IMPLICATIONS: The Azerbaijani government’s quick decision to agree to Russian demands for the price increase can be explain threefold. First and foremost, Azerbaijani officials understand that the purchase of Russian gas carries a temporary nature. The discovery of a major gas field at Shah Deniz (reserves estimated at 700 billion cubic meters) in 1999 by a BP-led consortium made Azerbaijan a potential net gas exporter. In March 2001, Azerbaijan signed a 15-year agreement with Turkey to supply gas to that country and for that purpose, construction began of a South Caucasus Gas pipeline connecting Baku to the Turkish city of Erzurum via Tbilisi. Thus, it is clear that within several years Azerbaijan will not need Russian gas any more and will be able to satisfy its domestic needs on its own. With this in mind, ruining the existing valuable and hard-built relations with the northern neighbor on eve of the widely expected progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process was not in the national interests of the Azerbaijani government. Secondly, the beginning of the oil export from the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli field in 1997 started supplying Azerbaijani government with much needed cash. The newly created State Oil Fund has already accumulated $1,2 billion. Thus, paying several million dollars from those coffers to satisfy Gazprom and the Kremlin suited President Aliyev’s agenda more than starting a brawl with President Putin and falling into the category of “unfriendly nations.” Finally, refusing to accept Gazprom’s terms and risking losing the supply of much needed gas during the winter time would spoil President Aliyev’s image domestically as the country moves away from contested parliamentary elections and the ruling party promises more wealth to the population. Despite these factors, the increase of the gas price by Gazprom will leave negative scars in the Azerbaijani-Russia relations. By acting in such monopolistic and unilateral ways, Gazprom and the Russian Government lose their image as a credible partner and energy supplier in the eyes of Azerbaijani government. This is important, because Gazprom, besides gas delivery, has expressed an interest in other projects in Azerbaijan, including offshore oil and gas field development. Gazprom officials have also advocated in the past the export of Shah-Deniz gas through the Blue Stream pipeline. These potential projects as well as the desire of another Russian energy giant, RAO-UES, to purchase electricity distribution networks and power generation facilities are now likely to be put on hold, as the Azerbaijani government realizes the potential danger of over-reliance on Russia for energy supply. Besides, there is a growing fear among members of the Azerbaijani ruling elite that outside powers have noticed the growing liquidity of the Azerbaijani government, and will try to use any reason to help themselves to these funds. In fact, Gazprom’s price increase is interpreted by many analysts in Baku simply as an attempt by the Kremlin to gain some of Azerbaijan’s petrodollars.
CONCLUSIONS: It is clear that Azerbaijan is not Ukraine, Georgia or Armenia when it comes to Russian gas policies. Though limited at the moment, Azerbaijan has its own sources of energy and unlike Georgia and Ukraine, it does not depend solely on its northern neighbor for energy supplies. At the same time, unlike Armenia, Azerbaijan does not have major debts to Russia and thus can not risk to be forced into a debt-for-asset type of deal that Russia has implemented to gain control over assets in other CIS republics. Thus, the energy tool as an instrument of Russian policy in Azerbaijan is doomed to failure. Not only will it prove unable to make the Azerbaijani government more pro-Russian than it currently is, but it will further deepen the distrust in Russian companies, built since early 1990s. The decision to increase gas prices for Azerbaijan failed to bring any political gains and only allowed Gazprom to extract extra commercial revenues from cash-rich Azerbaijan. With the way it was done, this will in turn bear serious negative consequences for the advancement of Russian economic interests in Azerbaijan in the long run.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Fariz Ismailzade is a Baku-based freelance writer.