Azerbaijan’s balancing act between Russia and the West, pursued since independence in 1991, seems to be disintegrating. The risk with this shifting power dynamic is that Russia could compel Azerbaijan to make foreign policy adjustments in its favour. Azerbaijan’s ruling elite also mistakenly believes that Russia can resolve the issues that are critical for Azerbaijan, while Russia seeks to strengthen and entrench this perception through the use of its soft-power tools, among other things.
Four particular risks stand out for Azerbaijan’s foreign policy. The first is Russia’s potential to force policy change in respect of Nagorny Karabakh. Baku sees Moscow’s role as significant for potentially resolving the conflict – either through its involvement in negotiations (and ability to pressure Armenia to reach a compromise), or through a military scenario. The recent political revolution in Armenia has caused Russian–Armenian relations to deteriorate. This has been seen by some in Baku as an opportunity to start a conflict similar to the one of April 2016, or even all-out war. For this, Azerbaijan would need Russia to give approval and to renege on its substantial commitments to Armenia. Although Baku tends to exaggerate Moscow’s role, the perception creates a readiness on Azerbaijan’s part to accommodate Russia’s foreign policy agenda.
The Russian expectation is that Azerbaijan will join the EAEU and/or the CSTO. Over the years, the Azerbaijani ruling elite has tried to link membership of the EAEU to conflict resolution in Nagorny Karabakh, on the basis that Azerbaijan would join only on the condition of a peace agreement being achieved. However, Russia’s rejection of this formula has changed perceptions in Baku. Russia has hinted that it might act differently and take a more pro-Azerbaijan stance once the country has joined its regional integration projects. This could lead to a customs union with the EAEU, at the very least, and even perhaps to full membership. Some members of Baku’s ruling elite compare membership of the EAEU to Azerbaijan’s accession to the CIS in 1993. That move did not draw the country into Russia’s orbit as had been feared, and the CIS ultimately became more of a symbolic entity than an effective instrument for Russian influence.
The Azerbaijani ruling elite’s understanding of the EAEU has evolved in recent years. The same is true to an extent for attitudes towards the CSTO, long perceived as posing a far greater threat in terms of its potential to pull Azerbaijan into Russia’s sphere of influence. The evolution in Azerbaijani thinking on this issue – and the conviction that Russia can solve the Nagorny Karabakh conflict once it abandons its concern for Armenia’s interest – could lead to Azerbaijan taking a dangerous new policy direction, the potential endgame of which is membership of one (or both) of these Russian-led organizations. Instead, in the opinion of this author, Azerbaijan needs to use the new realities in Armenia, after that country’s mid-2018 ‘Velvet Revolution’, to build up direct communications with Armenia and to consider the development of a peace plan without the intervention of Russia or other mediators. However, one problem in this case is that while in Azerbaijan there has been a marked shift of government rhetoric in favour of a peaceful solution, there is less clarity around Armenia’s intentions and plans. A full elaboration of Yerevan’s strategy for a peaceful solution, and how the new government’s approach is different from that of its predecessor, would be welcome.
The second risk for Azerbaijan concerns Russia’s growing use of soft power. Although the Azerbaijani government sees this as manageable, the absence of Western-led media and educational opportunities, and the lack of government strategy in either sphere, risks allowing Russian-led or pro-Russian outlets to monopolize the media. Russian-language educational opportunities are growing rapidly, and more people are learning the language without having access to similar English-language opportunities. The number of Azerbaijani students in Russian universities is growing. Along with the reduction in opportunities for Azerbaijanis to gain a Western education, this means that the Russian-language information space will be enlarged as Russian speakers and consumers of Russian propaganda grow in number. (The trend is likely to be supported by the poor quality of most Azerbaijani-language media and by the low level of non-Russian foreign-language skills, especially in English, across the majority of the population.) At the same time, Russian university education will increase the number of Azerbaijani graduates with a Russia-oriented worldview that may include a rejection of Western liberal values, the rule of law and democratic freedoms. These graduates will support integration with Russia rather than with the West, and eventually their presence in public positions and in government will influence policymaking.
The third risk concerns the large number of Azerbaijanis living in Russia. This diaspora is fragmented, and its members are more open to the control of Russian authorities. Since Russia eased its citizenship requirements for people from post-Soviet countries, the number of Azerbaijanis receiving Russian citizenship has increased, despite Azerbaijan’s legal prohibition of dual nationality. Remittances from the diaspora remain a critical source of income for people living outside Baku, especially in the northern part of the country. This gives Russia political leverage in terms of its ability to threaten the deportation of labour migrants. The return to Azerbaijan of large numbers of expatriates could have catastrophic socio-economic effects, potentially destabilizing the political situation. This possibility strengthens Russia’s hand in terms of pushing Azerbaijan towards integration into the EAEU, whose member states have agreed to provide better conditions for migrants and workers – a major draw for Azerbaijani migrants who are not Russian citizens. Yet the answer to overcoming this risk is not the creation of diaspora organizations, but rather to address domestic issues such as unemployment and poverty that have led so many to go to Russia in order to support their families.
Finally, there is a risk that the West’s tendency to view developments in Azerbaijan through one-dimensional, liberal democratic lenses will accelerate the growth of Russian influence. Such limited perspectives work to the advantage of certain groups within the Azerbaijani ruling elite that wish to push for closer alignment with Russia. At the same time, the conventional perception of the West among the Azerbaijani ruling elite is also simplistic: mistakenly interpreting its agenda as seeking to overthrow the government and install a new elite that would exist to serve Western interests. Instead, through support for policy and institutional reforms, economic diversification and increased trade and investment – as well as through a more nuanced foreign policy and greater involvement in regional affairs – the West has an opportunity to at least preserve Azerbaijan’s traditional balance with Russia.