Since the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, and especially following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has given indications that he will take the country towards deeper cooperation with the West.
While Ilham Aliyev has always been a very flexible political actor, often making overtures to both Russia and the West, recent speeches and projects announced by the president, especially in light of the European energy crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine, are not only significantly pro-Western — but may even affect the domestic situation in Azerbaijan.
In a letter congratulating US President Joe Biden on Independence Day on 4 July, Aliyev welcomed more Western involvement in Azerbaijan, including US participation in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict.
‘At a time when the conditions in the South Caucasus favour the establishment of peace and economic progress, we believe that the United States can play an important role in normalising Armenia-Azerbaijan relations, opening up communication, and establishing people-to-people contacts’, the letter said.
In a speech typical of this new tendency delivered at Baku’s ADA University on 29 April, Aliyev made a point of emphasising Azerbaijan’s close relations with the European Union while distancing it from the OSCE Minsk Group, despite the former’s consistent endorsement of the latter.
The Minsk Group — co-chaired by the United States, Russia, and France — was set up in the early 1990s to mediate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
‘For us, the European Union is a very important partner’, the Azerbaijani President said. ‘The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict was never part of that because the Minsk Group dealt with it and the EU was a little bit distant.’
Citing cooperation on issues concerning ‘trade, energy, and transposition’, he added that Azerbaijan considered the European Union ‘a fair broker’ and welcomed their efforts to mediate.
A month later, Azerbaijan and the European Union signed an agreement to increase natural gas flows to Europe, as well as to develop oil transfers in the longer term.
Aliyev described the agreement as a ‘road map for the future’, while EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hailed the EU’s decision to turn to ‘more reliable and trustworthy partners’.
‘Breathing space’ for political activists
Some commentators believe that Russia’s recent struggles on the battlefield and its unprecedented economic isolation have played a significant role in Aliyev’s pro-Western shift, as has the severe fall in Russian natural gas exports to Europe.
‘Aliyev is witnessing a change in the balance of power in the current geopolitical processes in the world’, Leyla Aliyeva, a political scientist and independent political commentator based in London told OC Media. ‘I think that in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war, there are countries that want to see Azerbaijan as a guarantor of more serious energy security.’
Aliyeva added that there was still some distance between Baku and Brussels yet to be covered, especially concerning Azerbaijan’s dire record concerning political freedoms and democratic reforms.
According to Bahruz Samadov, an Azerbaijani political activist and PhD candidate at Charles University in Prague, the growing ‘rapprochement’ and cooperation between Azerbaijan and the West gives greater leverage for the latter to ‘play the role of mediator in the problems between Armenia and Azerbaijan’.
That said, due to the presence of Russian peacekeepers, Samadov said he does not believe that Western countries will be able to intervene ‘directly’ on the question of Nagorno-Karabakh. ‘The West is well aware that the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh is already under Russia's control’, he said.
Instead, there would be a focus on Azerbaijan’s domestic situation.
‘The West will bring to the negotiating table demands for fundamental human rights in Azerbaijan, which are reforms that will not be difficult for Aliyev to implement, and which will be implemented’, Samadov said, adding that some ‘privileges’ demanded by activists ‘will be provided’, such as greater freedom of assembly.
Samadov stressed, however, that this would in no way entail a ‘transition from authoritarianism to democracy in Azerbaijan’.
The reforms, Samadov said, ‘will simply perform the function of creating the “breathing space” that the government has decided is appropriate for social activism’. Nor would Aliyev risk doing anything that would spark a sharp increase in tensions with Russia, in part because of the country’s power and also because ‘Aliyev has close ties with Russia’s political elite’.
While Western countries look to Azerbaijan as a dependable source of oil and natural gas, some have stated that Azerbaijan might not actually be capable of meeting the West’s energy needs, at least in the short term.
‘Azerbaijan cannot play an important role in the current situation with its production indicators and infrastructure’, Gubad Ibadoghlu, an Azerbaijani political economist and senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics told OC Media. ‘It would not be right to expect this in the next three years, it definitely requires a lot of investment and time.’
There is also the question of the actual size of the gas reserves that Azerbaijan controls.
‘Let me also say that currently there is not a lot of gas in Azerbaijan’, Matthew Bryza, the former US Ambassador to Azerbaijan said in an interview with Voice of America. Instead of providing the gas itself, Bryza suggested that the United States sees Azerbaijan as a possible transit point for gas from Turkmenistan, which has the world’s second-largest natural gas reserves — though a possible sticking point may be continued opposition to the project by Russia and Iran.
Nor is the relationship between Azerbaijan and Western countries one-sided — just as Western countries need Azerbaijan’s fossil fuels, so Azerbaijan requires Western markets and technologies.
‘Development of the non-oil sector is highly dependent on access to the Western market’, Gubad Ibadoghlu explained. ‘Cooperation with the West plays a very important role in terms of currency entry into Azerbaijan and modernisation of the economy.’
Ibadoghlu also stressed that he doubts the possibility of any domestic reforms that may come as a result of a pro-Western turn.
‘The West knows Azerbaijan well. The interests of the West are not dependent on the development of the democratic values needed in Azerbaijan’, Ibadoghlu said. ‘In an authoritarian regime, the possibility of solving problems with one person allows you to save time and at the same time allows you to get what you want.’
‘The West does not believe that the current regime of Azerbaijan will change soon and is not taking any steps to change it’.