The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has long been the focal point in Azerbaijan’s relations with the outside world in general and with the regional blocs in particular. As the 44-day war in the region brought decades-long occupation to a partial end, Baku might now consider certain changes in its alignment strategies with regard to the EU and Russia-led integration projects. We sat with six Azerbaijani experts to discuss the issue in detail.
In the new geopolitical realities of the post-Karabakh War South Caucasus, what kind of changes and continuities may we observe in Azerbaijani foreign policy towards the EU and EAEU?
FARID SHAFIYEV | Chairman of the Center of Analysis of International Relations (AIR Center) and Former Ambassador of Azerbaijan to Canada and Czech Republic
I think we have to accept the fact that we face a new geopolitical reality in the wider Caspian basin after the Second Karabakh War. Armenia and Azerbaijan, among others, have a unique chance to put the past misunderstandings aside and work for a more stable and peaceful future. Unfortunately, mediators of the conflict - the OSCE Minsk Group - and some other external powers still attempt to keep the conflict on the agenda that might negatively affect the direction of talks in current conditions. In this context, the only way for moving forward is the acceptance of the territorial integrity of Armenia and Azerbaijan and building economic cooperation on that basis. Founding treaties of both EU and the EAEU presents mutual respect to sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states as the central tenets of the potential integration and Azerbaijan expects the same attitude when it comes to Karabakh as part of its internationally recognized borders.
It might seem to be difficult in the short term but Armenia and Azerbaijan could achieve recognizing each other’s territorial integrity through functional economic cooperation, just the way the European countries did after the end of the Second World War despite unprecedented bloodshed they committed a few years before. As the full-fledged cooperation on coal and steel later spilled over to the other aspects of contacts between the former enemies, hence bringing peace to war-torn Europe, the construction of transportation corridors between Armenia and Azerbaijan would similarly contribute to economic prosperity and stability in the region. Interestingly, it is totally in line with the EU’s plans for the region offered back in 2013 when Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey were conducting talks on the launch of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. Brussels wanted the new railroad to pass through Meghri (Armenia) instead of Georgian territory. It is the same route Baku, Ankara, and Moscow currently advocate which is clearly stipulated in the November 10 agreement and January 11 talks between the Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Russian leaders.
Azerbaijan and the EU have been working on a new agreement since 2017. Even if the COVID-19 pandemic put a break on the negotiation process, the two sides resumed talks recently. In the post-Karabakh war period, Baku is interested in the EU’s more active engagement in reconstruction and rehabilitation activities in the country. Azerbaijan started direct delivery of its natural gas to the European market through the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline from this year and hopes to broaden the agenda of cooperation with Brussels in the coming months. When it comes to the EAEU, there is no meaningful change in Azerbaijani foreign policy but Baku might consider participation in some of the meetings without any firm commitment to the integration into the community. An observer status might fit well into this picture but I think Azerbaijan will be interested in cooperation with the EAEU mostly on an ad hoc basis - similar to the relations with the EU - in the spheres of, for example, agricultural and technological partnership. To conclude, I have to say that everything depends on our ability to put the war behind us and build a better region by tapping into its huge connectivity potential.
FARHAD MAMMADOV | Political Scientist and Expert at the Valdai International Discussion Club
Azerbaijan’s foreign policy towards the EU and the EAEU is based on three main criteria: domestic political implications, economic compatibility, and approach to the Karabakh conflict. In all three policy areas, we have seen different forms of engagement from either institution. Politically, the EU’s prioritization of human rights and democracy in parallel with its close partnership with Azerbaijan on energy and transportation spheres has always been a bone of contention in bilateral relations. The Azerbaijani side perceives Brussel’s calls for democratic opening as an intervention in internal affairs that can in no way be accepted. As for the EAEU, Baku has been concerned about the further politicization of the organization that might push it to make geopolitical choices which are not in its strategic interests. In the context of recent events, Azerbaijan does not want to be embroiled in a sanction war between Russia and the West.
In the case of economic compatibility, it is to be noted that the EU is Azerbaijan’s major trade partner while Russia dominates the list in the non-oil sector cooperation. On the one hand, energy exports account for a large part of Azerbaijan's trade with the EU. On the other hand, the agricultural sector that employs the largest share of the labor force (more than 35%) finds customers mostly in the EAEU market. Azerbaijan’s non-oil exports currently amount to USD 2 billion and about half of them are destined to the EAEU countries. If we want to increase this share, we will have to conform to the EAEU rules and standards in the long term that could create dependence on that market. As the organization has been actively widening its economic connections through different types of trade agreements in recent years, Azerbaijan may not want to stay out and consider concluding certain agreements with the EAEU to make better use of its connectivity and non-oil export potential. When it comes to the EU, Azerbaijan cannot join its customs union as our industrial potential is not yet ready for such stiff competition.
In the case of the Karabakh conflict, the EU mostly lost its appeal in Azerbaijan as it used a two-pronged strategy by referring to the concept of self-determination in relations with Armenia and the concept of territorial integrity with regard to Azerbaijan. In the post-Karabakh War period, Brussels has not yet defined its clear position on the new realities in the region and I do not think it will happen in the near future. On the contrary, Azerbaijan has close partners among the EAEU countries who have supported its cause in the conflict. In this regard, Baku may find it attractive to have observer status in the organization if relations with Armenia are normalized and Yerevan recognizes Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity within its internationally accepted borders.
To conclude, I have to say that closer partnership with the EAEU looks more real in the near future if certain conditions are met while the relations with the EU will continue on its traditional line. I do not expect the new agreement with the EU to be signed soon but do not also exclude that it can happen in 3-5 years.
ROVSHAN IBRAHIMOV | Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies
To begin with, I have to note that I do not see any serious change in the geopolitics of the region in the short term. However, the realization of connectivity projects that are still on paper might lead to certain modifications in the regional balance of influence in the mid to long term. The same can be said about the Azerbaijani foreign policy after the 44-day war in Karabakh as Baku does not see a reason to change its external priorities with regard to the EU and the EAEU.
First of all, the EU-Azerbaijan relations are shaped mostly by the former’s policy strategies towards the post-Soviet space. Azerbaijan is a junior partner and does not have the leverage to change the EU behavior in the region. At the same time, Baku does not strive for NATO membership, which is also one of the preconditions for integration into the EU. Currently, the two sides work on the signing of a new framework agreement that is expected to replace the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement signed in 1999. Therefore, Azerbaijan-EU negotiations will mostly revolve around the conclusion of this agreement in the near future.
In the case of the EAEU, there is no reason that Azerbaijan can change its foreign policy approach as the organization will not be attractive for Baku either politically or economically. Azerbaijan produces the same products as Russia and Kazakhstan, and it already has free trade agreements with the former Soviet countries. It is enough for Azerbaijan’s current economic interests but the government may consider certain changes in its EAEU policy if it can achieve diversification of export products. Politically, it is questionable what Azerbaijan will get in return for the loss of a certain part of its sovereignty to the Russia-led organization. At the same time, Armenia’s position on the issue should also be taken into account as Yerevan has the veto right over Azerbaijan’s possible accession into the EAEU.
AYAZ RZAYEV | Research Fellow at Topchubashov Center
I do not believe that Azerbaijan is going to become a member of the Eurasian Union anytime soon. The EAEU accession is not on the table. It is important to remember that for years, the Eurasian Economic Union was planned as a project to unite, first and foremost, Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine. The Ukrainian crisis, however, pushed Moscow to revise its plans on the fly and create the EAEU in a hurry because the Kremlin needed a geopolitical win in the immediate aftermath of Ukraine’s decoupling. That’s why it lacks a clear strategic vision and identity. It is still very much a messy experiment. While the idea of Eurasian integration is not without its appeal and could certainly have many benefits, the Eurasian Union as an institution itself, at least in the way it functions today, has many drawbacks that make the membership in it very cumbersome and inefficient.
When it comes to the European Union, Baku sees the EU as a critical and perennial actor in the region. Baku and Brussels are at the final stage of negotiations to sign a new agreement between Azerbaijan and the EU, which was interrupted because of the pandemic and the Second Karabakh War. A new bilateral treaty has already been agreed 90 percent, and the negotiations will probably resume shortly. The Second Karabakh War has opened an opportunity for Armenia to get involved in regional transportation and communication projects, something that the EU has always insisted upon and Azerbaijan refused to allow due to the conflict. Now, the EU and Azerbaijan share a common interest in urging Armenia to become a part of regional integration projects. The EU could push Armenia to unlock the Zangezur corridor that will allow Armenia to get connected to Europe via Azerbaijan and Turkey.
ANAR VALIYEV | Dean and Associate Professor of School of Public and International Affairs at ADA University
Taking into account the recent developments in the South Caucasus, I believe that Azerbaijan’s foreign policy towards the EU will get a positive push. Baku expects the EU’s political, economic, and financial assistance in the reconstruction of Karabakh after the devastating war in 2020. Strategic energy partnership with the EU is still one of the major vectors of Azerbaijani foreign policy in a highly volatile region and both sides are interested in maintaining pragmatism in bilateral relations. Thus, I think we will see a gradual decrease in Azerbaijani criticism of the EU and there will be a positive turn in the foreign policy narratives on cooperation with Brussels. The two sides are on the final stage of concluding a new framework agreement that is expected to be a general one replacing the old PCA rather than a deep and comprehensive agreement. At the same time, developments in the EU-Turkey relations will have a certain impact on Azerbaijan’s future partnership with the EU. If Turkey and the EU achieve to bring back the positive vibe to currently tense bilateral relations, Azerbaijan will reap geopolitical dividends from this development.
As for the EAEU, Azerbaijan will keep distancing itself from the organization. Baku may get an observer status at maximum and will not go beyond that. After the Karabakh War, it is still too early to expect any serious development in this regard as neither Azerbaijan is interested in membership in the organization nor Russia sees Azerbaijan’s accession as an urgent need to meet in the short term.
ZAUR GASIMOV | Senior Researcher of East European and Russian History at the University of Bonn
The geopolitics of the Caucasus, especially after the Karabakh war last year, seems to be cardinally influenced and finally shaped mostly by the developments in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Greater Middle East. I would suggest thinking in terms of much more hybrid dynamics in the regional politics around the Karabakh issue. An alleged dichotomy (either EU or EAEU) is rather an intellectual assumption than the reality. Geography, regionalism, and the dynamics of Russian-Turkish, and to some extent of US-Russian relations are of crucial importance for the Caucasus in general, and Azerbaijan in particular. I guess Baku will further try to deepen its cooperation with both organizations and their leading members.