Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s recently appointed ambassador to the United States, says that energy cooperation remains the hallmark achievement of Azerbaijani-U.S. relations, now in their 20th year, but the region’s frozen conflicts continue to cast a shadow over its development.
Suleymanov spoke at the March 27 conference “Prospects for Prosperity in the Caspian Basin: Energy, Reform, and 20 years of Diplomatic Relations with the U.S.,” organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where he reflected on the history of U.S. diplomacy in the region and the outlook for future economic cooperation.
Not surprisingly, given the small country’s abundant oil and gas reserves — it is the third-largest oil producer in the former Soviet Union — and strategic location bordering Iran and Russia, much of that cooperation has centered on energy and security.
And while nations in the Caucasus such as Azerbaijan, along with other former Soviet bloc states such as Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, often tire of being described as geopolitical pawns between the West and Russia, these nations are constantly trying to balance their ties with Moscow on the one hand and Europe and the United States on the other.
For instance, Azerbaijan allows NATO to train on its territory but is not a member of the transatlantic security bloc. Likewise, American planes can land in the country to refuel but cannot be based there. On a larger scale, Azerbaijan has tentatively opened itself up to investment from the West, although Soviet-style corruption among the ruling elite is still rampant. On the political front, two decades after independence, the country’s authoritarian bent remains strong, while the rule of law, democracy and transparency remain weak.
And although the notion of a “great Caucasus chessboard” may have grown clichéd, the competition for precious energy resources — and pipelines to transport those resources — still very much represents a coveted checkmate for global powers.
To that end, Ambassador Suleymanov, who delivered the CSIS conference’s keynote address, framed the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline as the single greatest diplomatic success during two decades of U.S. relations.
The $8 billion pipeline transporting oil from Azerbaijani fields to a Mediterranean port in Turkey through Georgia was called the “deal of the century” when agreements implementing it came together in the 1990s. Since coming online in 2006, Suleymanov said the pipeline has enriched Azerbaijan and “laid the backbone for regional integration” in the same way that French-German coal mining cooperation laid the foundation for the European Union.
Suleymanov, who prior coming to Washington had been his nation’s first consul general to Los Angeles, establishing an Azerbaijani diplomatic presence on the U.S. West Coast, said it also represented a success for Americans. He praised the United States for maintaining a consistent policy commitment through two presidential administrations over a 12-year period between the signing of the first agreements to the first delivery of oil through the new energy artery.
And it has been a boon to Suleymanov’s nation of nearly 10 million as it seeks to shed its poverty-riddled Soviet past. According to the State Department, Azerbaijan’s gross domestic product has tripled over the last decade to around $50 billion today, thanks largely to the pipeline, which in turn has fueled explosive building growth in the capital of Baku.
However, while progress has been extensive in the energy sector, Suleymanov said the region’s decades-long conflicts still loom ominously like “sad shadows that cast doubt over the future of the region.”
As the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s, ethnic Armenian separatists in the autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan. In the brutal conflict that followed, an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 were killed; Azerbaijan says a million ethnic Azeris were forced from Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territories by separatists backed by the Armenian army. In return, up to 500,000 ethnic Armenians were also forced from towns and cities in Azerbaijan.
Today, the de facto republic is outside of Azerbaijan’s control but not recognized by the world. The Armenians who populate the enclave say they will never give up the fight for self-determination, while Azerbaijan is equally adamant that it will never cede an inch of its territory.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Georgia, disputes over the autonomy of the breakaway enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia led to all-out war with a similar result. Georgia also lost control of about 20 percent of its territory and faced a refugee crisis as around 250,000 ethnic Georgians were expelled from the regions.
In the two decades since these territorial disputes erupted, Suleymanov says that Western powers have “diminished” the importance of the frozen conflicts, focusing instead on reform and governance issues.
“I have for years participated in conferences with my good Georgian friends. Whenever my Georgian friends would speak about the successes of Georgia — and some of them are very impressive — they would also mention that we have an issue, a challenge to the territorial integrity of the Republic of Georgia. Yet every time they would speak about that, our Western friends would say, ‘Hey, just forget about that — let’s talk about your reforms in customs,'” he said.
“But what they had failed to understand is that the unresolved status of that explosive situation has brought under doubt not only the reforms the Georgian people had done, but the very existence of the state of Georgia itself,” he added.
The same goes for Nagorno-Karabakh, which, despite 20 years of diplomatic mediation and pressure from the Minsk Group, spearheaded by Russia, France and the United States, remains unresolved.
“If for 20 years, someone has been dating you, and nothing has ever happened, doesn’t that say something?” Suleymanov asked rhetorically of the Minsk Group, led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“I remember when we went to Key West [Florida in 2001], and we were sitting at the Key West talks when the French co-chair and the Russian co-chair and the American co-chair were having a laugh fest at the panel. They forgot about the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis,” the ambassador said. “And the poor Armenian guy came up to me and said, ‘So, what do we get from this?’ I said, ‘You get nothing, they just love each other.’ It’s a great thing that they get along and there is a dialogue, but we need a result on the ground.”
Last summer, negotiations almost produced results, but hopes for a long-awaited breakthrough were dashed when neither side apparently had the political will to end the standoff. Critics also say keeping the focus on the longstanding dispute also helps both governments divert attention away from issues such as democratic reform.
“This was supposed to be the moment,” Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, told Ellen Barry of the New York Times last year. “Every year that this goes on, the positions of the sides harden, and therefore it becomes easier to have a war.”
Lawrence Scott Sheets, director of the South Caucasus Project for the International Crisis Group, in the NYT op-ed “A ‘Frozen Conflict’ That Could Boil Over,” agrees with de Waal that maintaining the status quo is a recipe for potential instability.
“Given all the conflicts on the planet today, this is an understandable but grave mistake,” he wrote of ignoring the situation, noting the sticky web of allegiances in the region, with Russia a declared ally of Armenia while Azerbaijan has close military ties with NATO member Turkey.
“Iran, which borders both, is the biggest wildcard; although Shiite Muslim like Azerbaijan, Tehran reviles Baku because of Azerbaijan’s secular orientation, its close ties with Israel, and fears about separatist tendencies among Iran’s large Azeri minority. Whatever the case, such a combination of bedfellows could mean any new full-scale conflict going regional, with unpredictable consequences,” Sheets warned.
Furthermore, Suleymanov suggested that while Azerbaijan had been a loyal security partner to the United States — sending troops to Iraq and providing a transit corridor for coalition forces coming and going from Afghanistan — Washington had not held up its end of the bargain when it came to the Nagorno-Karabakh stalemate.
“We do our share. It takes two to tango. You’ve all seen ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ When there’s only one person dancing, it’s pretty ugly. And to have a good dance, you need good music, and sometimes an ambassador to the country,” he said, drawing laughter from the CSIS audience as he referred to the fact that Azerbaijan is currently without an appointed U.S. ambassador.
That void also has its roots in the Nagorno-Karabakh logjam.
Matthew Bryza, a career diplomat who had long worked as an energy envoy to the Caspian Sea region, was given a temporary recess appointment to serve as U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan in early 2011, but was forced to vacate the post at year’s end after the Senate declined to confirm him, citing alleged conflicts of interest. Before Bryza’s 11-month term in the Baku embassy, Azerbaijan had been without a full-time U.S. ambassador for more than a year.
The Armenian lobby in Washington pushed hard against Bryza’s appointment, arguing that he was soft on Azerbaijan’s human rights record and carried “baggage” to the post, largely due to a perceived closeness with the president.
For his part, Ambassador Suleymanov said it was “unacceptable” that Bryza had not been confirmed, which he attributed to the ethnicity of Bryza’s wife, who is Turkish.
Whatever the reason, the Senate’s failure to confirm the envoy was interpreted in Baku as “a slap in the face to Azerbaijan,” according to EurasiaNet analyst Joshua Kucera.
Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Elman Abdullayev called it an “incomprehensible tendency, when the senators or congressmen become an instrument in the hands of the Armenian lobby, thereby harming U.S. interests.”
Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt agreed, writing that the case “offers a vivid example of how the larger U.S. national interest can fall victim to special-interest jockeying and political accommodation.”
A group of influential Azerbaijani figures also wrote a letter to President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton complaining that the failure to confirm Bryza “did not serve to refute” the impression in Azerbaijan that the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks had stalled due to the influence of the Armenian lobby in the United States and France, both of which are members of the Minsk Group.
But potentially more serious than the unresolved conflicts in the South Caucasus, the specter of a brand new war coming to the region has quietly shaken policymakers. Since January, Azerbaijan and Iran have been at loggerheads amid the escalating recriminations over Tehran’s nuclear program, with Azerbaijan rounding up what it said were multiple Iranian terrorist cells and spies, while Iran accuses Azerbaijan of abetting Israeli assassins and spies in its covert war against the Islamic Republic.
In late March, those threats grew more credible after a report in Foreign Policy Magazine revealed extensive military and intelligence ties between Israel and Azerbaijan, suggesting the possibility that Israel might use Azerbaijani territory or airbases to support an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Iran has repeatedly threatened to retaliate against Azerbaijan if its territory was used as a staging ground for an Israeli or U.S. strike. Russia has also bolstered its military presence in the region in response to the rising tensions and plans to hold its largest-ever military exercises in the North and South Caucasus later this year.
Azerbaijani-Iranian relations were already plagued by thorny issues long before the recent uptick in tensions. Suleymanov argues that Iran “can’t fully digest the existence of an independent Azerbaijan” as both countries share intertwined histories and cultures. Still, he said the rhetoric coming out of Tehran was largely a symptom of the mounting international sanctions on the government.
Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation who also spoke at the CSIS conference, warned that an even greater threat for the region — fraught with such combustible and complex rivalries — might be growing disinterest on the part of policymakers in Washington, who would prefer to walk away from the problems altogether.
“If you look at the map, if you understand geography, if you know your history, you cannot walk away from that region. Unfortunately … there are people today in decision-making positions who don’t know history and didn’t study geography and geopolitics.”
About the Author
Nicholas Clayton is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.