Edmondo Cirielli

Azerbaijan Looks to Italy for Political Backing in Karabakh Peace Process

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By Brawley Benson

Italy is emerging as a new player in South Caucasus geopolitics, providing backing for Azerbaijan amid the European Union’s efforts to broker a durable peace between Baku and Armenia. From Azerbaijan’s perspective, the hope is that a higher Italian profile in the peace process can help mitigate France’s unflinching support for Armenia.

Italian Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Edmondo Cirielli has been a particularly vocal supporter of Baku. On April 3, he chided the EU’s approach in trying to broker a peace deal, singling out France for one-sidedness. “Any sudden statement by representatives of third-party institutions with respect to the parties in the field risks exacerbating tensions,” Cirielli said.

Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was quick to latch on to Cirielli’s comments. The state news agency Azertac quoted ministry spokesperson Aykhan Hajizada as saying, “We believe Italy’s policy should set an example for some other European countries, particularly France.”

Carlo Frappi, a research fellow at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, said in an interview with Eurasianet that Italy has pursued a balanced or “low profile” policy on Karabakh both before and after last year’s complete takeover of the territory. This does not necessarily threaten France’s position, but it can complicate things if their officials’ public statements continue to contradict each other.

Frappi said that Italy, along with other EU states, is supportive of efforts to promote Armenia’s “socio-economic resilience” following its decisive defeat in Karabakh, which resulted in the influx of over 100,000 refugees. At the same time, Rome is not necessarily in alignment with Brussels’ position in peace negotiations. “The former doesn’t necessarily affect the latter,” he said, adding that he sees Cirielli’s views — while not uncommon in Rome — as political posturing. “I would say it is more the expression of an individual rather than an institutional thought.”

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Facing criticism over human rights abuses, Baku has few allies in Brussels. For Italy, however, economic interests appear to be overriding concerns about Azerbaijan’s authoritarian political practices. For years, Italy has been Azerbaijan’s largest export destination, accounting for 44 percent of the country’s exports in 2023. The country was also the largest importer of Azerbaijani oil during the same year. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev noted last June that Italian companies were actively involved “in ongoing reconstruction and restoration works in Azerbaijan, in particular, [in] liberated lands.”

The countries’ strong economic cooperation is not particularly new; the bilateral relationship dates back to at least the mid-2000s, when Italy invested in multiple pipelines to import energy from Azerbaijan that became known as the Southern Gas Corridor. The last link of this corridor, which connects Albania and Italy, came online in 2020.

What is noteworthy is that economic relations show no signs of slowing down, even as Azerbaijan drifts farther from Europe. On April 10, Cirielli met with his counterpart, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Fariz Rzayev, for talks in Rome aimed at “solidifying relations” in trade and energy cooperation. Few details have emerged about the talks, but it could end up being something consequential; just last year, similar meetings resulted in a $171-million energy deal.

Frappi said strong bilateral ties are not strictly based on energy security, adding that many decision-makers in Italy still desire to strengthen the country’s relationship with China even though Rome pulled out of a memorandum of understanding regarding the Belt and Road initiative in 2023. Azerbaijan is a lynchpin in emerging East-West trade routes and could be an outpost for Italian influence in the Belt and Road and the Middle Corridor projects. The two countries have also strengthened cultural and academic ties, including by establishing the Italy-Azerbaijan University in 2022.

For the foreseeable future, the peace process will dominate the EU’s engagement with Azerbaijan and Armenia, and if tensions escalate, as many fear, Italy’s “balanced position” will have to tip one way or the other.

“There is a clear need to revive international mediation efforts,” said Frappi. “Brussels still holds the bargaining strength and chips to de-escalate tensions and facilitate the conclusion of a peace agreement protecting the interests of both parties, along with EU regional interests themselves.”

“Italy cannot but support that and, in a phase of latent tensions between Azerbaijan and the EU, its traditionally balanced position could also prove helpful,” Frappi added.

(Brawley Benson is a U.S.-based reporter and recent graduate of the Columbia Journalism School who writes about Russia and the countries around it. Follow him on X at @BrawleyEric. This article originally appeared on www.eurasianet.org on April 15.)

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