An exclusive interview with Rusif Huseynov, сo-founder and editor-in-chief The Politicon research center (Baku).
1. What does Azerbaijan expect from the oncoming Summit of the EU’s “Eastern Partnership” project to held in 2017?
Unlike other countries of the Eastern Partnership, which have chosen either westward path or Eurasian integration, Azerbaijan has long pursuing balanced policy, without a clear intention of getting closer to any bloc. Therefore, Azerbaijan`s involvement in the Eastern Partnership has been quite controversial.
On one hand, Azerbaijan strives to become a major actor in Europe`s energy security by promoting and implementing the Southern Gas Corridor and hosts important European events (2013 Eurovision, 2015 European Games, 2016 F-1 European Grant Prix) by underlining its belonging to European culture. On the other hand, the Azerbaijani authorities distance themselves from closer integration with European institutions, feeling quite independent politically and economically due to rich energy resources. Possibility of direct confrontation with Russia and harsh criticism from European officials on the state of human rights in Azerbaijan has lengthened this distance. In the light of the above-mentioned criticism, strong anti-European rhetoric is now expressed by the officials and government-controlled media.
Therefore, I dare to think Azerbaijan might again put an emphasis on cooperation in the field of energy in the oncoming summit, without showing a real interest in closer integration within the “Eastern Partnership”.
2. With which countries, possessing energy resources, apart from Russia Azerbaijan successfully develops bilateral and multilateral relations?
Azerbaijan maintains good relations with the oil-rich Gulf countries. These relations are mainly based upon Islamic factor. With another Muslim country, Iran, which is a neighboring nation, Azerbaijan has controversial ties. Both share Shiite background, which could have made them natural allies. However, the presence of at least 20 million Azerbaijanis, as the biggest ethnic minority, in Iran, makes the relations very vulnerable. Iran is suspicious about Azerbaijani irredentism. The Azerbaijani society, in its turn, is concerned about the ambitions of the southern neighbor to spread its version of Islam to Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan also maintains important relations with Central Asian countries, with which it plans several transport and energy lines.
3. How would you describe the current and prospect relation of Azerbaijan with NATO?
Although Azerbaijan was actively involved in NATO programs at the turn of the millennium, by the time, its cooperation with the military alliance, just as its overall European course, went down. As mentioned above, Azerbaijan prefers a more balanced politics in between the confronting camps. The attitude of the Azerbaijani authorities became more cautious after witnessing the fate of other GUAM countries that demonstrated an interest in joining NATO.
The 2008 Russo-Georgian war, annexation of Crimea and current conflict in eastern Ukraine, as a result of which Russia strengthened its positions in the breakaway regions of Georgia and Ukraine respectively, Azerbaijani experts praised Baku`s careful politics of Baku in between Russia and NATO.
Instead Azerbaijan prefers bilateral military relations with Turkey, an important NATO member. The current military cooperation is high, given the natural alliance and common interests of the two countries. In recent years Azerbaijan and Turkey have organized several military drills, which is more important for Azerbaijan against Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
4. How successful is Azerbaijan foreign policy in the region of Central Asia?
Azerbaijan maintains good relations with all Central Asian countries and shares the same Turkic roots with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The most successful ties are currently witnessed in Azerbaijani-Kazakh cooperation. The trade turnover between the two countries in 2016 grew up to USD 124 million. There have been negotiations in attracting Kazakhstan to oil and gas networks originating from Azerbaijan and heading westward. Moreover, one of the routes of China`s One Belt, One Road project is crossing through Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan via the Caspian Sea.
Azerbaijan`s foreign policy sees ups and downs only with Turkmenistan as the two countries have ongoing disputes regarding the legal status of the Caspian Sea and several oil and gas fields.
5. Which is the core of energy security assurance for Your country?
Azerbaijan has been striving to become a major actor in energy security of Europe since the mid-1990s, when the so-called Contract of the Century was signed. Later Azerbaijani side initiated a number of energy projects, the most important and biggest ones being Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline.
Nowadays Azerbaijan is one of the major initiators of the TANAP and TAP networks, which constitute the Southern Gas Corridor. The project which is contradicting Russia`s interests will designate Azerbaijan not only as a major source of energy reserves, but also as a significant transit country if new suppliers decide to join. By developing the afore-mentioned project that is supported by several EU countries, USA and Turkey, Azerbaijan can also ensure its political, economic and military security.