Naubet Bisenov in Almaty -
Russia, emboldened by its success in attracting some of the former Soviet states into a Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), has been courting Azerbaijan in a bid to bring this oil and gas-rich nation back into its fold. Moscow fears Azerbaijan, which in the past was part of the "Guam group" of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova, will follow the examples of the other members of that group, which in June all signed EU free trade and association pacts.
Baku has so far resisted the Kremlin's courtship, openly rejecting Russian officials' hints that Azerbaijan would eventually join the EEU. In early June, Russian Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev annoyed Azerbaijani Economy and Industry Minister Shakhin Mustafayev by being first to suggest that Azerbaijan's possible membership of the EEU "remains a subject of discussion." Dismissing such a prospect, Mustafayev said Azerbaijan was not considering membership of any bloc, be it the EU or EEU, because Baku sees no problem in bilateral trade relations and is satisfied with that system. According to Azerbaijan's Statistics Committee, in 2013 the country's trade with the Customs Union (the precursor to the EEU, comprising Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan) stood at $3.1bn, compared with $15.3bn for the EU.
Two weeks later on June 18, after a meeting with his Azerbaijani counterpart in Baku, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov backtracked, by saying that "there was no formal" invitation to Azerbaijan to join the Customs Union or EEU. However, he added: "We've always noted that we will welcome any of our partners who show interest in joining the CU or EEU."
Russia's attempt to cajole Azerbaijan into its trade club unleashed a storm of anti-Russian and anti-EEU criticism among the Azerbaijani talking heads and media. "I believe Azerbaijan should refuse" to join the EEU, former adviser to the Azerbaijani president, Vyafa Guluzade, told the Mediafax news agency. "The project under the name of the Eurasian Union, in my opinion, aims not at integration between CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] countries, but at the restoration of a post-Soviet empire in the former Soviet space."
Fikret Garbadansky wrote on Minval.az that the Kremlin is trying to compensate for its failure in Ukraine with "victories" elsewhere. "Relative failure in Kyiv outraged Moscow, which will try to compensate with victories in other Guam countries whose potential of resistance is much lower," he said.
The leader of the Azerbaijani opposition party Musavat ("Equality"), Isa Qambar, told Mediaforum.az that the EEU didn't have "any prospects from the point of view of politics and economy" and didn't "promise any good" for Azerbaijan. "We believe Azerbaijan should speedily integrate into the Euro-Atlantic space and take specific decisions and serious steps to join the EU and Nato," he said.
These comments reflect wider public opinion in Azerbaijan about integration with the EEU: according to the "EDB Integration Barometer 2013" study conducted by the Eurasian Development Bank's Centre for Integration Studies, support for Eurasian integration in Azerbaijan is the lowest among CIS countries at 37%, while opposition is the highest at 53%.
Playing on against the other
There are wider, regional concerns about Moscow's cosying up to Baku.
In neighbouring Armenia - which fought a nasty, brutish war in the 1990s with Azerbaijan over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh that it still occupies, the media there have raised concerns that Russia, which has tradtionally supported Yerevan in the dispute, could agree to change its stance in return for Baku's consent to join the EEU. Last autumn, Armenia surprisingly decided to join the EEU, even though it had been in deep negotiations with the EU over a free trade and association pact.
Moscow's courtship of Baku is also taking place amid a worsening in Azerbaijani relations with the West over human rights. In April, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Nils Muiznieks, harshly criticised Azerbaijani authorities over the deterioration in human rights and basic freedoms in the country. Azerbaijan’s civil liberties rating declined in 2013 due to blatant property rights violations by the government, in a year in which the state also cracked down on the opposition and civil society in advance of presidential elections, Freedom House says in its "Freedom in World 2014" report. "During the year, the authorities employed excessive force to break up anti-government protests, introduced restrictive laws to limit freedoms of expression and association, and jailed journalists and government critics," the report says. President Ilham Aliyev won the October 9 election with 84.5% of the vote.
According to the deputy chairman of the opposition Azerbaijani Popular Front Party, Fuad Qehremanli, Azerbaijan might be using the possibility of closer cooperation with Moscow as a way to blackmail the West to ignore human rights violations. "By curtseying to Russia, the authorities are avoiding western calls for democracy. At the same time, they hint to the West that if it increases demands for democracy, Azerbaijan may change its foreign policy course," Qehremanli told Mediaforum.az. "This means Azerbaijan is blackmailing the West with [rapprochement with] Russia."
The opposition politician believes that Azerbaijan's authorities are "politically and morally" close to Russia, and by getting closer to it they "want to obtain guarantees for their authoritarian regime". "In the current situation it sees a threat in taking steps in the sphere of democratisation," he says.
However, Farrukh Mammadov, president of the Azerbaijan-Nato Cooperation Institute, doesn't think there is any cooling in relations between Azerbaijan and Nato, and increasingly frequent visits by Russian officials to Azerbaijan won't affect those ties. "Azerbaijan's elite favours integration of our countries into Euro-Atlantic structures, as integration with Nato is a natural and historical process," he told Haqqin.az.
The West believes there cannot be stability without democratic development, which is why it prioritises human rights and issues of democracy, he explains. "Baku shouldn't fear this – on the contrary, it should cooperate with the West in this sphere," he says. "All in all, we need this ourselves."
Azerbaijan is a key country for the EU's energy security. It is a big oil and gas producer that is involved in building the EU's so-called "Southern Corridor," which will ship Caspian gas to Europe via Turkey, without crossing Russian soil. President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso paid a visit to Azerbaijan in June and signed an agreement to expand cooperation between Baku and Brussels. Malena Mard, head of the EU mission in Baku, said Barroso’s visit to Baku was aimed at addressing the possibility of Azerbaijan signing an association agreement with the EU, according to RFE/RL.
By playing the West off against Russia, Azerbaijan seems to be keeping its options open and pursuing its own interests: by being pragmatic, Baku may eventually achieve its ultimate goal of solving the territorial dispute with its arch-enemy Armenia while regaining Nagorno-Karabakh and other lost territories.
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