EU and Azerbaijan: In search of lost time
By Orkhan Amashov
Perhaps the title chosen for this piece does not do justice to the present level of EU-Azerbaijan relations, which in economic terms have been remarkably successful.
Shortly after Azerbaijan regained its independence in 1991, the European Union was quick to establish ties with Baku. In 1996, the EU-Azerbaijan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) was signed. After having appointed a special representative for the South Caucasus, the EU included Azerbaijan in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and, later, in the Eastern Partnership Initiative.
As a result of the strong ties established from 1996 onwards, Azerbaijan has become an important energy partner of the EU, bringing Caspian gas resources to the European market. The 2011 Joint Declaration on the Southern Gas Corridor, described as the most ambitious undertaking of the international hydrocarbon industry, has been an essential part of the partnership.
Moment of caution
Yet not everything in EU-Azerbaijan relations has been rosy. Azerbaijan did refuse to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, which, as President Ilham Aliyev explained during the Munich Security Conference in 2016, was largely due to two fundamental reasons.
Firstly, since an Agreement gave the impression of being a unilateral instruction from the Union, the offer of political association and economic integration did not seem to be the right choice for Baku. Secondly, and more importantly, there was no precise wording as to the resolution of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan based on the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, despite the fact that identical provisions were included in agreements with Georgia and Moldova.
In fact, the EU has consistently refused to be proactive in the resolution of the conflict, stating that the issue is within the strict jurisdiction of the OSCE Minsk Group, which in Azerbaijani public opinion, has been an epitome of creative inertia and political impotence.
France, a leading member of the EU, despite its co-chairmanship in the aforementioned group, has become the country the upper legislative body of which adopted a resolution recognising the independence of the so-called, illegal and unrecognised "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic". This poorly prepared document, in addition to being full of inconsistencies and legal errors, resulted in irreparable damage to the status of France as a fair mediator, and the repeated utterances from Paris to the effect of the resolution being a mere position of the Senate, not that of the French government, have never proven to be of rehabilitative value.
However, the prospects of the present relationship no longer depend on the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which, as President Aliyev has reiterated on numerous occasions, is over.
The future is to be determined by the continued process of economic deepening of the relationship, together with the EU’s potential post-conflict role in terms of bringing lasting peace to the region.
The recent trip of Toivo Klaar, the EU special representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia, to the region was just one of the numerous top-level visits that were made over the past year.
When EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi visited Baku in summer 2021, the new perspectives loomed large for many observers. The article penned by Varhelyi upon his return from Azerbaijan highlighted some of the key points. He described the new reinforced partnership with the Union’s Eastern Partnership countries as a “very strong signal”.
Azerbaijan, according to him, is the most prosperous country in the region, which apart from being successful in fighting the pandemic, has also managed to avoid a major COVID-induced economic backlash as it emerges out of the crisis, with relatively limited impact.
The future of the South Caucasus and the prosperity of the countries comprising it are hinging upon what the EU commissioner describes as “connectivity”.
The EU is cognisant of the economic self-sufficiency of Azerbaijan, which according to Mr Varhelyi, “is a prosperous country that might not need the financial assistance of the European Union”. He rather views the future of economic cooperation as one in which the EU’s role entails “assisting in knowledge” and “bringing in investors and creating the trade routes together”.
A more complete form of prosperity requires an economic outlook that is inclusive of other regional players because when there is limited potential to develop trade and investments capable of creating growth and jobs, the entire region happens to be on the losing side.
For the EU, Azerbaijan in its larger neighbourhood should be a key player in a web that connects the Black Sea with the Caspian Sea and trade routes running through Azerbaijan from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea and to Europe. The port of Baku is, for example, of strategic significance, but in order for the port to be efficient, it needs goods that it can process and it can only get these if it is connected.
Energy and beyond
Azerbaijan remains a country of considerable significance to Europe in terms of the diversification of the EU energy supplies and phasing out of the use of coal energy. The next phase of this partnership should focus on green energy resources, such as wind, solar hydrogen. Greener energy in rural communities, achieved with the application of new technologies, is one of the components that is going to define cooperation in this area.
At a time when some strong and powerful voices across the Continent and beyond claim that the EU is a supranational monstrosity and destined to collapse, due to its perceived inflexibility and arrogance in dealing with the local concerns of member states, the EU is keen to forge efficient relations with its immediate neighbourhood countries, including Azerbaijan. The EU must look presentable, modern and full of progressive ideas.
The EU was not a great help to Azerbaijan in terms of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but its economic engagement with Baku was hugely successful and many key projects could be accomplished to further deepen the ties. Even if it is unlikely that the EU will be a main player in bringing about a comprehensive peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the areas in which it can play a significant role, such as the mine clearance in the formerly occupied territories and fostering closer cooperation between the regional actors, are too important and manifold to be overlooked.
Now the EU and Azerbaijan are in search of lost time, and it remains to be seen if it will be possible to recover some of the lost opportunities of the past decades. Hopes are there. Time will tell.
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