Author: Fuad HUSEYNALIYEV Baku - Rostov-on-Don - Baku
Modern geopolitics actively gravitates towards various integration formations. The collapse of the USSR paved a path both to the expansion of organisations established after the Second World War (the European Union, NATO), and the establishment of new ones such as the CIS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, GUAM, etc. Moreover, being a member of such organisations promises to individual countries both additional benefits and risks. The tensions between the global world centres requires a particularly profound analysis of the advantages and challenges.
Given the geopolitical position of Azerbaijan, its energy and transport projects implemented outside the region, many integration organisations would like to see the country as one of their members. These include the EU, which has included Azerbaijan in its Eastern Partnership Program, as well as the new regional establishment, the Eurasian Economic Union.
Azerbaijan maintains a special position in relations with the EU, which implies an in-depth and close partnership with Brussels as a whole, as well as with individual EU member-states. That is why, unlike Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, who have the association agreements with the EU, Azerbaijan has announced the preparation of a partnership agreement, which envisages deeper cooperation between Baku and Brussels, but without obligations concerning the accession to the EU.
On the other hand, Baku is being actively invited to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) jointly created by Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, which are the major economic partners of Baku in the CIS. However, taking into account the membership in the Union of Armenia, which keeps 20% of Azerbaijani territory occupied and continues its destructive policy in the region, Baku’s membership in EAEU is currently impossible. In principle, Azerbaijan’s position is well understood in the EAEU, which would otherwise mean opening borders and establishing close economic cooperation with the occupant country.
The reality is different but the truth is one
According to Dmitry Korshunov, head of the Centre for Integration Studies of the Eurasian Development Bank (EADB), who has recently participated at the forum “Azerbaijan as a junction point of Eurasian projects” held at the Southern Federal University in Rostov-on-Don, no studies are carried out to determine the benefits of Azerbaijan’s membership in EAEU, since the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict remains the main obstacle. He announced the results of polls conducted at the request of the EADB, which have revealed that the population of Azerbaijan is the most negative compared to other CIS countries about the idea of joining the EAEU.
“We conduct surveys among the population both inside and outside the EAEU. Azerbaijan holds the lowest rank as far as the country’s membership in EAEU is concerned: 66% of respondents expressed a negative opinion. By the way, our survey included the respondents from Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova,” said Mr. Korshunov. He added that the majority of Azerbaijani population considers Turkey as the friendliest country, emphasizing national and linguistic proximities, as well as the economic relations and political support.
Hamid Hamidov, a journalist who has also participated in the discussions in Rostov-on-Don, noted that the results of the EADB survey confirmed that the majority of the Azerbaijani population was against joining the EAEU because of the ongoing Karabakh conflict. “Many people in our country believe that Moscow is still a supporter and patron of Yerevan,” he said. But at the same time, the local population has historically favoured the Russian culture and language. “Historically, Azerbaijan has always been close to Russian culture - we speak the Russian better and purer than the rest of the Caucasian peoples. We have a distinctive attitude toward the Russian culture, literature and language, and from this point of view the integration should have been welcome in Azerbaijan”, noted Hamidov also underlining the Karabakh conflict as the main obstacle for integration.
“In no country of the world Russian citizens can so smoothly communicate in Russian and be understood as in Azerbaijan. We have a common past and we would like to have a common future. But while there is a political conflict, we can only express our wishes with confidence in the joint future of our peoples,” said Fuad Ibrahimov, head of the Rostov regional public organisation for the development of international relations “Peace on Earth”.
Rovshan Askerov, the regional representative of the Azerbaijan Youth Association of Russia (AMOR), proposed an alternative view on this problem. He believes that the membership of both Azerbaijan and Armenia in a single integration association would facilitate the reconciliation of the two countries. Moreover, Armenia's accession to the EAEU has localized the settlement of the Karabakh conflict in Moscow, where a solution to the problem can be found. For Askerov, if Azerbaijan chooses other integration projects, it will not be able to count on resolving the conflict: “If we want to return our territories, we must understand that the battle for Karabakh is going on in the Russian Federation, and the Diaspora can win this battle in Russia. Do not be offended by Russia, that she supports Armenia, because she has already made her choice.”
At the same time, the expert considers important the solution of geopolitical issues under the umbrella of EAEU, which has initially positioned itself as a purely economic association. “There is no way around without politics. Either the EAEU members agree on general foreign policy issues making the organisation attractive for other countries, or this project simply ceases to exist and becomes as incompetent an instrument as the CIS,” said Mr. Askerov.
However, Zaur Nurmammadov, Deputy Director of Vesti.az, and Elshan Rustamov and Kamilla Aliyeva of 1news.az and Sputnik-Azerbaijan do not share Askerov’s views. They note that currently the EAEU cannot be regarded as a force capable of reconciling the conflicting parties. Therefore, Azerbaijan can think about joining the Union only after the liberation of the occupied territories.
On the other hand, even if we ignore the Karabakh conflict and Armenia's membership in the EAEU and consider the Union from a purely economic position, it does not offer particularly attractive terms for Azerbaijan.
As President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev said in October 2016 in his interview with RIA Novosti, Azerbaijan needs a motivation to become a member of EAEU. “It can be economic, social, political, or any other. We are working in this direction. We observe with interest the processes taking place in the Eurasian space, because not everything is smooth here. There are difficulties and, to some extent, claims. Therefore, it is necessary to observe the trends and, of course, if the Union becomes attractive, many will be attracted there,” noted Mr. Aliyev.
Although at the forum in Rostov-on-Don, AMOR representative presented many factors that should have urged Azerbaijan to join the EAEU. For example, Rovshan Askerov believes Azerbaijan should focus on restructuring and diversification of national economy considering the low oil prices, and EAEU provides the best opportunities for this. Moreover, Askerov stated that Azerbaijan's multi-vector policy was possible only at high-energy prices, while the current stage of ongoing processes requires a geopolitical choice, without which the country threatens to remain without all the advantages.
A realistic option?
Mr. Askerov associates this choice exclusively with Russia - both with regard to joining the EAEU and implementing transport projects. He believes that Baku should focus more on the project North-South than East-West, which can become a part of the global Chinese project of the New Silk Road.
“China still decides whether the New Silk Road will pass through Azerbaijan. Even if it does, it will be a small passage. Therefore, the most realistic option for Azerbaijan is to join the Russian Eurasian projects, which will include Azerbaijan regardless of the conjuncture. Azerbaijan must choose its own path, and cooperation with Russia is the most promising option,” added Rovshan Askerov.
However, it is worth analysing the statistics of the development of relations within the EAEU. The establishment of the Union coincided with the crisis between Russia and the West and the application of mutual sanctions. In order to prevent the import of products from the European Union, Russia established customs control at the border with Belarus and Kazakhstan, and once even banned the transit of sanctioned goods from one country to another, fearing illegal sales of products on its territory. Accordingly, such steps have provoked a response, which signals an absence of unity within the Union. Moreover, amidst the trade wars with Ukraine, Russia has even banned the transit of Ukrainian cargo to Kazakhstan. The same was true with Turkish carriers during the tensions between the two countries after the downed Russian bomber in Syria. As a result, both Ukrainian and Turkish carriers actively used the transit of goods to Kazakhstan and Central Asia via Georgia and Azerbaijan. In other words, Russia's sanction wars with other member-states has explicitly demonstrated Moscow’s intentions to be a sole conductor, who decides when the orchestra should play or remain silent.
We can also note purely economic factors that undermine the image of EAEU. According to a recent article in Vedomosti, the share of intraregional trade turnover between the EAEU members makes up only 13% of the total trade turnover while the same indicator reaches 63% among the EU countries.
All these factors demonstrate that the EAEU still has to go through a long and thorny path to become a truly attractive organisation based on equal partnership. This factor is especially important for Azerbaijan, since Baku has very close economic, political, humanitarian ties with the three major member-states of the EAEU: Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. Such conditions require that the organisation achieve a sufficiently close level of interaction, open borders, political balance in order to be attractive to Azerbaijan. And this is possible only after the resolution of the Karabakh conflict, the liberation of the occupied lands from the armed forces of Armenia.
Deputy Director General of Vesti.az, Zaur Nurmammadov, believes that the advantageous geographical position of Baku allows it to play a key role in the Eurasian partnership. “Many countries join the EAEU in order to gain some benefits for themselves, without thinking about other members of the Union. I think that it is necessary to create such conditions that would be beneficial to all countries, not to anyone individually,” says Nurmammadov.
Azerbaijan is skilfully using its geographical location for the development of transport routes both from north to south, and from east to west. No doubt that the Chinese initiative “One Belt - One Way” provides for several cargo routes to Europe and Azerbaijan will physically be unable to transit all volume of trade between Europe and China. Therefore, the North-South corridor is of great importance, in which the role of Azerbaijan remains decisive under current geopolitical realities. However, Azerbaijan has stated about the feasibility of a new South-West direction interlinking both the North-South and East-West routes and expecting the delivery of goods from Iran and India to Europe. Considering the launch of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway and the connection of the Turkish railways with Europe, this new direction of transit looks very promising.
In any case, even without participation in any global integration projects, Azerbaijan declares itself as a centre of the Eurasian space. The ongoing energy projects including the Southern Gas Corridor and the development of transport routes will confirm this status.