Thursday, 29 April 2010


Published in Analytical Articles

By Tomas Zirve (4/29/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst)

In Azerbaijan, President Obama’s sweeping and gesturing foreign policy has come unstuck. The White House’s actions have concerned Baku so severely that Azerbaijan is looking to further hedge its already finely balanced international relationships.

In Azerbaijan, President Obama’s sweeping and gesturing foreign policy has come unstuck. The White House’s actions have concerned Baku so severely that Azerbaijan is looking to further hedge its already finely balanced international relationships. The last two years, which have witnessed the specter of Russian military intervention and the return of terrorism to the North Caucasus, mean that America’s need for dependable allies in the broader region will likely increase. Washington’s current treatment of Baku, and Azerbaijan’s resulting search for other friends, will make this more difficult than is currently blithely assumed.

BACKGROUND: Recent U.S. engagement with Azerbaijan has been ill-considered and, too often, clumsy. Sober realpolitik induced by the unbalanced U.S. regional approach is encouraging the Government of Azerbaijan to look beyond Washington. The lessons of the August 2008 War in Georgia are clear – in the Caucasus, America increasingly seems to be a fair weather friend.

The Obama administration has given President Aliyev few reasons to allay such concerns. One incident is particularly revealing. In February 2009 David Plouffe, Obama’s chief campaign strategist, visited Baku. In the course of his trip, Plouffe spoke to the Association for Civil Society Development in Azerbaijan (later alleged by Radio Free Europe of being one of the regime’s mouthpieces) and also met with President Aliyev and Speaker of Parliament Asadov. However, when the Wall Street Journal reported that Plouffe intended to give away his US$ 50,000 speaking fee to pro-democracy groups, this began to unravel. Plouffe claimed that he was not in full possession of facts surrounding the funding of the Association. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs intervened to state that Plouffe was travelling as a private citizen, asserting that if President Obama wished to make contact with President Aliyev, he would simply pick up the telephone. Interestingly, it would seem that the President has still not done so.

The damage caused by this poorly conceived trip can be seen at an everyday level. Rumors are currently circulating within Washington’s beltway that the Government of Azerbaijan is engaging non-U.S. political consultants and public relations practitioners to manage its international image and election campaigns. The shift in its international focus which this development seems to indicate should be troubling. While Washington will always matter to Azerbaijan, necessity drives foreign relations. Baku’s turn to European capitals, when factored into its improving relations with Russia, should set alarm bells ringing.

Even diplomatic relations have suffered. The February 2010 visit by William Burns, under-secretary of state for political affairs, saw Azerbaijan praised for supporting the U.S. in Afghanistan. Burns also mentioned the BTC pipeline’s help in circumventing Russian transit routes and, unlike both Plouffe and Gibbs, encouraged the Aliyev regime to move towards democracy without directly insulting the Azerbaijani Government. Despite this, Burns’ somewhat ineffectual posturing stands in contrast to the approach of the Bush administration. In the course of his 2008 visit, Vice-President Dick Cheney assured Baku that the two countries had "many interests in common”. While words matter, actions matter more – the appearance of an American Vice-President in Baku trumps that of an under-secretary. This is a message which will not have been lost in translation. As the Obama administration has yet to appoint an ambassador to Azerbaijan, the error is compounded. This vacancy is made even more glaring by the fact that the U.S. is one of the co-chairs of the Minsk process. The message is increasingly conspicuous – Baku is not a priority on the Potomac.

IMPLICATIONS: The wider canvas of U.S. policy in the region endorses this conclusion. The Obama administration’s relentless focus on Turkey and Armenia has left Azerbaijan smarting. The first move made by Washington towards a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, in which the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh was neatly sidestepped, was deeply troubling for Baku. It provided a double insult – not only was the failure to deal with the question of the occupied territory problematic, but the implication of a Washington-led push to reshape the nature of Turkish relations in the Caucasus (which by inference meant a downgrading of Ankara’s relationship with Azerbaijan) was taken very seriously.

Fazail Agamali, a member of Azerbaijan’s Milli Majlis, observed that America’s “efforts aimed at Armenian-Turkish reconciliation failed without taking into account Azerbaijan’s position on the Karabakh issue … The U.S. is trying to push resolution of the Karabakh conflict into the background”.

Things have not improved with time. The deleterious effects on America’s relationship with Turkey of the administration’s failure to prevent the passage of House Resolution 252 are clear. Less widely acknowledged has been the reaction in Azerbaijan. From Baku, where the memory of the Khojaly massacre is strong, this seems ample evidence of American double standards. To borrow from Tip O’Neill, this is yet more proof that under this administration ‘all politics is local’. As a Senator, President Obama spoke in support of formal U.S. recognition of the 1915 massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman empire as genocide, and co-signed a letter to then President Bush asking for this acknowledgment. The one million refugees created by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have no such powerful supporters. Amidst the furor in Washington over the Armenian genocide question, few have noticed the debilitating repercussions in Baku and the wider region.

The implications for America’s ability to project influence and power in the South Caucasus are serious. Azerbaijan’s natural gas supplies, with their remarkable ability to encourage European diversification of energy supply, and the country’s willingness to serve alongside America in its theatres of conflict should not be overlooked. Recent developments indicate that it would be presumptuous to assume that this support can be depended on indefinitely. Given Azerbaijan’s improving relations with Moscow, there is a very real chance for American interests to be badly hurt in the region. This is not yet inevitable.

CONCLUSIONS: Not everybody is looking the other way. This March Congressmen Shuster, Conaway, Burton, Coble, Rehberg, Ortiz, McMahon, Boozman, Ryan and Congresswoman Myrick wrote to President Obama outlining the importance of U.S.–Azerbaijani relations. It would be wise for the White House to pay attention. While this administration may feel that it has the ability to treat allies poorly, confident in America’s enduring authority, it is taking unwarrantable risks. Clearly questions remain over the state of democracy and power of the executive in the energy-rich country. However, embarrassing and ignoring an ally in such a vital strategic region makes for poor policy. In the last fortnight President Aliyev implicitly criticized Washington on Azerbaijani national television. Presidential Advisor Novruz Mammadov has been more explicit, arguing in an article for Radio Free Europe that American regional policy is redundant without an engaged Azerbaijan. The subtext is clear – Azerbaijan cares what Washington thinks, but is tired of being insulted.  It is vital for Washington’s ongoing regional interests that it re-casts this relationship in terms which strengthen, rather than weaken, ties between the two nations.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Tomas Zirve is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies.
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