Baku and Moscow - "One Hundred Percent Strategic Partners"
Is Ilham Aliyev Closer to the West or to Russia?
[February 27, 2006]
The tide of color revolutions throughout the post-Soviet space has forced a number of authoritarian leaders to reconsider and to correct their foreign policy priorities. The Rose Revolution in neighboring Georgia was clearly a bad omen for the president of Azerbaijan. Yet since the most recent forged parliamentary elections, Ilham Aliyev has been sensing greater Russian backing. Indeed, a consistent Baku-Moscow rapprochement has been visible since Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia.
The Russian president's visit to Azerbaijan (February 21-22, 2006) did not attract serious attention from the Armenian press and political circles. There may be several reasons why. For one, unlike in previous years, Armenian political thought no longer considers Russia to be the sole and principal "player" in the Caucasus region anymore. Furthermore, the unavoidable rise in price of Russian "blue fuel" has given rise in Armenia to a certain disappointment in and apathy toward Russia.
In the course of their visit, Putin and Aliyev emphasized that Russian-Azerbaijani cooperation is "one hundred percent strategic in nature." Since 2000, the year Putin assumed the post of presidency of Russia, this was his third visit to Azerbaijan. In order to picture the level of Baku-Moscow relations, let us mention just one significant number: during his presidency Ilham Aliyev has visited Russia six times.
Russia's first Ambassador to Armenia, Vladimir Stupishin, told me during a telephone conversation, "Azerbaijan cannot become a strategic ally since, though Baku speaks sweetly to Russia, in fact it follows Ankara with its eyes. Heydar Aliyev stated in the past that Turkey was a second homeland for them. Azerbaijan is no strategic partner for Russia at all."
Sargis Harutunyan of the Armenian Noravank Fund agrees that since 2000, Moscow-Baku relations have improved, but they can hardly be characterized as strategic. "The Azerbaijani political elite does not believe they can be strategic in nature since Azerbaijan is actively trying to integrate into the Euro-Atlantic security systems," he said.
However, the Russian-Azerbaijani warming is an overt reality. Thus, if in 2003 the trade turnover between the two countries amounted to $300 million, today it has tripled to reach $1 billion. Moscow no longer accuses Baku of allowing international terrorists to use Azerbaijani territory to cross into Chechnya, or for letting Chechen rebels undergo medical treatment in Baku hospitals.
Putin stressed in Baku that if there were no Karabakh conflict, Russian-Azerbaijani trade turnover would amount not to $1billion but $5 billion. Sargis Harutunyan commented, "Karabakh doesn't play any negative part in Russian-Azerbaijani trade relations. Putin made this statement in order to try to present himself to the Azerbaijani public as an active adherent of the settlement of the Karabakh conflict, and thus, to show Russia's interest in the process of settlement. On the other hand, the Karabakh conflict is, perhaps, an obstacle for Armenian-Russian trade and economic relations, I mean the continuing Azerbaijani blockade of Armenia."
Putin also said in Baku that he intended to invite Robert Kocharyan to Moscow for additional consultations regarding the Karabakh settlement.
Harutunyan believes that there are two main issues on the agenda of Russian-Azerbaijani relations: the Gabala radar station and the so-called CASFOR defense initiative put forth by Russia for the five littoral states of the Caspian Sea. A year ago Russia offered to join Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan in a discussion of establishing "a real-time interaction naval group" in the Caspian.
"It is assumed that Russia will begin exploiting a Gabala-type radar station in the Krasnodar region within one or two years. In this case, the Gabala station will, to some extent, decrease in value. Russia's CASFOR initiative has clear geopolitical aims - to challenge the successive American expansion into the South Caucasus, the Caspian basin, and Central Asia and in this regard Russia does indeed have expectations of Azerbaijan," Harutunyan said.
Putin and Aliyev issued a joint political declaration which clearly stated their intention to reach a qualitatively new level of military cooperation. Two new ministries have been created in Azerbaijan - the Ministry of Defense Industry and Ministry for Emergency Situations - and Russia is manifestly interested in outfitting them with Russian-made equipment. A month ago Sergey Ivanov stated in Baku that Russia was ready to provide Azerbaijan with weapons and materiel.
Prospects for Russian-Azerbaijani military and technical cooperation have been taking shape lately, which might create a new military political situation in the Caucasus region. Experts on Caucasian affairs notice that following Putin's most recent visit to Baku, Aliyev must finally orientate himself - is Azerbaijan closer to the West or to Russia, after all?
Putin receives the Order of Sheikh Ul Islam
Upon his arrival on February 21, the Russian president headed from the Heydar Aliyev International Airport for the Alley of Martyrs and laid a wreath on Heydar Aliyev's tomb. Later Putin met with Allahshukur Pashazade, the head of the Caucasus Muslim Board and was rewarded with the Order of Sheikh Ul Islam. Only three people have been decorated with this order so far - Heydar Aliyev (posthumously), his heir Ilham Aliyev, and Vladimir Putin.
Of course, Putin's decoration with the Order of Sheikh Ul Islam doesn't imply that there is a lack of controversial issues in Russian-Azerbajani relations. During the visit, as reported by the Russian Kommersant Daily, Putin tried to persuade Aliyev not to do three things-raise the rent for the Gabala Radar Station located in North Azerbaijan, deepen relations with the emphatically anti-Russian GUAM Group (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova), and participate in the possible US aggression against Iran.
Baku wants Russia to pay not $7 million a year to rent the Gabala Radar Station as it does now, but twice as much. Russia will have no problem paying $14 million, but a question might arise: Why then shouldn't Ukraine raise the rent for the Russian Black Sea fleet? And what will the reaction of Russia's other strategic partners on whose territories Russia maintains military bases free of charge be?
Moscow doesn't pay Armenia for Military Base 102 stationed in Gyumri; moreover the Armenian side takes care of all public utilities - water, electricity, etc. At the end of January when Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov was in Armenia, his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargisyan literally said the following: "The price of Russian gas has no relation to our security. The Russian Military Base is stationed here at Armenia's request; it is one of the elements of our country's security and we still feel a need for the base."
"Armenians Have Kowtowed to Russia in Vain"
Addressing the issue of the rise in price of Russian gas, Kommersant wrote recently, "In contrast to Ukraine and Georgia , Armenia has constantly and consistently manifested its unreserved pro-Russian attitude. It seems that a faithful friend might have anticipated that its exemplary behavior would be compensated for with cheap gas. But what has happened is obedient Armenia is charged the same amount as obstinate, pro-American Georgia."
Kommersant characterized the attitude toward Russia that has taken shape in Armenia thus: "Armenians have kowtowed to Russia in vain."
Like Georgia, Armenia has been looking toward the Euro-Atlantic structures in recent years. In this connection Vladimir Stupishin told us, "Armenia is looking toward NATO and she is right, because it is important for a small country to diversify its relations and not to look only in one direction. But nevertheless, Armenia's relations with Russia are at the same level they used to be."