Azerbaijan and the European Union: An Accentuated or Attenuated Relationship?


2013-10-01 By Robbin Laird

Recently, we published a comprehensive report by Richard Weitz on Azerbaijan.

Weitz argued that:

The Republic of Azerbaijan is a close U.S. ally since Azerbaijanis regained their independence following the Soviet Union’s collapse.

It has become a prominent role model for Muslim-majority nations seeking to manage religious and ethnic differences in a harmonious and productive manner.

Thanks to its secular policies and embracing approach toward religious an ethnic diversity, Azerbaijanis have accrued substantial soft power as an attractive Muslim model for emulation by other countries.

By enhancing this soft power, the United States can challenge Iran’s influence among Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere, where Azerbaijan is already viewed more favorably than Iran.

In particular, Azerbaijan can serve as a model for Iran’s large and influential Azerbaijani minority, which could indirectly change Tehran’s obnoxious foreign and defense policies without the risky use of U.S. military power.

Dr. Weitz certainly did not argue that Azerbaijan was Nirvhana or a country without flaws.

Is the EU likely to take a geopolitical perspective towards Azerbaijan? Clearly, the Russians are pushing for a deeper economic union to augment their influence in the region.
Is the EU likely to take a geopolitical perspective towards Azerbaijan? Clearly, the Russians are pushing for a deeper economic union to augment their influence in the region.

But apparently for the European Union, when considering a deepened relationship the character of the neighborhood is less important than abstract values.

Indeed, in negotiations between the EU and Azerbaijan, a key question is whether the EU has any geopolitical perspicacity at all.

The question on the table for Weisz is examining the neighborhood populated by Iran and Russia and viewing Azerbaijan through such an optic.

But is the EU doing so as well?

According to a recent article, it seems that the EU might well not be doing so.

Azerbaijan and the EU are negotiating against the clock on a new “strategic” pact.

According to a draft dated 4 April, the “Strategic Modernization Partnership” will be 13 pages long and will not be legally binding.

But since Azerbaijan does not want a more meaty “Association Agreement,” let alone EU membership, it is likely to shape relations for years to come.

The first two pages speak of a “progressive implementation of practical reform measures … with the ultimate goal of achieving closer integration and approximation to the EU.”

They say the pact will “promote political and economic reforms in Azerbaijan, support deep and comprehensive democracy, promote regional security and enhanced, sustainable economic growth and energy co-operation.”

They also say the EU will make it easier for Azerbaijani nationals to visit Union countries.

But they note there will be no new EU money or structures to make things happen, relying instead on EU-Azerbaijan “sub-committees” created 10-or-so years ago.

The other 11 pages list a series of “actions” for the next six months to two years.

They fall under five chapters: political reforms and EU approximation; security co-operation and consultation; trade and business environment; energy, environment and transport; and people-to-people contacts.

The aim is to sign it at an EU summit with former Soviet states in Vilnius in November. ….

According to EU sources, even the mild new language on reform is hard to swallow for Azerbaijan’s increasingly repressive regime.

One EU contact told EUobserver: “It’s difficult to really modernize unless you try to make society a bit more democratic.” But Azerbaijan’s EU ambassador, Fuad Iskandarov, told this website the text should say more on EU “respect for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity” and less on democracy.

He said its main objective should be to educate Azerbaijan’s business elite and to help it acquire high-end technology. He added that “95 percent of the text is ready … but sometimes you can have 95 percent and then you are working on the last 5 percent for a long time.”

“Strategic” and “respect” are important words for Azerbaijan.

This seems to be an EU perspective, and if it is the dominant one, there seems to be a missing geopolitical context to the perspective.

In contrast, in a recent piece published in Azerbaijan, there seems to be a very geopolitical realist position and from this position, the analyst took a hard look at the value of the EU to Azerbaijan.

According to Zaur Shiriyev writing in Today’s Zaman counterpoised the pressures to form a currency union with Russia with an expanded relationship with the EU.

The regional customs union (CU) is a hot topic these days across the post-Soviet area, especially since Armenia pledged to join and given Russia’s ongoing pressure on Ukraine and Moldova to join. These developments have reopened the debate on Azerbaijan’s position.

Clearly, Azerbaijan favors deeper Western integration over the Russian approach an expanded customs union.

But the world is not always a place that is shaped by what you want, but rather by what you can achieve.

The EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program has not been wildly successful, but it has helped with integration among the post-Soviet countries.

While all of these elements of Western support will not immediately dissolve, the situation could change drastically.

The Syrian crisis and Moscow’s diplomatic overtures, along with declining US interest in the South Caucasus and crucially, Armenia’s political U-turn, could signal the end of the EaP.

In other words, this writer is underscoring the strategic context within which trade and currency relationships evolve and very much from the standpoint of the neighborhood within which Azerbaijan lives.

The author clearly hopes that the EU-Azerbaijan relationship will deepen.

Azerbaijan is currently looking to develop its relationship with the EU.

The general perception is that the EU’s EaP program will come to an end in light of recent developments and it is no secret that Baku is looking to sign a Strategic Modernization Partnership, which was put on the agenda last year.

Since the most recent visit to Brussels in June by the Azerbaijani leadership, the EU and Azerbaijan have almost completed a draft agreement. In late August in Brussels, Azerbaijani delegates held detailed discussions with EU bureaucrats.

The new agreement could provide a different platform for EU-Azerbaijan dialogue. In this case, Azerbaijan will not join the EU’s free trade zone, but will work for the next couple of years on various commonly agreed points.

This development would provide further impetus to resist CU membership.

Given that the EU countries are some of Baku’s major trade partners, this formulation looks likely to succeed.

But this is a geopolitical perspective and if the EU takes a value perspective crafted with little regard to the realities of the neighborhood, such an agreement will not happen.

Without such an agreement, the Russian position for certain would be strengthened along with a reduce opportunity to work with Azerbaijan to counter Iranian influence in the region.

For the first two pieces in our series on “The Changing Global Context: US and European Approaches and Options,” see the following: