Azerbaijan and the European Union: Roots of Conflict

In principle, cooperation with the EU is very important for Azerbaijan, since it needs a modernized economy and system of government administration, and needs to step up its authority and influence in external politics. It’s additionally important to attract European investment, which would strengthen the economic integration of Azerbaijan and Europe, as well as develop the corresponding transport infrastructure, without which all this would be impossible.

Tamaz Papuashvili, PhD

The European Union is considered a united whole, integration into which is a guarantee of development for the states of the former USSR, including Azerbaijan. The EU is an entity which is based on the principles of the development of progress, human rights, and democracy.

In principle, cooperation with the EU is very important for Azerbaijan, since it needs a modernized economy and system of government administration, and needs to step up its authority and influence in external politics. It’s additionally important to attract European investment, which would strengthen the economic integration of Azerbaijan and Europe, as well as develop the corresponding transport infrastructure, without which all this would be impossible.

It is precisely with the goal of strengthening relations between the EU and six countries of the former USSR: Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus, that the Eastern Partnership program was created in 2009.

However, in the case of Azerbaijan, the final step of the Eastern Partnership was never reached: the concluding of an association agreement. In 2014, Azerbaijan declined this agreement, preferring individual cooperation. Baku also declined to sign a free trade zone agreement with the EU, without which it is not possible for a country to enter the WTO (World Trade Organization). Azerbaijan believes that this would put several sectors of its economy in a disadvantageous position. Besides that, Azerbaijan is awaiting a more firm position from the EU on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

In order to understand the essence of this discordance, it’s important to uncover the reasons for the visible crisis. On the surface is the fact that Baku believes the criticism periodically leveled against it by international organizations, including the European Union, is biased, nonobjective, and not based in fact. This criticism concerns the violation of human rights and freedom of the press, and actions counter to the process of liberalization. This is attested to by reports from such human rights organizations as Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

And opposition forces in Azerbaijan insist that the government is putting the brakes on reforms necessary for the development of a European direction, political and economic freedom, human rights, and freedom of the press.

It is in specifically this context that we must consider President Ilham Aliyev’s statements that Azerbaijan does not intend to conclude an association agreement with the European Union, but is prepared to discuss paths to a strategic partnership. In his opinion, the level of interrelations between Azerbaijan and the European Union requires a higher form of cooperation. Correspondingly, Azerbaijan has an ambivalent attitude towards the Eastern Partnership, expressing interest in questions of investments, energy, science and education, as well as visa liberalization. And since the EU needs Azerbaijan’s energy resources, the influence of EU norms on the country’s politics remains extremely minimal.

We can clearly follow Baku’s efforts to safeguard the financial and economic interests of the Azerbaijani oligarchs, for whom it is disadvantageous to enter the free trade zone and have Europe exercise control over their financial, economic and customs instruments. The powers that be in Azerbaijan believe that, for cooperation with Europe, geo-energetic and transit projects are enough, and there’s no need to accept political sorts of obligations.

Naturally, such a position from the Azerbaijani leadership has caused aggravation in Brussels. And the EU has correspondingly adjusted its policies, based on the situation that’s taken shape. The European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, announced that the EU is reexamining the concept of neighbourhood and negotiations on the principle of an individual approach to each state. And moreover a resolution was adopted on September 10 by the European Parliament reprimands Baku for “unprecedented repressions” towards civil activists and calls for thorough investigations into the accusations of corruption directed at President Aliyev and members of his family. Additionally, the resolution implies the application of “targeted sanctions and visa restrictions” against all political actors, civil servants and judges connected with the persecutions, which doesn’t encourage friendship between Baku and Brussels. True, several of the governments of the EU support mutually beneficial ties with Baku, and getting them to agree to sanctions will be problematic.

Surface appearances, based on these observations, would suggest that Baku’s reaction to criticism was fairly severe. Azerbaijan declared it was leaving the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly and threatened to enact sanctions on retaliation, targeted at members of the European Parliament.

At first glance, all these conflicts create the impression of a complete break and deep conflict. However, any iceberg has an underwater segment that determines where it is carried by the current. Regarding the EU’s interests, in its efforts to reduce its dependence on Russian energy resources, it uses all its foreign policy instruments to establish strategic partnerships with fuel suppliers like Azerbaijan. And in this light, we cannot disregard the recent choice of the Trans Adriatic route for transporting Azerbaijani gas to Europe. This was agreed upon by Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Erdoğan. The project will begin functioning in 2018, and at first the pipeline will yearly send 10 billion cubic m of gas a year to the EU, but later this amount will triple. Because of this, despite the mutual dissatisfaction, the countries of the European Union have invested $20 billion in Azerbaijan over the past ten years. By 2016, the European Union had implemented 213 various projects in Azerbaijan, as announced by EU Ambassador Malena Mard. She believes that Azerbaijan has great potential to transform into a transport and logistics center.

In fact, in the sphere of the EU and Azerbaijan’s common interests, cooperation has been established even without political integration. Although, from a geostrategic point of view, Azerbaijan’s international weight and authority will clearly be reduced.

Despite the calls of Azerbaijani NGOs’ calls to actively facilitate the implementation of political and economic reforms in the country, and to put pressure on the Aliyev administration with the goal of developing the liberalization process, the EU’s only way to maintain relations with Azerbaijan is on the bases of cooperation purely in business, without raising questions about common values and principles. Moreover, Brussels doesn’t have any levers for pressuring the Aliyev administration that would be more effective than diplomacy, and that has a limited effectiveness. Furthermore, Baku is, on the whole, not opposed to cooperation with Europe. This was openly stated by the head of Azerbaijan’s MID (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Elmar Mammadyarov, at an informal meeting of the member states of the EU and the Eastern Partnership on September 4, 2016. However, he emphasized that development of long-term relations with the member states of the EU should take place on the basis of principles of equal rights and mutual benefit.

From all the above, we can draw the conclusion that the primary reason for the current problems is a conceptual divergence in choice of paths towards cooperation. Brussels views Azerbaijan as a state that, with an eye to economic perspectives, could be integrated into the general European order with a partnership agreement, on the conditions that Azerbaijan acknowledge the principles of rule of law, democracy, and human rights. And Azerbaijan, emboldened by oil money, demands special treatment from the European Union. Because of this, Azerbaijani leaders are pushing for cooperation on other, particularly privileged conditions. The European Union, in turn, refuses to meet this initiative, since it believes that Azerbaijan’s economic and political weight is incomparably lower than that of the EU’s generally acknowledged strategic partners, like India, South Korea, Japan and Russia previous to the Ukrainian crisis.

Although, there is one more factor influencing Azerbaijan’s position towards the EU. Baku believes that tight integration with the EU would conclusively rule out the possibility of a political balance and would shift the country towards the West, opposed to Russia. This is undesirable if we remember the Karabakh conflict. In distancing itself from integration with Europe, Baku is striving to escape possible problems with Russia. Although, both sides have many reasons to take issue with one another. For example, the problem of Azerbaijani migrants in Russia, which periodically leads to tension between the two countries. The question of the status of the Caspian Sea is also a topic for a separate conversation. Today, Azerbaijan and Russia’s relations are undergoing significant changes. For example, evidence of this are their joint trainings on the Caspian and potential construction of a new radar array, to replace the closed Gabala station. We could also mention the civil war in Syria, in which it couldn’t hurt for Russia to have support from Azerbaijan, or the rumors that it was Ilham Aliyev who played a big role in the reconciliation between Russia and Turkey. And it would also be a big victory for Russia if they could bring Azerbaijan into the Eurasian Economic Union.

However, in Baku they likely understand that under the conditions Russia’s current situation, collapsing oil prices and an unstable exchange rate for the ruble, such a proposition is not very attractive. What’s more, the hypothetical of joining the Eurasian Economic Union won’t raise oil prices and won’t improve the investment climate, and Azerbaijan would end up having to share Russia’s problems, rather than resolving its own.

In summing up everything mentioned above, we can draw the conclusion that at the present moment, Azerbaijan is experiencing the harsh crash of the socio-political values of the West, and more specifically the EU, from one side, and its own geopolitical interests, traditional mentality, and traditions from the other. On the road to integration, the EU demands that Azerbaijan conform to its foundational principles, but at the same time, Brussels’s strategic interests force it to close its eyes to Azerbaijan straying from these principles. The conflict gains steam each time that a move to defend of civil rights and freedoms corresponds with the implementation of EU policies for strengthening its principles in the former republics of the USSR. It’s unlikely that Azerbaijan, in turn, will fully ignore the possibility of closer relations with the EU, considering its geopolitical situation in a complex and unstable region.

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