Azerbaijan says yes to the USA`s peace gesture, but…

By V. Alibayli

U.S.-Azerbaijani relations started to form amid complex geopolitical processes that emerged in the world, particularly in the South Caucasus, after the fall of the Soviet Union. At that point the United States – as a superpower – attached great importance to building bilateral relations with Azerbaijan, which boasted favourable location, rich natural resources and big development potential, with the aim of strengthening its position in the South Caucasus and ensuring its geostrategic interests in the Caspian Sea region.

On January 25, 1991, Washington declared that it recognizes Azerbaijan`s state independence. The main aim of U.S. Secretary of State James Baker`s visit to Baku on February 12, 1992 was to establish official relations. Shortly after the visit, on March 18, U.S.-Azerbaijani diplomatic ties were established, and a delegation of the United States Congress travelled to Azerbaijan. Experts say that was the point when in order to build and develop relationship with the USA and European powers, Azerbaijan had to embark on a principled and firm foreign policy and derive maximum benefit from this advantageous situation for pursuing its national interests, particularly a fair resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Unfortunately, due to efforts of strong Armenian lobby in the U.S. and Europe and the political circles influenced by the lobby, Azerbaijan not only failed to gain something, but also even lost support of the world community and was left isolated in late 1992. December of that year marked the passing by the U.S. Congress – influenced by the Armenian lobby and politicians under its patronage – of Section 907, which banned any direct aid to Azerbaijan.

In 1993, when national leader Heydar Aliyev returned to political power he faced a vastly heavy burden of not only solving serious internal problems, but also ending Azebaijan`s international isolation and preventing possible threats through building a foreign policy strategy and defining its priorities.

Adopted in 1995, the Constitution set democratic development as the number one priority for Azerbaijan. The country embarked on liberal reforms in the field of legislation and in practical area, with market economy developing and fundamental human rights and freedoms ensured. A multiparty system was established, all conditions were created for the development of civil society institutions and independent media. Apart from being a key priority of Azerbaijan`s domestic policy, this clearly demonstrated official Baku`s commitment to developing its relationship with the West on all fronts.

It was thanks to Heydar Aliyev`s efforts that Azerbaijani-US relations grew purposeful and started developing steadily, existing misunderstandings were cleared up, and Azerbaijan became the United States` major political and economic partner in the South Caucasus region.

Under Bill Clinton, U.S.-Azerbaijani ties entered a new stage, reaching the level of strategic partnership in a number of areas. President Heydar Aliyev`s visit to the USA in July-August of 1997, his meetings with President Bill Clinton, Vice President Albert Gore, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other officials, the signing of the Joint Statement on U.S.-Azerbaijani Relations were considered important factors illustrating strategic partnership between the two countries.

Azerbaijan`s favourable strategic position allowed the USA to be actively involved in political and economic processes in the South Caucasus and Caspian Sea region. In 1994, the Contract of the Century was signed, and thanks to Azerbaijan`s efforts – despite strong pressure – Western energy companies got involved in the production of hydrocarbons in the Caspian Sea region. Azerbaijan opened the Caspian Sea region to the USA and West. Despite serious pressure and threats, Azerbaijan managed to diversify – together with its Western partners – routes for transportation of its energy resources, and implemented Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum main oil pipeline projects. These projects laid a reliable foundation for ensuring energy security of Europe. Later Azerbaijan`s leadership and initiative pave the way for the execution of Southern Gas Corridor, Trans Adriatic and Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline projects. Undoubtedly, this will contribute to the strengthening of European energy security.

On the one hand, Azerbaijan`s becoming a member of the Council of Europe in 2001 and joining Eastern Partnership initiative in 2009 aimed to involve these organizations in the process of finding a just solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and win a serious platform for making the country`s voice heard globally. But on the other hand, this demonstrated Azerbaijan`s commitment to developing its relationship with the West.

Azerbaijan built and developed cooperative relations with Western institutions, becoming an active participant of NATO`s Partnership for Peace programme in 1994. Azerbaijan`s independence, territorial integrity and international security problems were brought into conformity with the USA`s political and strategic interests in the region, and Baku gained support of this superpower and the entire West. On the other hand, rapprochement with the U.S. and West helped Azerbaijan overcome a variety of problems facing the country on its path towards integration into the world community and international security system. Azerbaijan`s peacekeeping forces took part in the peacekeeping missions in Kosovo in 1999-2008 and in Iraq in 2003-2008. In 2002, Azerbaijan embarked on the peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, where the Azerbaijani soldiers are today serving with dignity. By opening its airspace and allowing its air transport infrastructure, Azerbaijan made a crucial contribution to the supply of NATO`s military contingent in Afghanistan.

Some cases excluded, U.S.-Azerbaijani relations retained topicality during the tenure of President George Bush. Taking pressure and threats of some extremist circles into account, Azerbaijan was one of the first countries to respond to and condemn the terrorist attack that happened in New York on September 11, 2001, and join the anti-terrorist coalition.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev`s visit to the USA in 2006 and his meeting with President George Bush, as well as continuous reciprocal visits and contacts of high level Azerbaijani and US officials, Azerbaijan`s comprehensive support for the international coalition`s fight against terrorism, the strengthening of energy cooperation and other issues further reinforced the partnership relations between the two countries.

By pursuing a firm foreign policy in the years of independence, Azerbaijan behaved sincerely towards the West and demonstrated its interest in developing the relations overall. One can definitely say that all this paved the way for Azerbaijan`s successful integration into the international community and conditioned the USA`s gaining political and economic advantages in one of the world`s most volatile and important regions.

A brief look at the history of Azerbaijani-US relations confirms that an equitable policy based on principles of confidence and mutual interests in the international relations system is equally beneficial for all the participants. That`s why starting from 2005, dominance in the USA`s Azerbaijan policy, growing “superior-inferior” rhetoric, attempts to interfere with the country`s internal affairs using democracy as a pretext, the method of using threats and exerting pressure contrary to the spirit of sincere dialogue and partnership aroused controversy within both the government and general public of Azerbaijan. Anti-Azerbaijani demarches of the White House and Department of State during the tenures of U.S ambassadors to Azerbaijan Reno Harnish and Richard Morningstar, attempts of some circles to discredit Azerbaijan internationally through U.S.-based influential international organizations, foreign media and NGOs, inclusion of harmful expressions such as "sanction", "boycott" and "isolation" in the political lexicon forced official Baku to draw serious conclusions about the future of the bilateral relations.

The U.S. Department of State`s only superficially addressing the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2014, PACE`s interpreting – in its latest resolution – the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute in a form contradicting the international law and the anti-Azerbaijani essence of this resolution made Azerbaijani public sure that it is useless seeking justice of the West. May be this was the reason behind Azerbaijan`s giving preference to other formats of international cooperation through joining the Non-Alignment Movement in 2012?! Experts believe that the West`s double standard policy played an important role in Azerbaijan`s refusing to sign the Association Agreement with the EU.

So did Azerbaijan need, in view of such an unfair attitude, to formalize its “status of a vassal” in the Eastern Partnership initiative of the European Union?

A question arises: What did “forcing a loyal man to be a traitor” policy give the West? President Ilham Aliyev rightly said: "We wanted to move forward, but we saw that they didn`t accept us because we are Muslims, because we do not bend and because of other reasons. That is why we have stopped. They will make a step forward in our direction if they want. After the Bundestag, during the Games the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution against Azerbaijan. What does it mean? What is this hostility? Are you an enemy of Azerbaijan?! We can be enemies. But who will suffer? They should think about this well."

The most interesting is that that instead of analyzing the reasons of coldness in bilateral relations and drawing necessary conclusions, they formulate and spread hypotheses about "new vectors" of Azerbaijan`s foreign policy. Allegations that Azerbaijan “has completely opened its arms to Russia" is a vivid example. But those who stand behind this allegation must understand that like with the West, Azerbaijan was interested in developing equitable partnership relations with both Russia and other countries and has never held a unilateral position between the poles, power centers. This is a main principle of Azerbaijan`s balanced foreign policy and this policy will be continued. Azerbaijan takes into account ongoing tendencies and geopolitical realities in the global policy, respects international legal norms and observes common rules of the game. But how should one behave if the reality is distorted, the international law is ignored and the rules of the game are violated? President Ilham Aliyev clearly explained that official Baku is not going to continue its relations within international organizations in the format of dictates. Azerbaijan will prefer a format of bilateral cooperation based on principles of equity.

Speaking about the prospects of the U.S.-Azerbaijani relations, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, who visited Azerbaijan in February, 2015, said: "The U.S. welcomes cooperation it has built with Azerbaijan over a period of more than 20 years. We want to see it stronger, more democratic and independent. We want to continue cooperation in the fields of security, economy and energy…" It is not coincidence that experts then characterized this statement as "the U.S.` call for peace with Azerbaijan". But what happened just a few months later, on the eve of the first European Games, questioned the sincerity of this initiative. There were claims that the offensive and smear campaign against Azerbaijan was run by the U.S. Department of State. The behavior of the U.S. media and NGOs, former American citizen and former employee of the U.S. embassy to Azerbaijan Rebecca Vincent`s being coordinator of the campaign, absurd Azerbaijan-related claims of a false organization like OSSRP, information spread by the Washington Post and CNN gave grounds to think that the situation has taken a turn for uncertainty. If the U.S. considers Azerbaijan a friendly and partner country, so how should this behavior, which is contrary to these principles, be explained? Some people have described the processes as Washington`s revenge for the "fifth column" or "its attempt to put Azerbaijan in its place". But suffice it to say that the tension was contrary to discussions held and an atmosphere of confidence built during Nuland`s visit.

In an interview to Bloomberg last December, the Azerbaijani President`s Aide for Public and Political Affairs Ali Hasanov highlighted the U.S.-Azerbaijani bilateral relations: "The ties between Azerbaijan and the USA coincide both in terms of the national interests and from the point of view of global international aspect, and are partner relations in nature. Today the relations between the two countries continue on main issues of mutual concern, including global transnational aspect of cooperation and partnership. There are intensive mutual contacts. I believe that these factors will define the future trend of the ties between our countries.” Ali Hasanov`s comments meant that despite all that happened Azerbaijan didn`t want the relations between the two countries take an undesirable turn and partnership that was built over years be spoiled. From this point of view, the statement of Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs at the U.S. Department of State Amos Hochstein, who visited Azerbaijan on July 11 and was received by President Ilham Aliyev, is of particular interest: "The U.S. embarked on a strong strategic partnership with Azerbaijan. We will continue the cooperation over the Southern Gas Corridor as a friend and strategic partner of Azerbaijan. We will support Azerbaijan in future projects. This partnership is very strong one… I assure you that some people want to see the project to be unsuccessful. We will continue assisting the project and will prove that this project is a key and main project".

On July 14, Chief of General Staff of Azerbaijani Armed Forces, Colonel General Najmaddin Sadigov invited US Military Attache to Azerbaijan to the Ministry of Defence to exchange views with him. A statement on the results of the meeting by the Ministry of Defense said that Azerbaijan continues to act as a reliable partner of NATO and successfully carries out its mission in Afghanistan. Najmaddin Sadigov expressed the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry`s readiness to continue military cooperation with Pentagon and NATO and fully restore confidence between the military authorities.

So what happened after Ms. Nuland's visit aside, President Ilham Aliyev's meeting with Amos Hochstein paved the way for the removal of cold relations between the two countries.

If one can say so the U.S. proposed making peace with Azerbaijan. The reason is that the analysis of statements made by U.S. officials visiting Azerbaijan in recent years shows that Mr. Hochstein expressed his country's interest in restoring and developing bilateral relations without a traditional rhetoric of "dictate" and "terms".

Apparently, the U.S, a superpower with huge opportunities of influencing global processes, is ready to acknowledge that thanks to its successful domestic and foreign policy in the years of independence, Azerbaijan went far beyond its borders to become a country which has its unique standing position on the regional and international scene. Indeed, Azerbaijan demands that all the countries respect its national will and policy, which conforms to international law. And this is a right demand. Presidential Aide Ali Hasanov said Azerbaijan wants all countries to respect its national will and its policy, which is in conformity with international legal norms. “We expect such an attitude, first and foremost, from countries like the USA, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, permanent members of the UN Security Council, which shapes the global politics, as well as Iran, Turkey and other neighbor and partner states because this is how our country treats other states, including their national interests and independent will.” “Azerbaijan wants to be perceived not in a way somebody wants to perceive it, but in a way it is. Therefore some circles must understand that as an independent state Azerbaijan has always been guided by its national interests in its foreign policy, and never accepted and will never accept attempts to exert pressure or make threats. Bilateral relations cannot develop based on somebody`s desire to realize their dominance claims, but must be based on shared interests, principles of equal cooperation and non-interference in each other`s internal affairs. The sooner those who want to see Azerbaijan a satellite state or an outpost quit their ideas, the better friends they can be with Azerbaijan,” said Ali Hasanov.

If the United States acknowledges this reality and respects the sovereign and national rights of Azerbaijan, the day when one can talk about the restoration and development of partnership is in the not too distant future.