“…our path is clear…. The system of government and style of society we are developing in Azerbaijan is based on Western values, including democratic pluralism, the free market economy, and a secular republic that respect (sic) universal human rights.”
Heydar Aliyev (quoted by Thomas Goltz in Azerbaijan Diary pg. 477.)
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. Heydar Aliyev, who was President of Azerbaijan from 1993 until his death in 2003, presided over a foreign policy that emphasized energy relations with the West, and political and security engagement with the United States and a range of transatlantic institutions, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council on Europe (COE), European Union (EU) and NATO. This policy eventually also led to Azeri military support for U.S. operations in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. His son and successor, Azerbaijan’s current president Ilham Aliyev, has increasingly moved away from his father’s path and now seems to have approved a final rupture with the past.
The end came in a little noticed Russian-language polemic by the long-serving head of Azerbaijan’s Presidential Apparatus, Ramiz Mehdiyev. Ilham Aliyev’s silence on what seems to be a major change in Azerbaijani foreign policy is notable, as is the lack of official reaction in Washington, D.C. U.S.-Azerbaijan relations are clearly now in serious crisis, and indeed have been for some time.
In his article, Mehdiyev asserts that from the beginning of Heydar Aliyev’s presidency, the U.S. was plotting with domestic opposition elements to create a “fifth column” to promote “color revolutions” while pursing a policy of “double standards” to interfere in the internal affairs of states around the world and Azerbaijan in particular. Using non-governmental organizations, the U.S. sought to create an international framework of “active agents” to promote “American democracy.” Mehdiyev points to events in the former Yugoslavia and the Arab Spring as evidence for this and then goes on to hold the U.S. responsible for the “current crisis in international affairs.” Now, Mehdiyev, declares, Azerbaijan must move away from the dominant world power, and choose a new path of national consolidation built around “strong presidential power and stability in society.” Azerbaijan must have a “balanced” and “independent” foreign policy that prioritizes enhancing Azerbaijan’s “image.”
Mehdiyev’s article has been accompanied by continuing attacks on the United States in the mainstream Azeri press, and also by raids on the Baku bureau of the U.S.-funded media service, RFE/RL, and arrests of leading journalists with ties to the organization. Independent Azeri analysts, internal opposition figures and groups that have secured international funding, especially from the United States have also been targeted. Over 90 Azeris who fall under these categories—many young, and several women—were arrested during 2014. For some, their purported crime was questioning the vote count in the election that maintained Ilham Aliyev in power. For others, it was expressing critical views of the regime. A number of analysts and opposition activists were also arrested as “traitors” who support Armenia (in reference to Azerbaijan’s long-standing conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh) and/or work for “foreign” (read U.S.) spies. Foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGO) funding activities in Azerbaijan have had their accounts frozen, forcing them to curtail and then close their programs in Azerbaijan. U.S. officials, including congressional staffers, American ambassadors (bilateral and Minsk Group co-chair) and even the U.S. president himself have also been attacked.
Why Did U.S.-Azerbaijan Relationship Collapse?
Given the previous two decades of close relations and cooperation between Azerbaijan and the United States, why did this happen? There appear to be multiple, cumulative, triggers rooted in the anxiety of the regime about the risks of a grassroots uprising or “color revolution” similar to those in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the 2000s; in the regime’s reaction to and (mis)interpretation of a series of regional developments; and most significantly in Baku’s deep frustration with U.S. policies. The Aliyev regime has become steadily disillusioned with the United States’ persistence in pressing Azerbaijan on its democratic development and criticizing its failures on human rights. Azerbaijan has long demanded that the United States recognize it as a strategic partner given its importance as a major energy producer and its role as a frontline state between both Russia and Iran. On this basis, Baku felt entitled to certain exemptions regarding how it conducted its domestic affairs and petitioned Washington to stop its criticism of the regime’s domestic politics.
From Azerbaijan’s point-of-view, all of its efforts to work with the United States through diplomatic engagement have borne little fruit. Azerbaijan is no closer to regaining the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. There have been no bilateral presidential meetings to boost the international standing and “image” of Azerbaijan, and no pictures in the Oval Office of a visiting Ilham Aliyev shaking hands with the U.S. president. Instead, the direct engagement of U.S. NGOs and the Peace Corps in Azerbaijan, and a series of U.S.-backed Track II efforts to bring Azeris and Armenians together, seem to have brought more U.S. criticism and pressure on Baku for internal changes. RFE/RL coverage of regime corruption has added to the frustration.
In Azeri official perceptions, this compounds what Baku views as a series of early injustices in the bilateral relationship with Washington, D.C., which began in 1992 with Section 907 of the (first) Freedom Support Act. This provision was attached to the first assistance legislation for the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union due to pressure from the Armenian-American community, in response to Azerbaijani military action against Armenia. Section 907 banned U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan until the fighting with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh was brought to an end, and until the Azeris lifted an economic blockade they imposed on Armenia in the 1990s. The U.S. government has subsequently waived these provisions but not lifted them, and the episode continues to dog Azerbaijan’s efforts to construct a strategic relationship with the United States. based on energy and security cooperation—in spite of an intense lobbying effort in Washington. Azerbaijan believes that the United States has never adequately reciprocated or respected Azerbaijan for all its efforts.
Over the past year, Baku’s view of the U.S. role in developments in Ukraine has also accelerated the shift in Azerbaijan away from its traditional foreign policy. From the regime’s point-of-view, Washington’s support for the change in government in Kyiv was proof of U.S. “double standards” in its approach to Azerbaijan and to regional developments. From Baku’s perspective, Washington backed the overthrow of the Ukrainian president and, left unchecked, the United States and the local individuals and NGOs engaged in democracy and human rights promotion in Azerbaijan would likely attempt to do the same. At the very least, their activities, spotlighting the political and human rights deficiencies in Azerbaijan, would ruin the country’s image as it prepared to host the 2015 European Games. For Mehdiyev and others in the presidential administration, something clearly had to be done. In part, this explains the Christmas 2014 raid that closed down RFE/RL offices in Baku.
As much as the raid on RFE/RL was presented in Baku as a reaction to a “U.S. threat,” the developments in Azerbaijan also reflect the regime’s fear of its own people. Internal political developments in Ukraine since the Russian intervention have shaken Azerbaijan’s political leadership. For them, Ukraine is a model of the kind of disorder they could also face. They need an “external threat” from the United States to strengthen their narrative about the “internal threat” posed by a young population demanding a greater say in the political future of Azerbaijan, greater observance of fundamental human rights and more opportunities for the free expression of their views. Given the recent free-fall in global energy prices, the regime is also concerned that the resulting drop in state revenues, which are almost entirely dependent on the energy sector, will create additional economic stress. All of this has increased regime paranoia about outside “meddling” (and not just by the United States).
Indeed, Mehdiyev’s article and the domestic crackdown have coincided with the most serious military clashes with Armenia since the 1994 cease-fire that froze the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. This has resulted in a series of rhetorical attacks on the OSCE Minsk Group process and the United States for their failure to impose a settlement favorable to Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia have been involved in intensifying cease-fire violations in the past year.
Implications for U.S. Relations with Azerbaijan
What are the implications and what can or should the United States do about this? The United States can actually take pride in doing much for Azerbaijan to preserve its independence and ensure its economic prosperity. But, the U.S.- Azerbaijan relationship must now be based on the new reality that Ramiz Mehdiyev imposed on December 3, 2014. It is time for a new beginning. Mehdiyev’s candor about the future direction for Azerbaijan could lead to a more normal and practical U.S. bilateral relationship with Azerbaijan that is unencumbered by an impossible search for a “strategic” relationship, and also for a relationship based on “shared values.”
Given developments in the global energy market, access to Azerbaijan’s energy is no longer the key political driver in our relations that it was 20 years ago. As it should be, energy is now a commercial and not a political issue. The improved prospects for a nuclear deal with Iran, and Iran’s steps toward a more positive engagement with the global community, could also mean an end to this period of U.S.-Iranian confrontation. This is still a long shot but, if it happens, Azerbaijan’s value as a partner in the U.S.’s regional confrontations declines. Similarly, as the combat phase of U.S.-NATO involvement in Afghanistan recedes, the need for a more robust security relationship with Azerbaijan is reduced as well. Above all, we must now avoid the trap of thinking that somehow Azerbaijan is an element in the current conflict with Russia over Ukraine. It would be a mistake—even absent the Mehdiyev polemic—to put Azerbaijan in a position where it inevitably would be a liability rather than an asset in this confrontation, given Baku’s own vulnerabilities to Moscow’s pressure.
The Mehdiyev attack on the mechanisms the U.S. government has used for engaging Azerbaijan means that, first of all, we need a total review (and not just of programs in Azerbaijan) of how the U.S. government supports and advances the cause of democracy, human rights and freedom of expression. Two decades of experience have proven that where these rights and freedoms are seen as threats to entrenched regimes, U.S. NGOs cannot succeed in promoting free and fair elections and human rights by partnering with local individuals and organizations. In illiberal democracies like Azerbaijan, governments will shut down the foreign organizations and persecute local partners. New approaches including creative use of social media must be considered to minimize the risk to local partners—the individuals and organizations who become the targets of the regimes. Second, and more specifically, the rabid anti-Americanism of the past weeks in Azerbaijan, and the continued detention of political prisoners requires more than expressions of U.S. concern. David Kramer, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor and I suggested targeted concrete steps to be taken in a piece last year.
Only One Thing Matters Post-December 3
Mehdiyev has reduced U.S.-Azerbaijani relations to its most essential element: the peaceful resolution of the conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Nothing else is quite so consequential in U.S.-Azerbaijani relations. It is time to set a clear target date for the two sides to take advantage of the Minsk Group mediation efforts and resolve this conflict peacefully. To do this we need to:
1. Insist that both sides appoint fully-empowered negotiators (as existed during the Heydar Aliyev period) to conduct face-to-face discussions based on the framework the Minsk Group has provided but without Minsk Group direct mediation.
2. Reopen the political space for Track II contacts between Armenians and Azeris. Securing the release of Azerbaijani political prisoners accused of treasonous contact with Armenians is a necessary element for this.
3. Insist that the framework discussions be completed by the fall of 2015. We have passed the period where both parties can cite the Minsk Group for failing to settle the dispute while they refuse to engage in serious diplomacy. In 2014, the risk of war increased. In 2015, we do not have time to continue business as usual.
Impossible? Not if Azerbaijan truly desires the international and U.S. respect it seeks. Respect results from actions. Freeing political prisoners and seriously negotiating with Armenia about ending the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh are the only paths to earning that respect.