COMMENT: Rising tension between France and Azerbaijan is a drag on peace process with Armenia

COMMENT: Rising tension between France and Azerbaijan is a drag on peace process with Armenia
France is actively trying to prevent Armenia from moving from the sphere of Russian influence to the American one. / bne IntelliNews
By Seymur Mammadov in Baku March 19, 2024

Tensions between Baku and Paris have risen since Azerbaijan's invasion of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region last September.

Although relations between France and Azerbaijan have had their warm periods, currently relations have deteriorated rapidly thanks to tectonic shifts in the geopolitical situation and there are little grounds for optimism for a quick resolution of existing problems. France is home to a large ethnic Armenia diaspora that makes it a natural ally of Yerevan.

It didn’t used to be like this. Prior to the Second Karabakh War in 2020, both sides demonstrated active and mutually beneficial cooperation. French companies invested $2.2bn in Azerbaijan's economy between 1995 and 2019, of which $2bn was directed to the oil sector and $194.1mn to the non-oil industry. On the flip side, Azerbaijan invested $2.6bn in the French economy.

More than 50 French companies are operating in Azerbaijan, covering sectors such as energy, industry, transport, aerospace, trade, services, and the agricultural sector. French firms participated as contractors in 34 projects funded by the Azerbaijani state budget, with a total value of $6.2bn. In 2019, trade turnover between the countries grew by 53%, with Azerbaijan accounting for more than 62% of France's trade volume with the South Caucasus countries. Both sides considered this cooperation strategic. It is important to note that even after the 44-day war, cooperation between the two states continued, which is evidenced by the 57-fold increase in Azerbaijani exports to France in the first half of 2023.

The new tensions are driven by the rise of political considerations that have eclipsed economic ties. The influence of France’s powerful Armenian lobby, which holds significant sway over the French establishment, especially when Armenian interests align with Paris's plans, has also played a key role.

Furthermore, France is taking independent steps regarding the South Caucasus, as French President Emmanuel Macron attempts to bolster his role as a top European leader and avoid collaboration with the US and the UK, which have traditionally been active in the region. This strategy is aimed at boosting French influence in the region, to counter Russia’s traditional role as the dominant political force in the Caucasus.

Macron’s policies illustrate France's aspiration to thwart Anglo-American efforts to normalising relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia, especially after Paris’ role in the region was downgraded in recent years. France is actively trying to prevent Armenia from moving from the sphere of Russian influence to the American one – and with some success.

Azerbaijan traditionally maintains stable and open diplomatic relations with the UK. At the same time, relations with the US are characterised by mutual understanding, which contributes to maintaining a balance in international relations, regardless of current events. In the context of international politics, France's strategy to push out Anglo-Saxon influence from Azerbaijan's foreign policy dialogue seems unfeasible, especially considering the situation that has developed between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Following the 44-day conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, France's relatively balanced position in relations to the region shifted dramatically towards overt support of Armenia and worsened relations with Azerbaijan. So far, Baku’s response to what it sees as an increasingly overtly aggressively stance from France has been restrained.

However, Baku has been pushing back and playing on the sensitive issue of Frances neo-colonialism past in Africa, using its position and influence in the non-aligned movement as a jumping off point. Today, Paris accuses Baku of inciting unrest in "French Africa", which irritates and seriously concerns the French side as Russia has been stirring up similar emotions as part of its competition with France to forge closer ties with the countries of Africa. Paris has begun to suspect that Baku and Moscow are acting together, coordinating their comments, according to articles appearing in the French press, although there is little concrete evidence to support this view.

Baku’s official position is simply to pursue the establishment of peace in the region and the revitalisation of its newly liberated territories. Additionally, there is an unresolved issue between Russia and Azerbaijan, concerning the presence of Russian peacekeeping forces. According to Baku the presence of the peacekeepers is becoming increasingly redundant now that Baku fully controls the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and after Armenian forces have left.

The term of the Russian peacekeepers' stay expires in 2025 and Baku will resist its extension; negotiations have almost certainly already started.

Growing military ties

In 2023, France allocated humanitarian aid to Armenia amounting to €29mn. In December of the same year, France also announced an additional €15mn in emergency aid to support Armenians forced to leave Karabakh. However, in addition France entered into various military equipment supply agreements with Yerevan with the involvement of third countries, including India and Greece, following visits by high-ranking military officials from these countries to Yerevan.

France has also been lobbying for more aid to be sent to the region as a whole to counter Russia, following Macron’s calls in February for the possible deployment of Nato troops in Ukraine, which has yet to gain much traction.

After the military operation conducted by Azerbaijan on September 19 last year, and the mass departure of Armenians from Karabakh, military cooperation between Paris and Yerevan has notably strengthened. This particularly pertains to Armenia's request for military assistance, to which France responded positively, motivated by the desire to support Armenia's territorial integrity and contribute to peace in the region.

So far the military-technical cooperation agreements between France and Armenia remains largely defensive, particularly regarding the sale of Thales Ground Master 200 radars and Mistral short-range air defence systems to Armenia.

On November 12, 2023, armoured personnel carriers Bastion, produced by the company Acmat, arrived at the Georgian port of Poti, intended for Armenia. According to Armenian media, 24 armoured vehicles have already been delivered to Armenia, while 26 are in the production stage.

Despite the defensive nature of the weapons systems supplied so far, the growing military imports by Yerevan have unsettled Baku and increased tensions with Paris, rubbing Franco-Azerbaijani relations the wrong way and leading to a slow-moving arms build up.

In response, Baku has intensified its military cooperation with key allies, including Turkey, Israel and Pakistan. Recent reports indicate that Azerbaijan has enriched its arsenal with the latest Akıncı strike drones acquired from Turkey, which have already been deployed in the country's air forces. Additionally, the country has made a deal to acquire Pakistani JF-17C Block-III fighters, along with training and combat materials for the jets, with a total value exceeding $1.6bn.

In addition, it is reported that Azerbaijan has acquired from Israel an advanced radar system, the Sky Dew balloon, capable of detecting missiles and aircraft over long distances. The deal reflects deepening military-technical cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan following the end of the second Karabakh war in 2020. The Sky Dew system was developed by the Homa Department of Israel's Weapons and Technology Infrastructure Development Authority (MAPAT) in collaboration with the US Missile Defence Administration (MDA). Given the participation of the US in the development of the system, it was necessary to obtain Washington's consent for its export to Azerbaijan.

Previously, France official explanations following the adoption of pro-Armenian resolutions, claimed that they would not impact relations with Baku. However, over the last year, the diplomatic effort to smooth the waters has fallen away. Specifically, calls are coming from the Élysée Palace in the EU to isolate Azerbaijan and impose sanctions, which have also yet to gain any traction.

Diplomatic ties frayed, economic ties strong

Despite the decaying diplomatic relations, economic ties remain strong. France has not taken steps to limit the activities of its companies in Azerbaijan, especially not its oil sector interests.

Specific examples include the operations of TotalEnergies in Azerbaijan and the significant revenues earned by French companies such as SADE and Paprec Group from projects on Azerbaijani territory.

Thus, despite political disagreements, economic interaction remains a key element in the relations between France and Azerbaijan. Sanctions would cause French concerns significant financial pain, but less for Azerbaijan, which could relatively easily redirect its oil exports.

Azerbaijani exports to France last year grew strongly, rising 57-fold thanks to the disruptions in the international oil trade caused by sanctions on Russia’s oil industry, even if its share in Azerbaijan's total foreign trade turnover remains relatively small, at about 2%.

At the beginning of March this year, the tenth ministerial meeting was held in Baku within the framework of the Southern Gas Corridor Advisory Council. Discussions at the meeting demonstrated that European countries are not inclined to follow France's suggestion to sanction Azerbaijan's energy resources. On the contrary, support by the EU and the US for the further expansion of the Southern Gas Corridor and the strengthening of Europe's energy security by buying Azerbaijani gas was discussed. Meanwhile, France, which does not import oil and gas from Azerbaijan, continues its purchases from Russia, ignoring its own calls for sanctions against Russia and suggestions to other countries to reduce energy cooperation with Moscow.

Relations in flux

The geopolitical landscape in the Caucuses has changed dramatically in the last year. Today, Baku says it is seeking long-term peace in the region and does not wish to see military actions resume. Following the Second Karabakh War, Azerbaijan has been offering Yerevan a peace deal, but talks remain fraught. External meddling and the militarisation of the region, including actions by France, have undermined the process and diminishing hopes for a swift conclusion of a new treaty.

Azerbaijan is not willing to succumb to pressure from France and, if anything, is looking to take reciprocal actions against France, targeting its vulnerabilities.

A low-level information war has broken out with media in both countries taking potshots at each other and the blatant demonisation by both parties. For example, a statement by Intelligence Online that Azerbaijan is in Russia's geopolitical camp was perceived in Baku as an attempt to portray it not as an independent player in international relations but as a country serving Russia's interests, thus being a participant in the geopolitical standoff between the West and Russia. In response, Azerbaijani media retorted that it is Armenia, supported by France, not Azerbaijan, that is a critical node for circumventing the West's anti-Russian sanctions, and pointed out that French thermal imagery photos were found in Russian armoured vehicles that invaded Ukraine and were captured by the Ukrainian army.

The confrontation between Paris and Baku clearly does not have a significant impact on the political situation in either France or Azerbaijan, but it contributes to the formation of mutually negative relations at the societal level. The volume of anti-French publications in Azerbaijani media and anti-Azerbaijani materials in French media continues to grow. However, sooner or later, the chilly relations between the two countries will have to thaw.