09.08.2008
Without Friends and Foes
№3 2008 July/September
Sergey Markedonov

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

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.

THE “PENDULUM” 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.

STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP AND TACTICAL DIFFERENCES

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.

LEARNING LESSONS OF THE PAST

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.”