2. Balancing Russia and the West
The early post-independence years (1991–93)
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the guiding principle in Azerbaijan’s foreign policy under its first president, Ayaz Mutalibov (1991–92), appeared to be to deal almost exclusively with Russia. Mutalibov subscribed to the notion that economic growth and success in the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh required a Russia-oriented foreign policy. As the mainstream of the country’s political elite at that time consisted of former Soviet cadres, this shaped the initial choice of alignment with Russia.
Azerbaijan’s first democratically elected president, Abulfaz Elchibey (1992–93), and members of his Popular Front Party were the successors of the independence movement. They were from a predominantly nationalist-minded intelligentsia with little or no experience in government. Despite the rise of Elchibey and his party, the political scene remained dominated by Soviet-era cadres, who had held the majority in parliament since the first multiparty legislative elections in 1990.
As a result of this set of particular political circumstances, the foreign policy choices of the nationalist elite were made partially by design and partially by default. To the extent that foreign policy occurred by design, this reflected the fact that the nationalists had come to power with a pan-Turkic ideology, aiming to move Azerbaijan away from Russia and build strong ties with Turkey. In contrast to Mutalibov, they pursued a foreign policy that was pro-West, and sought Turkey’s influence and assistance in gaining Western support. Policy ‘by default’ came about as a result of Russian and Iranian support for Armenia during the Nagorny Karabakh war. Russia’s accompanying hostility towards Azerbaijan was the result of the latter’s decision not to ratify its membership of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – an early Russian-led integration model in the post-Soviet space – and to remove all Russian military bases from its territory.
There remained a diversity of views among members of the nationalist elite on whether to change the nature of relations with Russia. Most of those in leadership positions maintained a strongly pro-Turkic stance.But some in wider government circles criticized the reliance on Turkey and the West, as well as the failure to consider the power and role of Russia and Iran. Elchibey had initially tried to establish good relations with Russia in an effort to secure its neutrality during the Nagorny Karabakh war. The Azerbaijani military leadership – some members of which were close to the Russian military establishment – played a key role in this. But the ultimate failure to obtain Russian neutrality, as well as the combat losses suffered, led Elchibey to dismiss Russia sympathizers from government positions in an attempt to weaken Moscow’s hand. At the same time, the expected support from Turkey did not materialize and the government’s pro-Western position failed to yield the desired results. In the chaotic political environment that ensued, this further weakened the Elchibey administration, which collapsed in 1993. A defining feature of this shift in the political landscape was the sense of popular anger and humiliation over military losses suffered in the war in Nagorny Karabakh, in particular in respect of the occupation of Kalbajar in April 1993. The Popular Front’s members saw this as punishment by Russia (which had provided military support to Armenian forces); and as a manifestation of Moscow’s desire to return Mutalibov, Russia’s favoured candidate, to power.,
Heydar Aliyev’s presidency (1993–2003)
Under President Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s foreign policy became pragmatic, which at the time meant adopting a pro-Western stance and avoiding economic or political dependence on Russia. This was most apparent in energy policy, where the goal of shoring up Azerbaijan’s credentials as an independent player in the international market ultimately led to closer relations with Western countries. The US played a key role in this development by providing political support for the realization of energy projects. (Given the concurrent need to appease Russia, however, Azerbaijan ratified its membership of the CIS in 1993.)
For Aliyev, the only way to secure Azerbaijan’s longer-term development was to bypass Russia. His foreign policy team consisted of figures who were relatively pro-Western in their thinking, despite their Soviet backgrounds. They saw a Western-oriented foreign policy as the only way to guarantee domestic security, support oil exports and protect national interests. Alignment with Russia was not seen as an alternative. Aliyev managed to overcome the two interlinked threats emanating from Russia: namely, Moscow’s desire to send peacekeeping forces to the Line of Contact in Nagorny Karabakh and to be the sole mediator in conflict resolution. First, aided by active diplomatic efforts on the part of the US and Turkey, he lobbied to persuade the heads of state of members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to agree on a multinational peacekeeping force. (In contrast, the earlier, Russian-drafted ceasefire agreement, signed with some reservations by Azerbaijan, had included the creation of a CIS peacekeeping force, which in effect meant a Russian force.) Second, Aliyev sought to ‘Westernize’ the mediating OSCE Minsk Group, which by 1997 included the US and France as co-chairs alongside Russia. At the regional level, Azerbaijan established the GUAM grouping with Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova in 1997, and also decided not to renew its participation in the CIS Collective Security Treaty in 1999.
Energy policy considerations were also a factor. The completion of the Baku–Supsa pipeline – the early westward export route for Azerbaijan’s oil – ensured that the government remained relatively pro-Western. Such projects served as a guarantee of stability and sovereignty (particularly in limiting potential Russian interference). Azerbaijan’s approach in signing the 1994 ‘contract of the century’ for the export of its oil was to share modest slices of the energy pie with some smaller Western companies, in addition to US and British oil majors, in order to gain support in Western capitals. In a balancing move, however, deals were also made with Russia’s Lukoil. This marked a contrast with Elchibey’s presidency, when both Russia and Iran had specifically been kept out of the oil negotiations. Azerbaijan also started exporting its oil to Russia through the Baku–Novorossiysk pipeline.
Aliyev’s supporters were from a semi-closed cadre from the nomenklatura that had been strong in the state bureaucracy since Soviet times, and they remained influential at the middle level of the state. Although they reconsolidated their positions, the administration ensured a domestic power balance by carefully sharing out government posts among regionally affiliated groups. This gave Aliyev overall control, and stopped other interest groups from gaining influence over foreign policy. It also prevented the re-emerging former Soviet cadres, the majority of whom were more attuned to Russia than to the West, from driving a pro-Russian foreign policy.
At the same time, Aliyev’s strategy for pacifying pro-Russian cadres was to give them senior positions to ensure their loyalty. Although, when elected president in October 1993, he had filled key positions with his own cadres and had fired those sympathetic to other interests (including some sympathetic to Russia), his compromises towards Russia were nonetheless seen by the elite as broadly sufficient, given that at the time Russian capacity to project power and influence in the former Soviet states was limited. Aliyev fully consolidated his hold on power during his second term (1998–2003) and strengthened Azerbaijan’s ties with the West, although the influence of officials who saw pro-Westernism in terms of EU and NATO membership started to wane.
Ilham Aliyev’s presidency (2003 to date)
Heydar Aliyev was succeeded in 2003 by his son, Ilham, who initially presented himself as pro-Western. Under him, two giant energy projects – the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan oil pipeline, and the Baku–Tbilisi–Erzurum gas pipeline – were realized, and ties with Western countries strengthened. However, Westernization remained limited to economic matters. It was never articulated as a political integration project, nor was it linked to membership of the EU and/or NATO or the adoption of Western values in the governmental system. In spite of this, until 2008, the strategic goals set in the 2007 National Security Concept of Azerbaijan emphasized movement in the Euro-Atlantic direction as the core element and final goal of foreign policy. By 2008, the hitherto effective balancing act between Russia and the West had begun to fragment, reflecting the former’s increasingly assertive power projection and the latter’s relative disengagement from regional affairs.
Some historical context is needed to make sense of this shift. In the early part of Aliyev’s presidency, relations with the West were mostly understood in terms of oil revenues. The president’s early pro-Western stance did not extend to endorsement of democratic reform. Instead, to deter Western criticism, he fostered the impression that an ‘old guard’ of Soviet-era cadres was challenging him in domestic politics and hindering his democratization efforts. The development of energy projects, and more broadly the improvement of diplomatic relations, meant that for the most part Western countries did not challenge Azerbaijan over domestic affairs and tolerated this situation. Moreover, due to the relatively low level of Russia’s regional influence and the delicate state of relations with the West in the early 2000s, there was no particular worry in Azerbaijan about a Russian threat.
During his first term (2003–08), Aliyev was dependent on his father’s power network and was considered a political novice lacking control of the ruling elite. Rising oil revenues from 2005 slightly changed the balance of power within this elite, as some at the top of the government became much wealthier through access to state resources. However, they were unable to use their wealth to influence foreign policy, as the balance of power remained dependent on the system of patronage managed by the president (and inherited from his father). Aliyev consolidated power during his second term, gaining full control of all elite factions in a 2009 constitutional referendum that removed the two-term limit for the presidency.
A turning point for Azerbaijan’s ‘balanced’ foreign policy was the Russian–Georgian war of August 2008. This weakened Azerbaijan’s belief in the ability of the West to counter Russian power projection or provide security guarantees to countries in the region. Azerbaijan started seeking to deepen its relations with a more assertive Russia. Members of the political old guard, who had close links with Russian political elites, became increasingly important agents in dealings between the two countries.
This deepening relationship had three main dimensions. The first encompassed humanitarian and economic issues, the latter assuming particular importance after the 2010 border delimitation agreement opening up Russia’s North Caucasus region to Azerbaijani businesses. An interregional dialogue format, aimed at improving economic cooperation between Azerbaijan’s regions and bordering Russian regions, was managed by members of the Azerbaijani political old guard. Azerbaijan’s rationale for cooperation with Russia was to pre-empt the possibility that Moscow might seek to exploit ethnic grievances, especially in border regions (e.g. in areas populated by the Lezgin ethnic minority). Economic stability was seen as a calming factor in this respect, as well as a means of helping to decrease the influence of religious radicalism emanating from the North Caucasus.
The second dimension to bilateral relations concerned the Azerbaijani diaspora in Russia, estimated to number more than 1 million people. By uniting the majority of Azerbaijanis living in Russia under one diaspora organization and managing its activities from a single centre, the All-Russia Azerbaijanis Congress (ARAC) – founded in 2001 – provided a major political advantage for the old guard. But the government in Baku still remained anxious on occasion that wealthy members of the diaspora could form a counter-elite with Russia’s support; this was especially the case around the presidential election in 2013.
The third dimension was the expansion of Russia’s cultural and educational programmes in Azerbaijan, under the guidance of the Azerbaijani old guard and with the president’s approval. This reduced Western influence in the country. The view that Russia’s ideology and political system did not pose a threat in the way that the West’s did played a considerable role in fostering such a development.
At the same time, Azerbaijan’s relations with the West deteriorated from 2013 onwards, in line with Western criticism of the country’s democratic credentials. Members of the old guard promoted anti-Western ideas, leading to the perception that there existed a powerful and reactionary pro-Russian camp in the government. Aliyev actively encouraged this impression, as a means to preserve his own reputation with Western governments. The leadership also adopted anti-Western rhetoric in response to Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, and insinuated that the US was collaborating with the opposition to promote a similar revolution in Azerbaijan. Worried about this prospect, the government enacted a repressive new law on non-governmental organizations (NGOs), closed down foreign-funded NGOs, cracked down on civil society and closed the local offices of Western institutions working on democracy.
This was evidence not so much of a pro-Russia camp gaining strength per se, but rather of increasing frustration with the West as a result of unmet expectations on security issues. It reflected Azerbaijan’s recognition that Russia’s strength in the South Caucasus was no longer balanced by Western influence. The belief emerged that Western criticism of Azerbaijan’s lack of democratization was aimed at weakening the government. Aliyev, who had not previously criticized Western countries in public, began to echo the arguments of domestic figures sympathetic to Russia, for example saying in 2015 that ‘the patrons of the remnants of the fifth column in Azerbaijan went on the offensive against us’ and that ‘the information war against us entered the toughest phase’.
Relations with Western countries became increasingly problematic, but stabilized after 2017 as a dialogue was opened on a new Azerbaijan–EU strategic agreement. This led to EU countries becoming less outspoken on democracy issues or human rights violations. As one Western diplomat explained, the rationale was that it was ‘better to be silent on democratic issues and strengthen cooperation rather than lose all contact with Baku, which can over time be influenced towards some reform agenda’.
Domestic political realignment and constitutional change were a further complicating factor for Azerbaijan’s external relations. In 2016, the constitution was amended again to extend the presidential term to seven years and to create the post of vice-president. The positions of head of the presidential administration and prime minister became less important. Aliyev appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, vice-president. There was a further decrease in the old guard’s influence with the appointment of members of Aliyeva’s inner circle to government positions.
The effects of these political developments continue to be felt today. The change in the power dynamics has brought into question the country’s ability to maintain a fully functioning ‘elite balance’, absent the presence of an effective counter-elite capable of keeping the leadership and its privileged associates in check. It has also raised early questions around who will take over the management of engagement with Russia, or whether there will be a change in the format of dialogue with Russia.