Azerbaijan: The Undesirable Neighbor of the Caucasus

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The news that Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev is suffering from poor health and has not made a public appearance in the last two weeks does not bother that country’s citizens too much, because their government apparatus is on auto-pilot; it is teleguided from Ankara, following the policies of its Big Brother.

Indeed, Ankara, particularly during the era of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has set its sights on its neighbors’ territories. After occupying 38 percent of Cyprus, Turkey has been involved in a landgrab rampage in Iraq and Syria.

Similarly, Azerbaijan, after occupying the historic Armenian territory of Nakhijevan, has targeted Artsakh and very recently, some areas in Georgia. The second Azeri president, Abulfaz Elchibay, had set his sights on gobbling up northern Iran (the Iranian province of Azerbaijan); that dream remains alive and well and currently is at the center of some strategic plans by the US and Israel.

Turkey and Iran have been perennial competitors and enemies in the Caucasus and that latent antagonism is still extant.

Today, Turkey’s ambitions in the Caucasus are perfectly in step with its status as a NATO member. The recent military buildup in Nakhijevan expands NATO’s power right to Iran’s borders. In essence, the militarization of Nakhijevan has also coincided with US plans to contain Russian influence in the region.

It may sound odd that Russia and Turkey have political harmony on Syrian territory and yet they are at odds in the Caucasus. This is the paradigm of the post-Cold War political fragmentations; while the Soviet Union was a superpower, political divisions in the world had an ideological tilt. Following the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the major powers have been micro-managing their regional strategies. Even the US has subscribed to Turkey’s policy of listing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist organization, all the while supporting the same Kurdish allies on Syrian territory, to Ankara’s chagrin.

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Within the short span of one week, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry issued two official denials of accusations that the US has stationed Israeli drones in Azerbaijan to be used against Iraq and Iran. The evidence of those Israeli drones has appeared in a Lebanese news outlet. Regardless of the denials, where there is smoke, there must also be some fire.

Tehran has lodged a diplomatic protest against Baku regarding the issue.

It is no secret that Azerbaijan has been using Israeli drones against Armenian forces and there is no earthly reason that it would refrain from using them against Iran. In fact, the last time was exactly a year ago that the Israeli drone manufacturer Aeronautics launched the Orbiter 1K at the request of the Azerbaijani government toward the Armenian border, leading to two Armenian soldiers getting injured.

Additionally, President Aliyev, referring to the purchase of $5 billion in military hardware from Israel, had boasted that 95 percent of the Azerbaijani-Israeli cooperation is below the surface.

From time to time, the Azeri government demonstrates its inherent mistrust of the Shia community in that country, which pledges its allegiance to Iran. The Tehran government, while maintaining a neutral stance in the region, harbors suspicions with regards to the Baku government. That is why it has been delaying the application of the visa regime and also it has halted plans for a rail link which would connect the two countries.

It is utterly possible that Nakhijevan eventually may also serve as a parking ground for the S-400 defensive missile system Turkey purchased from Russia over Washington’s vociferous objections.

However, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, ignoring all calls to dump Turkey from the NATO alliance, extended a fig leaf to Ankara, by asking them to leave the system inoperable for the time being, to get a dispensation from sanctions. That is why those systems may end up in Nakhijevan, a few miles from Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. Over time, Erdogan has learned that his brinksmanship with fellow NATO members will pay off and he will be able to have his cake and eat it too.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has problems with its Georgian neighbors. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the two countries had been cooperating with each other to bypass Armenia regionally. Former President Mikheil Saakashvili, during a visit to Baku, had announced that Azerbaijan’s enemy is also Georgia’s enemy. At this time, however, although the Tbilisi government has been trying to maintain a coopererative policy by participating in military drills involving Turkey and Azerbaijan, it has begun to demonstrate some unease, because of Azerbaijan’s territorial claims and Turkey’s overwhelming presence in Ajaria, a region of Georgia.

The Front News outlet had reported recently that Azerbaijan had stationed its forces in the area of Red Bridge, on the Georgian side of the land. Azerbaijan has also banned Georgian pilgrims from visiting David Gareja monastery complex, which remains a contested historic site between the two countries. Adding insult to injury, the Azerbaijani Academy of Science has claimed that the southeast corner of Georgia is Azerbaijani territory. The Tbilisi government has been trying to solve the problems quietly but to no avail. During the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, the Tbilisi government had pinned its hopes on the US and NATO, which offered little more than lip service. Therefore, the Georgians know they will be on their own should the conflict with Azerbaijan intensify.

Georgia is also alarmed that the port city of Batumi is gradually becoming an Azerbaijani-Turkish town. Turkey has heavily invested in the region’s economic infrastructure, particularly in the tourism industry.

Incidentally, the Treaty of Kars of 1921 stipulated that Turkey should be entitled to free transport of goods and people without any customs duties. Turkey has revived that claim after the fall of the USSR by colonizing Georgia’s Ajarian province, while denying the same right to Armenia, which is promised the same right in the same treaty, in Turkey.

Recently, Tbilisi has moderated its policy with regards to Yerevan, not only expecting better treatment from the Pashinyan government, but also discovering that the Turkish-Azerbaijani embrace has become too suffocating. Yerevan has been mitigating some of the tensions driving Tbilisi and Moscow apart.

Armenia’s government also continues to serve as a backchannel diplomatic track with Moscow to solve some transit issues.

After assuming power, Pashinyan took his maiden trip out of the country to Georgia and that may have paid off well.

Another feather in his administration’s cap is luring Iran to partner with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) states. For a long time, Moscow was trying to lure other neighboring countries to cooperate with that economic union. Indeed, Armenia’s prime minister has invited President Hassan Rouhani, who will visit Yerevan in turn on October 1, to participate in the Eurasian Economic Council meeting. Thus, Yerevan has been serving as a conduit to attract other partners to that economic club. That also sits well with Moscow.

Stirring problems with Georgia and Iran, Azerbaijan has become a pariah nation regionally. Its relations with Armenia have been tense since the Karabakh war, to say the least.

The Baku government has been emboldened by its association with Ankara and that situation does not promise a peaceful outcome in  the foreseeable future for the Caucasus.

 

 

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