Azerbaijan is a secular state that declares its commitment to democratic ideals. It also strongly rejects Islamic fundamentalism. In 1995, for example, the IPA was denied re-registration. In May 1996, its leaders were arrested, and in 1997 they were convicted of collaboration with Iranian special services.

Post-Soviet Azerbaijan, which plays a key role in the South Caucasus and the Middle East, has proved that it is not a weak and dependent geopolitical player. Moreover, it is the only country in the Commonwealth of Independent States with a successfully diversified foreign policy.

Following the principle, “We have no friends, nor enemies, but only interests,” Baku has caused the most powerful nations to seek friendship with this small state. Despite a host of difficulties, Azerbaijan has found the key to maintaining relations with important international players. Unlike Tbilisi, Baku has become “one of us” in various capitals of the global powers.

In the first republic, Azeris first played the role of a younger brother to Turkey; later, it served as an “oil rig” to Britain. The “second Azerbaijan” acts in a much more scrupulous manner, not wanting to put all of its eggs into one basket. On the one hand, it participates in the pro-Western GUAM [an intergovernmental organization established by Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova – Ed.]; on the other, it speaks of its strategic interest in a partnership with the Russian Federation.

Even during his visit to Washington in April 2006, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, in his address to the influential U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, emphasized his devotion to cooperation with Russia. Incidentally, Russian diplomats usually refer to Baku as Russia’s “strategic partner” (with regard to Armenia, they use the term “strategic ally”).

Due to its good relations with America (which in the 1990s was pro-Armenian), Azerbaijan has not been included in a blacklist of “undemocratic” states – despite the authoritarianism of its leadership. Azerbaijani-U.S. friendship has helped Baku solve the delicate task of transferring power in the country from father to son. The U.S. sympathizes with the anti-Aliyev opposition, yet it does not overestimate the extent of the latter’s influence. In November 2005, on the eve of Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections to the Milli Mejlis (parliament), influential U.S. Senator Richard Lugar remarked that no “orange revolutions” were expected in Azerbaijan. Other American officials, including George Soros and Glen Howard, the president of the Jamestown Foundation, made similar statements. Howard, an expert on the Caucasus and Central Asia, noted that Azerbaijan’s significant oil resources caused Washington to ignore some points of Azerbaijan’s domestic politics.

The European Union is a much less reliable partner for Azerbaijan. European organizations have criticized political processes in the country, pointing to numerous violations of legislation and abuses of power by officials of all levels. Yet, Azerbaijan, just as Georgia and Armenia, which are considered to be more democratic states, was also included in the European Neighborhood Policy. Azerbaijani leaders stressed the need for close integration with the EU in all areas. In 1999, Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Safar Abiyev said that his country viewed itself as “a component part of the new Europe.”

Azerbaijan has achieved much more progress in economic cooperation with individual European countries. The more reliable allies of the United States, above all Poland, advocate Baku’s active involvement. The director of Azerbaijan’s Oil Research Center, Ilham Shabanov, commented in April 2007: “Today, Poland is building a new concept of its oil and gas security. It would like to see Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine among its main partners. Or, to be more exact, Warsaw needs Caspian oil, which should be transported to Poland via Georgia and Ukraine.”
Baku has demonstrated its ability to balance not only the American-Russian seesaw. In 1991, post-Soviet Azerbaijan, just as the ADR, chose Turkey as its strategic partner. However, relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey today are no longer constructed upon the ‘vassal and lord’ model, as they were in 1918-1920.

During the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (1991-1994), Ankara helped Baku and closed the Armenian-Turkish border in 1993. However, there was no full-scale Turkish military intervention in Armenia. In the early 2000s, Turkey lobbied Azerbaijan’s interests in NATO, and supported Baku in its disputes with Teheran over the Caspian Sea.

Azerbaijan has also reversed negative trends in its bilateral relations with Iran, a traditional rival of Turkey in the Caucasus and the Middle East. Rapprochement between the two countries began in 2004-2006, when Teheran, worried about the possibility of Azerbaijan becoming an outpost for a military operation against Iran, began to pursue a more balanced policy toward Baku. For its part, Azerbaijan understood that, if a war broke out in the Middle East, it could spill over into the Caucasus and spark an ecological disaster in the Caspian region. Therefore, it became much more tolerant toward its southern neighbor. In 2004, Azerbaijan opened a consulate general office in the city of Tabriz, which is situated in northern Iran and populated largely by ethnic Azerbaijanis. President Ilham Aliyev paid a visit to Iran in 2005; one year later, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Azerbaijan.

The warming of relations with Tehran does not prevent Baku from being friends with Israel, a state with which it has found common values. In the autumn of 2006, the Head of the Department of Propaganda, Information and Analysis of Azerbaijan’s State Committee for Work with Azerbaijanis Living Abroad, Javanshir Veliyev, said that Holocaust museums around the world would include special sections about “genocide of Azerbaijanis” in Khojaly in February 1992 [a military operation by ethnic Armenian troops in that town on the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh that resulted in numerous casualties among civilians. – Author]. Veliyev said that the exhibits would “meet the interests of not only Azerbaijani but also Jewish organizations, as they themselves have repeatedly stated.” In addition, Baku capitalizes on the strenuous relations between Armenian and Jewish lobbies in the United States and Europe.


Azerbaijan, which serves as an important Caspian link between the South Caucasus and Central Asia, occupies a major place in Russia’s foreign policy.

American political analyst Zbigniew Brzezinski has described Azerbaijan as the “cork in the bottle containing the riches of the Caspian Sea basin and Central Asia.” An independent, Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan, with pipelines running from it to the ethnically related and politically supportive Turkey, would prevent Russia from exercising a monopoly on access to the region. It would thus deprive Russia of decisive political leverage over the policies of the new Central Asian states.

Now that Russia is involved in the struggle against international Islamic terrorism, relations with its politically stable secular neighbor, which holds an uncompromising position toward religious extremists, are highly important.

The Azerbaijan factor also plays a role in Russia’s domestic policy. Official statistics estimate the number of ethnic Azerbaijanis that migrated to Russia from 1989 to 1999 at 62,800. According to Russia’s 2002 national census, 621,500 ethnic Azerbaijanis live in 55 administrative entities of the Russian Federation, which makes them the 13th largest ethnic minority in the country. Russian law enforcement bodies and the Embassy of Azerbaijan in Moscow believe that the actual number of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Russia is much higher. In 2000, Heydar Aliyev, addressing a constituent assembly of the Russian Congress of Azerbaijanis, estimated the number of his fellow countrymen living in Russia at about one million. According to estimates of the director of the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Ruslan Grinberg, private remittances sent from Russia to Azerbaijan are somewhere between 1.8 billion to 2.4 billion dollars a year.

Enlisting Russia’s major partners in an interview to Novaya Gazeta (August 7, 2006), the head of the Russian Presidential Administration’s Department for Inter-Regional and Cultural Ties with Foreign Countries, Modest Kolerov, said: “Our strategic ally Germany, France, Italy, Kazakhstan, the wonderful country of Azerbaijan, and Belarus.” Interestingly, the list of Russia’s “best friends” did not include Armenia, which until then had been considered to be the main pro-Russian force in the South Caucasus.

Russia’s high estimation of Azerbaijan was largely due to the fact that in November 2005 the former prevented a wave of “colored” revolutions in the CIS. The then CIS Executive Secretary, Vladimir Rushailo of Russia, proclaimed the November 2005 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan valid even before the Azerbaijani Central Election Commission did. For an entire year after those events, Moscow repeatedly described its relations with Baku as a foreign-policy priority.

At the same time, the independent Republic of Azerbaijan, unlike Armenia, has never reached a high level of cooperation with Russia, particularly in the military and political spheres. Unlike Armenia, Azerbaijan is not a member of the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Azerbaijan is a member of the GUAM, which is sometimes described as an “anti-CIS” organization and a counterweight to Russian influence in the former Soviet republics. Today, the role of Azerbaijan is essentially increasing; this is a real change from when Georgia and Ukraine played the lead roles in the “renewed GUAM.” In fact, the latest GUAM summit (June 18-19, 2007) was held in Baku. There, for the first time, the Azerbaijani leadership received public support from Ukraine for its efforts to “gather lands.” Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko described Armenia’s policy in Nagorno-Karabakh as “occupational” and expressed readiness to send Ukrainian “blue helmets” to the area of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict (Formerly, Yushchenko spoke of the need to deploy Ukrainian peacekeepers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia). The Baku summit included two dialogues between GUAM and Japan, and between GUAM and Poland.

Moscow continues to keep a close watch over the development of U.S.-Azerbaijani relations. On the eve of Ilham Aliyev’s visit to the United States (April 2006), Washington described Azerbaijan as its “Islamic ally.” Earlier, the same title was awarded to Turkey.

Meanwhile, Baku is a point in the South Caucasus where the positions of Moscow and Washington coincide most closely. Both the U.S. and Russia are interested in a stable and modernizing secular Azerbaijan. For the White House, just as for the Kremlin, democratization of the political life in Azerbaijan is much less important than the predictability of its regime.

The Kremlin is obviously displeased with the “special relations” (energy partnership, and joint transport projects) between Azerbaijan and Georgia, which is pursuing a strategic course toward Euro-Atlantic integration, together with a policy of escaping from its Russian “imperial legacy.” The Georgia factor was the main reason for the chill in Moscow-Baku relations in late 2006-early 2007.
However, Russian-Azerbaijani relations have avoided the Russia-Georgia scenario, and the emerging differences have not reversed their development. Unlike Mikhail Saakashvili, Ilham Aliyev has not made the anti-Russian card the main weapon in foreign and domestic policy. Moreover, in March 2007, the Azerbaijani leader made an unofficial visit to Moscow; at a meeting with Vladimir Putin he emphasized that he cherished neighborly relations with the Russian Federation. Baku criticized Russia for the “politicization” of the gas price problem for only a month. On the other hand, Azerbaijan is far less dependent than Georgia on Russia’s energy resources and, therefore, can afford to conduct a more flexible policy toward Moscow.

Moscow and Baku have conflicting positions over Russia’s strategic alliance with Armenia, and this alliance has largely predetermined Azerbaijan’s decision to join GUAM instead of CSTO. Baku views Russia’s military presence in Armenia (especially after the deployment of Russian troops to Armenia that had been withdrawn from Georgia) as a reason for a possible escalation of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

Yet, despite the complexity of their mutual relations, Russia and Azerbaijan have great potential for developing their partnership. Baku does not consider Russia’s military presence in the country (for instance, at the Gabala radar, or the plan proposed by the then Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov for establishing an international naval task force, named CASFOR, which would unite Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan) as causing damage to Azerbaijan’s national sovereignty. Many Azerbaijani officials, starting from President Ilham Aliyev, have repeatedly praised Russia’s peacemaking potential in the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement. The fact that the idea of possibly deploying Russian peacekeepers in the area of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict was voiced in Baku on two separate occasions in 2006 (by then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov) speaks volumes.

The large Azerbaijani diaspora in Russia is another important factor in the development of relations between the two countries. On the other hand, members of some ethnic groups of Dagestan (Russia’s North Caucasus), among them Lezgins, Avars and Tsakhurs, live on the territory of Azerbaijan and play a marked role in North Caucasian ethno-political processes.


One bright spot in Russian-Azerbaijani relations is that Baku and Moscow are learning to correct their mistakes of the early 1990s. Russia’s mistakes included its overly pro-Armenian policy and non-diversified policy in the South Caucasus. It must be emphasized, however, that normalized Russian-Azerbaijani contacts should not mean a disregard of Armenia, Russia’s centuries-old geopolitical ally that supports a Russian presence in Transcaucasia. Russia should simply pursue a balanced and diversified policy.

Azerbaijan’s most serious mistake was its political contacts with Chechen separatists. The goals and slogans of the National Congress of the Chechen People were very much in tune with the political ideology of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party. Azerbaijani nationalists viewed the National Congress of the Chechen People as a possible ally in the “anti-colonial struggle.” Azerbaijan’s second president, Abulfaz Elchibei, held pro-Chechen positions, while in 1992 Interior Minister Isgandar Hamidov, who was the leader of the Grey Wolves (“Bozqurt”) Party, called himself a personal friend of the leader of Chechen separatists, Dzhokhar Dudayev. It was even discovered that a small group of Chechen militants fought in Nagorno-Karabakh on the side of Azerbaijan.

Furthermore, in 1994, when the Russian-Chechen conflict broke out into military hostilities, Chechen separatist troops included a small group of Azerbaijanis, mostly supporters of the Bozqurt party (in an interview with British BBC Radio, Hamidov spoke of 270 volunteers). In the summer of 1999, the president of the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic (Ichkeria), Aslan Maskhadov, appointed Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev as his ambassador to Moslem countries. The head office was situated in Baku. It is no secret that Chechen separatists and Azerbaijani criminals established many contacts in various underground businesses.

According to the head of Ichkeria’s “foreign intelligence,” Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev, Azerbaijan provided “invaluable support in accommodating [Chechen] refugees.” After 1994, 4,700 Chechens were registered in Azerbaijan (the 1989 national census in the Soviet Union put the number of Chechens living there at a mere 456). Indigenous Azerbaijanis generally sympathized with Chechnya, and in January 1995, a Cultural Center of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria was opened in Baku.

The then president of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, said that Chechnya was “Russia’s internal affair” and viewed the “Chechen issue” primarily as a humanitarian problem. Indeed, by 2000, there were about 10,000 refugees from Chechnya in Azerbaijan, thus making Chechnya a key problem in relations between Azerbaijan and Russia. But circumstances caused Baku to revise its Chechen policy.
First, the Azerbaijani leadership has always viewed the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as struggle against Armenian separatism. However, this point of view cannot be realistically defended at the international level if one supports separatism in another area, namely Chechnya.

Second, an escalation of tensions in Russian-Azerbaijani relations may prompt Moscow to introduce, among other measures, tight visa restrictions. Such a response would hit Azerbaijan hard, considering the large Azerbaijani diaspora in Russia and its socio-economic significance for Baku.

In July 2000, the Ichkerian office in Baku was closed. Inter-ethnic clashes between immigrants from Chechnya and Azerbaijanis in 2000-2001 reduced the scale of support for the “Chechen cause.” In 2001, Russian and Azerbaijani special services conducted a joint operation to detain three separatist field commanders.

These measures prompted a strong negative reaction from the Chechens. In March 2001, a group of Chechen refugees published an open letter to President Heydar Aliyev. In May of the same year, Maskhadov announced that Azerbaijan “has ceased to be a friendly country for Ichkeria.” The September 11, 2001 events played a role, too. In October 2002, Baku condemned a hostage taking in a Moscow theater, and in September 2004 it denounced the terrorist attack in Beslan. Azerbaijani state-owned media have changed their tone when covering stories related to Chechen refugees in the country. These developments attest to significant improvements in Russian-Azerbaijani relations on the “Chechen issue.”

Last updated 9 august 2008, 13:52

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