Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, May 31, 2013

Will Azerbaijan Become the Next Uzbekistan?

Ilham Aliyev (AFP OUT)  U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan at a bilateral meeting September 24, 2010 in New York City. Obama has been in New York since Wednesday attending the annual General Assembly at the United Nations, where yesterday he stressed the need for a resolution between Israel and Palestine, and a renewed international effort to keep Iran from attaining nuclear weapons.

President Barack Obama and President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan share smiles and shake hands in 2010 in New York. Photo Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America.

Three Caspian littoral states--Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan--form what I call a Caspian “strategic triangle," with foreign policies and geopolitical orientations that are of critical importance to the interests of outside actors such as Russia and the United States.

Kazakhstan’s foreign policy is technically multi-vector, although it is relatively closely tied to Russia due to linguistic, geographical and even politico-economic ties (the Customs Union and the prospective Eurasian Union). Turkmenistan is a wild card, with an incredible amount of natural gas reserves and no clearly-defined orientation even nearly seven years after the death of Sapamurat Niyazov.

Azerbaijan, however, is on the side of the West. It not only enjoys strong relations with Israel, the U.S. and Turkey, but is also highly antagonistic toward neighboring Armenia, a friend of Iran, staunch ally of Russia, and an enemy of Turkey. Azerbaijan’s large energy reserves (most notably found in the Shah Deniz field) and position as an entry point for the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan Pipeline, the proposed Trans-Caspian Pipeline, and the Southern Corridor all help make Azerbaijan a darling of the West. But certain events and trends show that Azerbaijan may in some ways becoming a Caucasus version of Uzbekistan.

Of the five former Soviet Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan (with the possible exception of Turkmenistan) has been the most independent of Russia, in both foreign and domestic policy (e.g., it purged the Russian language from public life), and thus became a natural partner for the United States and the West in the incredibly geo-strategically important region of Central Asia. The régime of President Islam Karimov allowed the U.S. military to station troops in Uzbekistan for its operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and in return the U.S. kept its criticism of Uzbekistan’s atrocious human rights record to a minimum- until the Andijon Massacre of 2005. Since then, as U.S.-Uzbekistan relations deteriorated, Uzbekistan has flirted with and teased Russia. Recent trends show a thawing of ties between the U.S. and Uzbekistan (the latter having left the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2012), though there is no telling the state of U.S. relations with Uzbekistan five years from now.

Thus far, relations between Azerbaijan and the U.S. have been comparatively smooth, and it seems likely that this state of affairs will continue. Azerbaijan is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace, and has contributed to the War on Terror in the defense, intelligence and law enforcement fields. In 2008, Senator Richard Lugar (R- Indiana) labeled Azerbaijan as “one of the few friends America has in the Caspian basin,” and later went on to support, along with his colleague, then-Senator Joe Biden, the creation of a special envoy to the country to help safeguard the U.S.’s long-term energy interests.

Despite the fact that Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns stated that the three areas of cooperation most important to the Azerbaijani-U.S. relationship are security, energy/economics and democratic reform, cooperation between Azerbaijan and the United States on the former issues may not be possible if the U.S. pushes too hard for the latter, and security interests may very well trump the issue of human rights and reform in Azerbaijan. If Azerbaijan is the one of the only friends the U.S. has in an incredibly critical region, America won’t want to rock the boat too much, and it’s a good bet Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, knows it.

Ilham Aliyev (who succeeded his father Heydar in 2003) will most likely run for a third term in the upcoming October elections, and this has prompted an intensification of protests all across the country. Concerns were raised earlier this spring when it was discovered that a device known as a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) was on hand for police usage during a protest in Baku. The LRAD, which delivers an ear-piercing 150 decibel beam, was not used, but the presence of such a crowd-control device, which originates in the U.S., has caused concern that Western weapons are being used to arm and support the Aliyev administration.

Emin Milli, an Azerbaijani blogger and rising star in Azerbaijan’s opposition movement, recently told Radio Free Europe in an interview that whereas Heidar Aliyev left some room for opposition, Ilham has tightened his grip on his opponents, and instead of being the guarantor of stability he seeks to portray himself as, he is the source of increasing instability. Mr. Milli specifically called out the U.S. and British governments for being complicit in supporting Aliyev in the name of greater energy concessions. It seems similar to how both the U.S. and British governments lent their staunch support to Uzbekistan’s Karimov (recall how, when UK ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray spoke out against Karimov’s excesses, he was eventually removed from his post).

It’s possible that not only will the West turn a blind eye to autocratic practices and human rights abuses under a continuing Aliyev régime because of energy geopolitics, but also because of a fear (real or imagined) of Iranian influence in Azerbaijan. (Not only are Azerbaijan and Iran both Shiite Muslim countries, but around a quarter of the population of Iran is ethnic Azeri and speaks a dialect of Azeri). Azerbaijan’s geographical positioning between Iran and Russia make its location of similar strategic importance to Uzbekistan, allowing for an American insertion point, especially if any sort of military action should be taken against Iran.

From the standpoint of human rights and human security, the West could be caught in an awkward position if it lends continuing support to the Aliyev government if it should react to a situation similar to the way Uzbek security forces handled Andijon. No two situations play out exactly the same in international relations, and it is highly unlikely that, should things go from bad to worse in Azerbaijan, relations between Azerbaijan and the West would sour to the point that Azerbaijan would seek to develop ties with another regional actor, as Uzbekistan did in response to Western criticism over the events in Andijon.

Not only would it not work because of Azerbaijan’s poor relations with Armenia (Russia’s ally) and because of Iran’s support for Armenia, but because Azerbaijan is too strong of a strategic partner in the Caucasus for the West to give up, especially because of uncertainties in Georgia's foreign policy orientation (at this point still professed to be pro-Western).  Yet U.S. support for an Azerbaijan that doesn’t respect human rights could harm America's legitimacy as a defender of human rights on the world stage, and could even be used as leverage by Russia to discredit the U.S. in its mission to promote and defend human rights around the globe.

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