James O'Brien

US Diplomat Visits Azerbaijan as Bilateral Tensions Subside

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On December 6 a top US diplomat made a visit to Azerbaijan against a backdrop of deteriorating relations between the two countries.

The visit was received positively by Azerbaijani officials and media, but there is no sign that the hunt for “U.S. spies” in the country is about to let up.

Elsewhere on the same day, President Ilham Aliyev issued a warning to France and India against arming Armenia, saying that doing so increases the chance of more war.

Aliyev’s reception of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs James O’Brien was the first high-level meeting between the two countries since the sides mutually canceled such visits last month over disagreements on Azerbaijan’s military offensive in Karabakh in September.

The sides stressed the importance of the visit “in terms of discussions on various aspects of bilateral relations and the exchange of ideas on regional issues,” according to the readout on Aliyev’s website.

“Emphasizing that Azerbaijan supported the regional peace agenda, President Ilham Aliyev said that after the end of the conflict [with Armenia] and full restoration of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty [over Karabakh], historic opportunities had arisen for the establishment of peace, noting that the United States could contribute to the process by considering the new realities,” the statement read.

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The readout didn’t mention the recent U.S.-Azerbaijani tensions, instead noting that the sides “described the resumption of reciprocal visits as a positive step for advancing bilateral relations.”

The State Department said Aliyev and O’Brien “discussed our countries’ deep historical ties and the importance of the bilateral relationship.”

On the same day, O’Brien met Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov.

O’Brien described his meetings as “positive and constructive” in a post on X. He wrote that the U.S. welcomes visits of Azerbaijani Central Bank governor and energy minister, and that U.S. State Secretary Anthony Blinken “looks forward to hosting” Bayramov and his Armenian counterpart Ararat Mirzoyan in Washington “soon for peace negotiations.”

Previously, in mid-November, Azerbaijan refused to send Bayramov to Washington for peace talks in protest against remarks by O’Brien at a congressional hearing. In that hearing, O’Brien said that the U.S. State Department “has made it clear to Azerbaijan that there cannot be business as usual in our bilateral relationship. The United States has condemned Azerbaijani actions in Nagorno-Karabakh, canceled high-level bilateral meetings and engagements with Azerbaijan, and suspended plans for future events.”

At around the same time, the U.S. Senate passed a bill titled the Armenian Protection Act that would suspend military assistance to Azerbaijan. The bill has not been taken up by the House of Representatives.

“Looks like Azerbaijan-US relations are back to normal, which is very good as these relations are built over many important areas during the three decades,” wrote Farid Shafiyev, chair of a Baku-based state-run think tank, on X. “Or it might face another challenge or spoiler in the US Congress.”

While relations might be on a positive trajectory, the spat has resulted in lasting damage to Azerbaijan’s small and already beleaguered independent media.

A campaign in Azerbaijani state-run and pro-government media against American “spies” has been followed by arrests of journalists alleged to be taking U.S. money to do Washington’s bidding in Azerbaijan.

So far, six journalists and one rights activist have been arrested in the country on different charges.

Abzas Media, a prominent independent investigative outlet, has been the biggest target. Its whole management team was arrested and placed in pretrial detention on smuggling charges after police said they discovered 40,000 euros in cash in a raid of Abzas’s Baku office.

“If we wanted, we would have done it”

A few hours before receiving O’Brien in Baku, Aliyev spoke at a forum in Baku. Responding to a participant’s question, he touched on O’Brien’s “no business as usual” remark. “Either, they should say that business as usual continues, and I hope to hear it today and we will restore the Washington process, or there’ll be only Brussels and Moscow,” Aliyev said in English, referring to three of the mediators overseeing the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process.

He also addressed widespread fears in Armenia and the international community that Baku might invade its neighbor and rival. “If we wanted, we would have done it. I can say this absolutely openly. From all points of view, it is not a big problem. In one day, they laid down their weapons in Karabakh, our flag was raised in Khankendi,” he said.

At the same time, he touched on recent arms supplies to Armenia by France and India and warned that they could trigger another war in the region.

“This is provocative. The countries, who supply Armenia with weapons like France and India, now pour oil on the fire and create unrealistic illusions in Armenia that using these weapons they can take back Karabakh,” he said.

“My message to them is don’t create a situation here – in the region, when we will be sure that you are planning to damage us. We are not sure yet. That’s why we do not react, we observe what France is supplying to Armenia those armored vehicles which nobody wants to buy. They do not pose any danger to us. But if we see that there is some serious installation, which can be harmful, we will have to react. And I informed everybody about that. So, there’ll be no complaints.”

(This story originally appeared on the website eurasiatnet.org on December 8.)

 

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