Monday, October 21, 2013

Putin leaves Azerbaijan With Limited Improvements

Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Azerbaijan in August 2013 to enhance Russian interests in the near abroad.  He was accompanied by six key ministers, including the Russian Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov.

The visit was surrounded by rumors.  Leonid Gusev, senior research fellow of the Institute of International Studies, Moscow State Institute of International Relations, focused on the inclusion of the defense minister.  "Why take Shoigu with you?  Because recently there was information that Azerbaijan and Turkey will create a unified army, and Georgia may join as well.  I think that the leadership of Russia wants to find out what it is, because you understand that Turkey is a NATO country."  Gusev's sources were remarks from Azerbaijani parliamentarian Zakhid Orudzh and Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania.

Gusev's imaginings were quickly dismissed by Azerbaijani parliamentarian and political scientist Rasim Musabekov.  "There are issues in the military area that should be discussed," he said.  "It is not just military cooperation.  It is very important to consider issues that may affect Azerbaijan, such as the situation on the Caspian Sea where military activity has been gaining momentum; there is also the Iranian context, Middle East events and, most importantly, the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  It is difficult to imagine the settlement of this conflict without Russia."

The Armenians also reacted negatively, convinced that the meeting would result in closer ties between Russia and Azerbaijan.  "Naturally, any bilateral relationship between our enemy and partner states cannot fail to worry us," said the chairman of the Armenian parliamentary committee on foreign relations.  "Azerbaijan is ready to exploit its relationship with any state for painting a distorted picture of its actions in the region."  Similarly, Armenian opposition leaders sounded the alarm.  Armenian National Congress spokesman Vladimir Karapetian said, "These are very worrisome developments for Armenia.  We must be prepared for further developments, especially in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process."  Gior Manoyan of the Dashnaks criticized the Russian president, stating the visit was "not an ally's behavior."

The Armenians need not have worried.  Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev tried to enlist Putin's cooperation on the issue.  "Azerbaijan would like to see Russia as a referee," he said.  "The occupation of Azerbaijani land has continued for more than two decades.  What could be demolished has been demolished.  Twenty percent of our territory is occupied; the U.N. resolutions remain on paper."  In reply, Putin responded with a bland statement that any solution would have to be political.  "I want to stress that Russia is actively facilitating the search for the fastest conflict resolution, which is only attainable by peaceful means," he said.

Relations between the two countries have been strained over the past year.  Against Russia's wishes, Baku cancelled its use of the Baku-Novorossysk pipeline because it was uneconomical, and Russia cancelled its lease of the Gabala radar station rather than pay the rent Azerbaijan was demanding.  Despite these setbacks, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov insisted the relationship had been neither affected nor deteriorated. 

Emphasizing the good relations between the two countries, President Aliyev highlighted the growing defense cooperation between them.  He said that Azerbaijan was among the top buyers of Russian arms and other military equipment, and the defense relationship was already worth $4 billion dollars.  This defense cooperation was highlighted by a visit of the Russian warship the Dagestan.

Missing from the summit’s summary were any agreements for Azerbaijan to join in Russian initiatives such as the Commonwealth of Independent States Free Trade Area (CISFTA), Eurasian Economic community (EurAsEC), or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTAO-Azerbaijan allowed its membership to lapse in 1999)

The two presidents discussed the legal status of the Caspian Sea, a long-running dispute with ramifications for the underwater deposits of oil and gas there.    Putin described the discussion to reporters:  “During the talks we paid a lot of attention to the issues of the Caspian region,” reported Radio Liberty.  “There really are a very great number of unresolved problems, including security, border delimitation, preservation of biological diversity of the Caspian Sea, etc.  We have a vested interest in seeing all of these issues solved.”  In the past, Russia has used these issues to demand a veto over Azerbaijani proposals to build a Trans Caspian Pipeline.  No progress appears to have been made on these issues.
There were some positive results from the meeting.  The Russkiy Mir Foundation reported that a document on cooperation between emergency ministries was signed, as well as intergovernmental agreements on cooperation in air search and rescue, on the construction of a road bridge over the river that marks the border between the two countries, and a humanitarian cooperation program.
More importantly, Rosneft chief Igor Sechin signed an agreement with State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) cheif Rovnag Abdullaev.  The two CEOs pledged to cooperate on unspecified joint projects.  Sechin told reporters these would include "reciprocal deliveries, swap operations and opportunities for the use of joint infrastructure."  Rosneft subsequently released a statement that, "The companies agreed to cooperate in marketing and trading operations for hydrocarbons and petroleum products as well as jointly operate certain infrastructure facilities, such as pipelines and terminals."
In the end, both Azerbaijan and Russia emphasized the agreements that were signed, and labeled the visit a success.  On balance, however, when one balances what was achieved with the issues that were left unresolved, one can only conclude that Putin left empty-handed.  The summit meeting, Putin's first visit to Baku in seven years, was a lost opportunity.