Shift in Azerbaijan May Create Winning Scenario for Armenia


 

By Edmond Y. Azadian

Pundits and observers of the Western press have noticed recently the intensification of criticism of the Azeri government and its authoritarian ruler, Ilham Aliyev. One can surmise a real deterioration in US-Azeri relations. But that is only the tip of the iceberg, because powerful undercurrents — including regional realignments and tectonic changes in world politics — are all playing their roles.

In the integrated world today, any political action will create a domino effect, influencing policies far away in another region.

Despite absolute freedom of the press in the US and Europe, there is a tacit collusion between the governments and the major news outlets. For example, any far-reaching policy change in the last Bush administration would be heralded in the editorial and op-ed columns of the Wall Street Journal. Similarly, recent improvement in the US-Cuban relations was preceded by a series of editorial comments in the New York Times encouraging the administration to abandon its 50-year-old isolationist policy toward Cuba. Either the Times editors were extremely prescient or they had received a nod from the administration to lay the groundwork with the American public for the policy shift.

And when Mr. Obama’s dramatic announcement came to change course in US-Cuban relations, some people were led to believe in the power of the press to impact policy.

It is through this perspective that we need to view the sudden surge of negative stories about Azerbaijan in the US press. It is no news that Azerbaijan was run by a despot all along.

In addition to a scathing editorial in the January 11 edition of the New York Times characterizing Aliyev as a “masterful political Jekyll and Hyde,” and blasting his deplorable human rights record, a sobering analysis of US-Azerbaijan relations was published by the Brookings Institute, authored by Richard D. Kauzlarich. As long as Mr. Kauzlarich served as US ambassador in Baku, he had no other choice but to spout the official State Department policy. But in this paper, he has taken the freedom to express his own profound observations and views, to portray Azerbaijan and its authorities in their true colors, which are not very flattering, to say the least. The conclusion of the paper is in its first few lines which says, “On December 3, 2014, the Heydar Aliyev era in Azerbaijan ended. With it went the previously close political relationship between the United States and Azerbaijan.”

In addition to his own analysis, Mr. Kauzlarich has based his conclusions on a paper published by the head of Azerbaijan’s presidential apparatus Ramiz Mehdiyev, where the latter views US-Azeri relations within the perspective of extreme political paranoia.

Mr. Kauzlarich presents three conditions for the restoration of Azerbaijan’s respectability in the West and asks the rhetorical question: “Impossible? Not if Azerbaijan truly desires the international and US respect it seeks. Respect results from actions. Freeing political prisoners and seriously negotiating with Armenia about ending the dispute over Nagorno Karabagh are the only path to earning that respect.”

The former diplomat’s evaluation is most revealing from the US and Armenian perspectives. In the past, when Washington was faced with the dilemma whether to adhere to US interests or US values, it often chose the first alternative when the issue was Azerbaijan. In this case, it looks as if the US is opting for the latter.

In an article published in the Open Democracy website, Thomas de Waal, the senior associate for the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, states: “Over the past year and a half, the government of Azerbaijan has taken an increasingly nasty, authoritarian and anti-Western character.”

Western media is inundated with harsh criticism of the Aliyev regime. Since Al Gore invited Al Jazeera to the US shores, the channel promotes US policy around the globe dressed in Middle Eastern garb. Posted on the Al Jazeera TV’s website is an article by Arzu Geybullayeva, a specialist in human rights, which states: “So long as President Ilham Aliyev keeps saying there are no political prisoners and no limitation on the freedom of speech in Azerbaijan — conjuring the illusion of a democratic country — little is going to change in this country.”

All criticism aside, where is Azerbaijan headed?

Mehdiyev’s article, echoing his master’s voice in Ankara, is stating that Azerbaijan has adopted an independent political course.

Turkey, while still keeping its membership in NATO, advocates the same policy. And since Turkey and Azerbaijan claim to be one nation with two governments, Aliyev is following the footsteps of his mentor, President Tayyip Recep Erdogan. Incidentally, the latter visited Baku on January 16, to extend his support to Aliyev, on the thorny issue of Karabagh. Alienated from the West, Aliyev needs that assurance more than ever.

With the West engaged in a colossal battle to deny Moscow a comeback as a world player, Turkey has found a political niche to built its own power base, independent from both camps. Azerbaijan is moving in lockstep with Ankara, in view of some other developments in the region:

  • The dramatic fall in energy prices have deflated Aliyev’s dreams to build a country along the lines of the Emirate states.
  • The confrontation between the West and Iran had boosted Baku’s political stake for Western powers and Israel, as a listening post and potential launching pad against Iran. Now, with the nuclear deal almost a reality, Azerbaijan no longer can serve as an asset for the West nor Israel.
  • Turkey’s U-turn towards Russia, signing the energy deal has pushed Azerbaijan further towards the EEU with Russia.

Russia in its turn is fighting back to achieve its former status as a world power. China has expressed solidarity with Russia, seeing the writing on the wall that if Moscow fails, the West will not spare Beijing, which is already on its way to become a world player.

China not only has pledged to support Russia financially, but also has tacitly signaled that it can use its US assets as a weapon to destabilize the US economy.

In these momentous political changes, Baku is about to choose its policy, which may lead it within the orbit of Russian influence, where Armenia has been comfortably ensconced.

On the one hand, the US-Azeri divide may offer comfort for Armenia that the US will no longer force a pro-Azeri solution, especially when Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act is still in place.

On the other hand, it will be too close for comfort if Azerbaijan gives in to Moscow’s pressure and joins the Customs Union.

In these new developments, it is in Turkey’s interest to intensify tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan to shield itself from Armenian demands and to play as savior to Baku.

Thus, Moscow will become the final arbiter, having three choices to grapple with: 1. To continue the status quo to keep both sides expecting a solution in their favor; 2. To force Armenia to make concessions to buy Azerbaijan’s allegiance or 3. With a broader perspective engage in an economic development program to create its own markets and to force the parties to cooperate, in which case, blockades necessarily need to be lifted and normal course of life may resume.

The last option will mark a win-win outcome for all parties.