President Mikheil Saakashvili visited Baku on February 27-28. After his meeting with President Ilham Aliyev, the two presidents praised ties between the countries at a joint press conference, “No matter who is in power in Georgia, the friendship between our country and Azerbaijan will live on ... Over the last 10 years, no country in the world has done as much for Georgia as Azerbaijan, has not given us as much support as Azerbaijan,” Saakashvili said in response to Aliyev’s assertion that Georgia and Azerbaijan are engaged in a “strategic partnership,” that is “developing and strengthening.”
However, when arriving at the Tbilisi airport, Saakashvili stated that Russia plans to stage the same “scenario” in Azerbaijan as it applied in Georgia before the 2012 parliamentary elections. “Georgia faces a split, and a change of power ... and now the Georgian script threatens Azerbaijan,” Saakashvili told journalists adding that Soyun Sadykov, a “billionaire” originally from Gardabani, a region of Georgia mostly populated by Azeris, has promised to obtain “autonomy for the Azeri population in Georgia” residing in the Kvemo Kartli region. According to Saakashvili, this is similar to the agenda of the recently pardoned Armenian activist Vahagn Chakhalyan, who advocates autonomy for Georgia’s Armenian minority settled in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region. Sadykov cooperates with another Azeri billionaire, Lukoil president Vagit Alakbarov, to “arrange a change of power in Azerbaijan using a large amount of money.”
According to Turan news agency, Sadykov has long been living in Moscow. A former KGB officer, he became a successful entrepreneur and reportedly a confidant of President Putin. He is one of the founders of the Union of Azerbaijani organizations in Russia, the so called “Union of Billionaires,” bringing together the richest Russian businessmen of Azerbaijani ethnicity. The emergence of this Union in September of 2012 has angered Baku, which views it as indicative of a Russian strategy to use the money of these oligarchs to finance a shift of power to a Moscow-supported leader similar to Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Georgian-born businessman who made billions in Russia and last year became Georgia’s prime minister on a platform that included improving ties with Russia.
In an interview to APA news agency on March 4, Sadykov rejected Saakashvili’s statement. “Neither Vagit Alakbarov or I have anything to do with Azerbaijan. We are Russian citizens. We work in Russia. Saakashvili knows me very well. His claim is a big blow to Georgia's image,” Sadykov stated.
Official Baku also expressed its confusion with the statement. In an interview to Newtimes.az on March 2, Novruz Mammadov, head of external relations department in the Presidential Administration said that Saakashvili’s assertion caused “amazement.” According to him, despite some “similarities” between processes taking place in Azerbaijan and Georgia, there are also a number of differences. “The statement that some representatives of our Diaspora in Russia have a threatening position towards Azerbaijan can reflect only his own opinion ... As a participant of many meetings with Saakashvili in Baku, I can say that such an issue was not discussed with him and there was no need for this,” said Novruzov.
Concerning the current state of relations between Azerbaijan and Russia, Novruzov noted that ties between the countries are “normal and friendly ... It is a pity that Saakashvili voiced his attitude toward Russia and implicated Azerbaijan, as well.”
Azerbaijan has traditionally taken a measured approach in its foreign policy and avoided provocations against Russia. While the country experiences a similar threat to its sovereignty from Moscow, it has pursued a more multi-vectored approach than has Georgia, maintaining good relations with Russia, alongside its ties to Turkey, Europe, the U.S, Israel, and others. For its part, Russia is interested in maintaining a regional balance of power between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Later on Monday, Georgian PM Ivanishvili issued a statement saying that “the irresponsible statements and actions” of the President contradicted the policy of the Georgian government and created additional problems for the new government: “...to restore the country's integrity and ensure peace in the region ... our task is to fulfill the assumed responsibilities to the European Union and NATO in full, strengthen our relations with neighboring Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, and Ukraine even further, and take steps towards normalizing relations with Russia.”
He expressed regret that the president’s statement had put the governments of Georgia’s allies and representatives of international organizations in “an awkward” situation. “I would like to state that the President of Georgia assumes full personal responsibility for his actions until the completion of his presidential term in October 2013; his visits will not be coordinated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia; and his statements will not represent the position of the Government of Georgia, unless confirmed otherwise by representatives of the country's new government,” the statement said.
However, Baku-based democracy activist Bakhtiyar Hajiyev urged the West through his Facebook page to take action: “Georgian President Saakashvili is a person who is serious enough and if he says that ‘Russia is preparing coup d'état in Azerbaijan’, then he possesses serious information that could be a ground to say so … The United States should not be late this time. It should not to put the process of establishing a democratic state in Azerbaijan aside. If necessary steps are taken, then the United States will both rescue Azerbaijan from being an outpost of Russia and achieve democratic changes in Azerbaijan.”