Ignoring Azerbaijan could cost the U.S. - September, 2010

What conclusions can someone draw when a prestigious Washington daily like the Washington Times claims that - "Armenia has occupied" an enclave within a nation that the United States considers its "closest ally in the region", an "indispensable strategic partner" and one that "deserves more direct and concrete support from the Obama administration"?!

I think the insinuations here are quite obvious. I also think this is the closest an American daily has come in a long time to calling for an Armenian defeat in Nagorno Karabakh. In my opinion, the newspaper's commentary is ultimately a desperate reaction to the region's recent visit by the president of the Russian Federation. While the government controlled news media here in the United States was totally silent about Medvedev's visit to Yerevan, I have no doubt that his visit to Baku was seen as an alarming development, even though the press would still not directly address it.

As a result of the major geopolitical changes brought upon by Georgia's strategically significant defeat two years ago, Baku has considerably toned-down its dealings with Washington. Naturally, Baku has also significantly increased its dealing with the Russian Federation, signing a series of agreements with Moscow during the past several years. Soon after the end of major hostilities between Russia and Georgia, the rising tension between Baku and Washington became very apparent. When Dick Cheney flew to Baku to hold urgent negotiations with Aliev regarding the alarming situation in Georgia, it was reported that Aliev refused to personally received Cheney at the airport, sending a deputy to meet him instead.

Nevertheless, the Washington Post's unabashedly Russophobic and Turkophilic commentary is more evidence that much to the dismay of certain special interests in America, senior policy makers in Washington have been forced by Moscow to at least temporarily abandon their "great game" in the Caucasus.

While the Washington Time's article seen below can be characterized a plea to Washington officials not to forget their most important strategic partner in the Caucasus, the second lengthy analysis appearing below is essentially a warning to the Aliev administration by an Azeri analyst at the Henry Jackson Society; it's well worth reading.

Arevordi

***

Ignoring Azerbaijan could cost the U.S.

http://cache.daylife.com/imageserve/0eDLbZO79Ygy8/610x.jpg

Tensions between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia on the fate of the Nagorno-Karabakh region are reaching dangerous levels. In the past year, the Azeri enclave in the South Caucasus, which Armenia has occupied since 1992, has been the focus of increased violence. Just last month, six people were killed in an exchange of fire across the temporary line that separates the two sides. Prospects of another war in the Caspian Sea region are real. But as the rhetoric heats up, little is heard from Washington. Azerbaijan, America's closest ally in the region, deserves more direct and concrete support from the Obama administration.

Pinned between Iran and Russia on the ancient Silk Road bridging Europe and Asia, this former Soviet republic is an indispensable strategic partner. It is known mostly for its very significant oil and natural gas reserves, but it also is becoming a decisively vital source of support for Washington's push to end the Afghanistan quagmire. The United States has routinely used Azeri airports in support of NATO and U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, and thousands of flights carrying supplies to and from the Afghan theater have crossed Azeri airspace over the past nine years since Sept. 11, 2001.

What is far less known is that the capital, Baku, also has become a credible sounding board on sensitive political developments. This translates into helping the Obama administration's foreign policy team get a sensible and qualified reading on Russia's aggressive political posture in the Caucasus and on an exceedingly defiant Iran. But neither Mr. Obama nor his senior aides have come up with a serious plan to jump-start negotiations with Armenia on Nagorno-Karabakh. It took more than a year for the administration to pick an ambassador to Azerbaijan, and Mr. Obama has yet to meet with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev.

Worse, unlike in the Middle East, no special envoy has been appointed to help - and ultimately replace - the idling Minsk Group. A cautious and passive America in the Caucasus will only embolden an increasingly aggressive Russia. Mr. Obama must help defuse a potentially disastrous international conflict - before it is too late.

Source: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/sep/3/ignoring-azerbaijan-could-cost-the-us/

US-Azeri Relations- Aliev's Dangerous Game

http://asbarez.com/App/Asbarez/eng/2010/08/0817aliyev.jpg

Executive Summary

- US-Azerbaijani relations are at an all time low and the United States stand accused of mistreating and ignoring Baku.

- Many in the US consider the Obama administration responsible for alienating a key regional ally – a series of alleged diplomatic snubs as well as corruption allegations against the Aliev ruling family in the Washington Post stand out in a list of perceived American slights.

- However, it is President Aliev’s own policies, which are aimed at reducing American influence in Azerbaijan and taking the country closer to Russia, which lie at the heart of current impasse.

- Azerbaijani authorities cannot ignore US concerns over human rights and democracy and must restore cooperation on energy issues to previous levels, particularly over the crucial Nabucco gas pipeline project.

The current state of US-Azeri relations is a hot topic among local and international commentators and observers. Discussion of the issue almost invariably leads to attempts to diagnose the causes of deterioration in a previously close strategic partnership. And these causes are almost always deemed to be found in the alleged hostility Washington is said to display towards an increasingly confident Baku.

This view is also shared amongst Azerbaijan experts in the United States, many of whom are suddenly engaged in uncharacteristic self-flagellation. Thus, Ariel Cohen of the US Heritage Foundation, recently called on the United States to “begin a new strategic dialogue with Azerbaijan, raising this issue at a high level and restoring the confidence and support of a pro-western orientation in policy in Baku”. Veteran Azerbaijan-watcher Thomas Goltz, in a well-received article in Foreign Policy, helpfully provided “the list of American insults”, which, he argues, “is long and growing longer”. There seems to be a consensus that bilateral relations are at an all time low and, as far as the supporters of President Ilham Aliev’s regime are concerned, the fault lies entirely with the US and the Obama administration in particular.

This crowd usually draws attention to a series of alleged diplomatic snubs and slights: The delay in the appointment of a new US Ambassador to Azerbaijan and President Aliev not being invited to the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in 2009 are the most frequently mentioned examples, amongst others. There is also the issue of the sensationalist article in the Washington Post alleging that Aliev’s 11-year old son owned millions of dollars’ worth of real estate in Dubai – allegations Aliev did not deny, despite being reportedly furious and blaming the State Department for leaking the story to the Post.

More seriously, there is the matter of the infamous Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act passed by Congress in 1992. The caveat restricted US government-to-government aid to Baku in the context of the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territories of Nagorno Karabakh and regions around it. Azerbaijan, having lost 16% of its internationally recognised territory, was essentially penalised by the US, largely due to pressure from the powerful Armenian lobby in the Congress. As Goltz argues, Section 907 raises doubts in Baku about the US being “an honest broker”, given that America is a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, an international body charged with finding a peaceful solution to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

The issue came to the fore last year when President Obama launched a new initiative to improve Armenian-Turkish relations. The US supported the efforts to normalise relations by way of opening the Armenian-Turkish border, closed by Ankara in 1993 after the Armenian army conquered and ethnically cleansed the Azerbaijani region of Kelbajar outside Nagorno-Karabakh. The US policy took the form of Armenian-Turkish Protocols signed in Zurich in October 2009. Critics of the US argue that this diplomatic initiative came at Azerbaijan’s expense and sought to exclude and isolate Azerbaijani concerns over Karabakh.

Azerbaijan vigorously opposed US efforts, successfully lobbying Turkey on the issue and forcing Ankara to publicly include progress on the Karabakh negotiations as a pre-condition for the continuation of Armenian-Turkish rapprochement. The sabotage of “the Obama-inspired accords”, according to Goltz was seen as “a nearly existential diplomatic victory for Baku”.

Ultimately, there is a growing perception that US is not interested in friendship with Azerbaijan and views the country as a means to different political ends – war in Afganistan being the key priority at the moment. Continued Azerbaijani support for the US military effort against the Taliban was at the top of the agenda during US Defence Secretary Robert Gates’ visit to Baku earlier this month. The fear in Washington is that the Aliev administration may reduce its level of military cooperation with the United States and even shut down critical air, rail and sea-port access granted to NATO forces in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. Many in Baku are annoyed at what they see as the dismissive and cynical attitude of American leaders. It is no surprise that Gates was not invited to dine with the Azeri President. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s upcoming visit to Azerbaijan is also expected to be a difficult and strained affair.

Yet there is a different, and perhaps more accurate, reading of the situation. For starters the United States can produce its own lengthy (and rather disturbing) list of Azerbaijani insults and snubs. The cracks in the relations between the US and Azerbaijan were evident as far back as 2005. Back then, the Azerbaijani authorities, mindful of US involvement in supporting pro-democracy movements in the Ukraine and Georgia, and with parliamentary elections approaching, took drastic steps to reduce American influence in Azerbaijan.

The bullying and intimidation of the staff at the Baku office of the National Democratic Institute was the most serious incident of that period. The NDI was accused of supporting youth organisations charged with trying “to overthrow the state”. Personnel at NDI had their homes broken into and trashed, whilst being subjected to hostile media attacks. It took an unprecedented emergency visit by the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to repair the damage but at the cost of a full-scale replacement of NDI Baku senior executive staff. In fact NDI never fully recovered and its local operations and programmes have been significantly curtailed. It is unlikely that Democrats (now in office) have forgotten or forgiven the humiliation their colleagues suffered in Azerbaijan.

Despite the NDI incident and the fact that the November 2005 elections were blatantly and violently rigged by the Aliev regime, President Bush invited the Azeri leader to Washington on a state visit in 2006. Two years later Vice President Dick Cheney received a far less welcoming reception when he arrived in Baku to seek Aliev’s support for US regional policy in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia.

Moreover in December 2008 authorities in Baku shut down Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts on national frequencies (along with Radio Free Europe and BBC). The Soviet-style move decimated the VOA audience and was seen as yet another attempt to curtail freedom of expression in Azerbaijan. This is no mere diplomatic snub - this is a hostile political action aimed at further reducing American influence in Azerbaijan. Something like this might be expected from Iran or Armenia, but not from a US-allied, friendly country. The State Department was understandably furious.

This short chronological analysis suggests that the first shots in the US-Azerbaijani stand-off were fired by the Aliev regime, with US policy slowly developing in response. In fact, criticisms of US policy towards Azerbaijan fall apart under closer scrutiny. The notorious Section 907 mentioned above was almost immediately negated by President Clinton and effectively suspended by President Bush. Despite of protestations from the American-Armenian lobby, the United States pursued pro-Azerbaijani and pro-Turkish policies throughout the last 15 years, helping Azerbaijan to isolate Armenia and exclude that country from regional economic and energy projects, and, of course, not recognising the events of 1915 in Ottoman Empire as an “Armenian genocide”.

When it comes to the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement initiative, critics of the United States seem to suffer from collective amnesia. President Obama was very keen to include Baku in his regional policy in the wake of the war in Georgia. The initiative began with Obama’s historic visit to Istanbul in April 2009. Many have forgotten that President Aliev was invited to join President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan to discuss American plans. Here was a unique opportunity for the Azeri leader to place the Karabakh issue at the very heart of US regional strategy, or at the very least personally inform his American counterpart and Turkish ally of the strength of feeling on the issue in Baku. In a pathetic display of petulance Aliev chose to snub Obama, leaving the US leadership with no choice but to try and exclude him from the Armenian-Turkish peace effort. The matter was further compounded by Aliev’s spectacularly childish move in signing a symbolic gas deal with Russian state monopoly Gazprom.

Far from being an existential victory for Azerbaijani diplomacy, Aliev’s undermining of US interests in the region seriously harmed its long-term strategic national interest. The non-invitation of Aliev to the Nuclear Summit and the Washington Post article should be read in this context. The question for Aliev’s supporters and apologists is simple – what did you think was going to happen? One cannot expect to “slap” a US president and expect not to get punched in return.

What is worse, contrary to self-congratulatory rhetoric in the Azeri state media, the Armenian-Turkish Protocols are far from dead and the issue is likely to come back with a vengeance after the Turkish elections next year. Many commentators are confident that, since neither party had withdrawn their signatures from the Protocols, the issue of ratification is a matter of time and further negotiations. Aliev can certainly expect to be excluded from these. After all, he was outplayed by the Turkish leadership who, having promised in April 2009 not to sign any agreements with Armenia, still went ahead with signing of the Protocols just a few months later.

Yet the most important issue in US-Azeri relations remains strangely absent from the analysis of critics of American policy - namely energy. Whilst it is true that Afganistan and the War on Terror are foremost in current US calculations (and rightly so), the long-term American goals in the Caspian/Central Asian region remain unchanged – energy security, diversification of energy supplies and promotion of multiple pipeline systems together remain a strategic priority for Washington. This was true under the Clinton and Bush administrations and remains true today.

At a time when Russia is rapidly increasing her own energy transportation capacity and seeks to undermine US-backed projects in the region, the position taken by the Aliev regime, especially in regards to the Nabucco Pipeline, helps to better understand Washington’s growing frustration with Baku. Aliev’s policy on the issue can only be described as obstructionist – signing deals with Gazprom, delaying agreements on gas prices with Turkey, negotiating alternative pipeline projects that do not serve American and, in fact, Azerbaijani strategic interests and so on. Local and international observers are in agreement that Aliev is moving Azerbaijan closer and closer into the Russian orbit.

There can be little doubt that his relations with the United States are no where near as good as the close and successful partnership with Washington painstakingly built by his late father Heydar. This partnership centred on energy cooperation and resulted in the construction of the BTC oil pipeline – the biggest jewel in the crown of Azerbaijani independence. This is what President Obama meant when he stated in a personal letter to Ilham Aliev that he wished for US-Azerbaijani relations to be restored to the levels they were at when Aliev senior was President.

The United States does not wish to lose an ally and has no interest in undermining Azerbaijani interests. The US consistently backs the Aliev dynasty, despite their horrendous human rights abuses and the increasing authoritarianism of the regime. Whilst Washington continues to call for greater democratisation, the American leadership (the Obama administration being no exception) embraces realpolitik considerations with an enviable consistency. The appointment of Matthew Bryza, former US co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk group, as the new US ambassador to Baku serves to underline that point. Bryza enjoys a close and long-standing relationship with the Azerbaijani government, and his wife Zeyno Baran, a Turkish American scholar, Director of the Center for Eurasian Policy and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in DC, is well known for her support for the Aliev regime.

Next month’s planned visit to Azerbaijan by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is going to be crucial for US-Azerbaijani relations. It is essential for Azerbaijani authorities to get rid of the arrogant mindset that holds that America needs Azerbaijan more than Azerbaijan needs America. Such overconfidence (which, perhaps, comes from owning too many villas in Dubai) can have costly and long-term repercussions for Azerbaijan, a country surrounded by hostile states and with its historic heartland under enemy occupation. The Aliev administration would do well to listen to Clinton and respond to American concerns in a more constructive manner. It is essential to respond positively to US criticisms of Aliev’s human rights record and most importantly to get US-Azeri cooperation in the energy sphere back on track.

The consequences of undermining US interests in the region are extremely costly and President Aliev is beginning to experience them. This is not merely a matter of a brief outburst of anger in Washington. This can have a long-term, structural impact on Azerbaijan’s strategic position in the Eurasian political economy.

Source: http://www.henryjacksonsociety.org/stories.asp?pageid=49&id=1637http://www.henryjacksonsociety.org/stories.asp?pageid=49&id=1637

No comments:

Post a Comment

Dear reader,

Arevordi will be taking a sabbatical to tend to personal matters. New blog commentaries will therefore be posted on an irregular basis. The comments board however will continue to be moderated on a regular basis. To limit clutter in the comments section, I ask all participants of this blog to please keep comments coherent and strictly relevant to the featured topic of discussion. Moreover, please realize that when there are several anonymous visitors posting comments simultaneously, it becomes confusing (not to mention extremely annoying) trying to figure out who is who and who said what. If you are here to engage in conversation, make an observation, express an idea or just attack me, I ask you to at least use a moniker to identify yourself... or else, I will not post your comments, especially if they are, in my opinion, nonsense. Thank you for your cooperation.