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Thursday August 11 2022

Aliyev’s acumen: Science of maneuverability under pressure and why Azerbaijan region's most consequential nation [VIDEO]

29 July 2022 09:59 (UTC+04:00)
Aliyev’s acumen: Science of maneuverability under pressure and why Azerbaijan region's most consequential nation [VIDEO]

By Orkhan Amashov

In the world of modern geopolitics, no longer governed by uniformly perceived dogmatic cliché precepts, there is no shortage of old and uniquely novel games sullying the minds of policy-makers across the globe. Azerbaijan, in its own way, with all the concomitant constraints imposed on it and regularly resurfacing opportunities that lurk incessantly, waiting to be seized by discerning players, continues to cultivate its position, augmenting this with pre-prepared emergency reflexes.

Prelude to my talk with Dr Walsh

I have had a long, thought-provoking and immensely refreshing conversation with Dr Patrick Walsh, an eminent Irish historian, during the course of which we cogitated on myriad issues, inter alia, pertaining to the critical pivot occupied by Azerbaijan; the unexpurgated transcript will be published by Azernews, together with a video version, next week. Today I will merely reflect on some of the points discussed therein, which a respected reader may consider as a prelude to the full interview.

Recalibration: energy

The first topic to be focused upon is Ilham Aliyev’s statesmanship in the face of the Ukrainian crisis and, in particular, his manoeuvrability, given the pressure mounted on him by both Russia, which officially understood Baku’s cold and measured aloofness, yet privately remained disgruntled, and the EU, which evidently expected more overtly pro-Ukrainian statements from the Azerbaijani leadership.

The shifting sands of the Eurasian geopolitical space on the eve of and during the Ukrainian crisis have engendered risks for all the actors involved, including Azerbaijan. In view of Dr Walsh, the imperative for Baku was to ensure, beyond doubt, that the hard-won gains of the Second Karabakh War were not remotely endangered.

Energy has become the focal point in relation to which Aliyev needed to show his optimal acumen. Two residues from the Moscow Declaration, signed on 22 February, are pivotal; the predominant element is that the volumes exportable from Baku and Moscow to Europe are incomparable and thus any air of competition is artificial; secondly, a more policy-oriented point mandates that Azerbaijan will not compete with Russia, even in those areas where small volumes could make a difference. This had made some Western commentators, including David O’Byrne, writing for Eurasianet, feel that this was a blow to Europe’s hopes associated with Azerbaijan’s role as a rescuer.

Nevertheless, the truth lies much deeper. Baku knows its strengths, and the volumes it can provide are not massive, with the recent Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) envisaging an increase from 10 to 20 bcm by 2027; however limited such a volume may be for the EU, in totality, it is nevertheless consequential for South-Eastern Europe.

Dr Patrick Walsh shared my view that the circumstances, replete with complexities and opportunities, enabled President Aliyev to maximise the critical mass that Baku has managed to achieve throughout the years, employing this leverage with swift manoeuvrability.

Dr Walsh contends that when Europeans say that this newly-inked gas deal is a transformative event, this is not exactly true. What Azerbaijan is doing is “helping out in a corner”; Baku is helping the EU and this entitles itself to a short-term leverage, but it is saving Brussels as such, at a time of need when each bcm matters. There is a lot of investment needed to ensure Baku’s energy clout, and 4 percent is never going to replace 45 percent. Although Baku is not in a position to claim that it will render “everything rosy in the garden”, as its leverage is limited, it is capable of balancing these two considerations in such a way that makes it immune to Russian wrath.

Azerbaijan in the context of its near neighbours

On the wider question of Azerbaijan’s role in the context of the general balance sheet in the South Caucasus, the best method of assessment is to compare it with its neighbours.

Armenia, for instance, due to its territorial expansionism, or insatiably unhealthy desire to that effect, has become a dysfunctional state, neglecting its own evolution and falling into terrible dependence on Moscow, making some Armenian citizens take Russian passports. The question arises as to what the alleged independence gained after the collapse of the Soviet Union is worth.

And then Georgia… this initially followed an Azerbaijani road, under Shevarnadze and Saakashvili, and then made a miscalculation in 2008, when it was presumed in Tbilisi that NATO would come to the rescue following the Russian incursion into Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it, in effective terms, did not receive. The saddest part is that Tbilisi, in addition to territorial issues, has become economically dependent on the Kremlin, which has been followed with some disdain for the Western institutions, which, for all their pro-Georgian rhetoric, sidelined them in terms of EU membership.

And Ukraine is another example – the country has effectively lost 20 percent of its territory and is in total disarray, despite the substantial Western help in providing ammunition and diplomatic support.

And the question as to why Azerbaijan is successful must be firmly comprehended in comparison with the aforementioned examples. Baku’s wise and balanced statesmanship has paid dividends. Azerbaijan regained its territories, it is an economic powerhouse, and has become a geopolitical hub, negotiating with more powerful nations, forming vital relationships; and, cumulatively speaking, if to concentrate on the gist, it behoves a discerning observer to admit that, in principle, there is “nothing negative” could be said about the Azerbaijani leadership over the past three decades.

When I reminded my distinguished interlocutor of Svante Cornell’s remark made in Shusha that, if the South Caucasus were to be consolidated so as to become one force in the fullness of time, it is only Azerbaijan that could lead the process, the eminent Irishman concurred with me. Dr Walsh believes that, during the Second Karabakh War, Azerbaijan gained geopolitically some leverage against Russia, consolidating its geopolitical standing and economic might, making the Kremlin respect Baku more.

The truth of the matter is that “Russia losing Azerbaijan as a good neighbour is worse than losing Armenia”, which is part of the greater reason why the Kremlin did not interfere militarily on the side of Armenia during the 2020 campaign. “Putin, at the end of the day, respects strength, he does not respect weakness”.

President Aliyev’s masterfully executed steps have increased the value of alliance with Azerbaijan. The nation is a good neighbour for Russia and geopolitical considerations prevailed accordingly. In Aliyev-Putin relations, one aspect has been played out in an unmistakable fashion: “strength comes out of strength and recognises each other” – both leaders are strong and both recognised each other’s fundamental qualities, eventually influencing the outcome.

My interview with Dr Walsh was full of many other important issues, far beyond the scope of this short piece. It is only via a full analysis of everything the Irish scholar has articulated that his opinion in its full entirety can be duly appreciated.

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