Author: Namig MAYILOV
Transnational energy projects, international transport corridors, geopolitical interests... This is an incomplete list of factors contributing to the enhancement of partnership between the European Union (EU) and Azerbaijan. Economically, Europe means for Azerbaijan about half of the foreign trade turnover and more than $20 billion in foreign investments. Baku has established strategic partnership with the one third of the EU member-states. But that is not all.
Last year, the EU Council granted the European Commission and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy a mandate to negotiate a new agreement on strategic partnership with Azerbaijan. It has to replace the current agreement on partnership and cooperation from 1996. Negotiations on new priorities started on February 7, 2017, immediately after the successful visit of the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev to Brussels.
Several rounds passed and on October 4, President Aliyev hosted a delegation led by Chairman of the Committee for Policy and Security of the EU Council Walter Stephens and 28 ambassadors accredited in Brussels. It was the largest delegation from the EU visiting Azerbaijan so far. The goal of the mission was to prepare the fifth Eastern Partnership Summit, which took place in Brussels at the end of November.
Both at the meeting with the mission and at the summit, the Azerbaijani president stressed that the partnership with the European Union is one of the main priorities of Azerbaijan's foreign policy.
As was expected, the new agreement on strategic partnership between Baku and the EU was not signed at the summit. The parties only confirmed their intention to continue work on new priorities.
The main outcome of the Brussels Summit was the adoption of a joint declaration. This is still an achievement, as the signatories had big disagreements mainly due to territorial conflicts in the post-Soviet space, particularly in Ukraine and between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
"We expect, particularly from the Eastern Partnership Summit, that the European Commission demonstrates a unified approach to all conflicts in the post-Soviet space. Otherwise, we will fairly consider the existing approach as the implementation of double standards. Thus, it is very important that the issue of territorial integrity be clearly stated in the text of the final declaration related to Nagorno-Karabakh," warned President Aliyev before the summit.
In fact, Baku attaches great importance to support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of states, which was reflected in the Joint Declaration of the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels. This is a significant step for the conclusion of a new agreement on strategic cooperation.
In the final declaration, the parties outlined twenty specific tasks to be achieved by 2020. The tasks are grouped under four areas: economic development, consolidation of power institutions and civil society, increasing accessibility of transport facilities, and energy efficiency. Also, the delegations discussed the progress achieved under the Eastern Partnership. "We are proud of our achievements," said EC President Donald Tusk at the final press conference referring to the Association Agreements signed with the Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine as part of the Eastern Partnership program.
Armenia was the only country that signed an agreement on comprehensive and expanded partnership at the Brussels summit. Interestingly, while Russian experts and politicians recognize Armenian step contradicting to allied interests, Moscow has not officially condemned Yerevan. Given the nature of relations between both countries, Yerevan would unlikely draw closer to the EU without coordinating its actions with the Kremlin. Back in 2013, Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan suddenly changed his mind about signing an association agreement with the EU at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. Instead, on the eve of the summit, Armenia joined the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) lobbied by Russia. It is no accident that before both EU summits S. Sargsyan was summoned for consultations to President Vladimir Putin. So, Armenia drew closer to the EU only with the knowledge of Russia and strictly instructed by Moscow.
Another member-state of the Eastern Partnership, Belarus, does not have a basic agreement on partnership and cooperation with the EU. Minsk and Brussels have begun discussions recently. Belarus considers the development within the Eurasian Economic Union a priority, since according to Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, his country already feels the benefits of membership in the union.
As for Azerbaijan, Baku and Brussels are working on a new strategic agreement with the EU, which the parties call Partnership Priorities. However, Azerbaijan does not intend to sign a new agreement with the European Union light-mindedly. "President Aliyev perfectly understands that the EU does not give any prospects for Azerbaijan's membership, and has no intention to assist in solving the problems of your country. So, why does your leadership need to speed up these relations? Azerbaijan is getting along very well with Russia and the U.S. It gets concrete benefits from its relations with both of these countries. Thus, there is no need to collapse these activities turning towards Europe," said political analyst Anton Bebler, the former representative of Slovenia in the UN.
In his interview with Haqqın.az, he said that Azerbaijan had a very sound and balanced integration policy with the EU. It suits the EU as well; such a country does not create problems but implements a neutral policy.
In general, Baku is in fact the most profitable partner for Europe compared to other countries participating in the Eastern Partnership. Located in a strategically important region rich with natural resources, Azerbaijan implements a pragmatic economic policy and a balanced foreign policy, and is not a burden for partners unlike Armenia. Moreover, Baku plays an instrumental role contributing to the energy security of Europe through the diversification of energy sources and transport routes. Azerbaijan supplies 25-30% of oil required to maintain the energy balance in the EU. This share will grow with the implementation of a new mega-contract for the development of Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli fields concluded with a consortium of leading international oil companies recently.
Currently, Azerbaijan, Turkey and the European Commission continue the implementation of the Southern Gas Corridor project with expected investments of more than $40 billion. "Along with the energy security policy, this is the policy of energy diversification because the natural gas from Azerbaijan will be the only new source of natural gas for Europe and, of course, will significantly change the energy map of the European continent," said Ilham Aliyev at the summit.
International transport projects offer considerable economic and political dividends for Europe. And Azerbaijan is the central hub and the main participant of these projects. Last month, the presidents of Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia opened the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway line designed to connect Beijing with London thanks to the East-West route. Without going into details, this is the shortest path between Asia and Europe.
Another international route that will pass through Azerbaijan is North-South. Under this project, Baku, Moscow and Iran try to connect their railways. The presidents of Azerbaijan, Russia and Iran met immediately after the launch of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway in Tehran. The leaders confirmed their intention to create a railway communication between the three countries, which is expected to connect India with Finland.
The largest international sea trading port in the Caspian Sea is expected to open next year. It will allow shipping almost 25 million tons of cargo per year. "This will multiply the geopolitical significance of Azerbaijan, a landlocked country that does not have access to open markets, open seas, but nevertheless creates an integrated transport system for railway, airway and sea operations. I think this is a major asset," said President Aliyev at the meeting with the EU ambassadors.
The EU also understands the importance of transport projects implemented with the participation of Azerbaijan. That was the main reason why the parties signed an indicative map on the Trans-European Transport Network during the Brussels summit, which is the basis of the EU transport policy.
Along with geopolitical significance, the implementation of these transport projects will also significantly increase Azerbaijan's revenues from the non-oil sector. This is very important for Baku as part of its policy of economic diversification and lowering dependence on raw materials. Incidentally, post-oil reforms are already giving the first results, which affects the international ratings of the country. The report of the Davos Economic Forum ranked Azerbaijan the 35th in the Global Competitiveness Index among 140 countries. In Doing Business 2018 report of the World Bank, Azerbaijan is ranked the 57th of 190 countries.
All these factors strengthen the position of official Baku in the negotiations with European partners. But this is not the whole list of advantages that make the country more attractive for the European Union.
Low unemployment and poverty rates, as well as one hundred percent literacy level of the population, secular statehood, European heritage, high level of religious and ethnic tolerance preventing radicalism and religious extremism are the strengths of Baku. Actually, these issues usually puzzle Europe when building relations with the Muslim countries.
Moreover, as a young independent state, Azerbaijan has gradually taken on a rather ambitious role as a cultural and political (to a certain extent, according to President Aliyev) bridge between Europe and the Muslim world. In 2008, for the first time in history, Baku hosted the session of the Ministers of Culture of the member-states of the Council of Europe and their colleagues from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). "Representatives of more than hundred countries convened for the first time under the Baku process. This process continues to develop and receives support from the UN," said Ilham Aliyev.
Azerbaijan makes a significant contribution to international efforts to combat terrorism, and it is no coincidence that during the visit to Brussels President Aliyev also met with the NATO Secretary General and took part in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council of NATO.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan itself suffers from aggressive separatism, terrorism and territorial claims of neighboring Armenia. The territories of Azerbaijan occupied by Yerevan have actually remained outside international control, which favors the development of terrorism and drug trafficking in the region. This conflict is the main threat to regional, and hence, European security. Baku expects more decisive steps from European partners in the settlement of this problem. Especially considering the relevant resolutions of the UN and all European institutions. The EU should be extremely interested in this. However, often we see the manifestation of a two-pronged approach of world forces, including the EU. If resolutions of the UN Security Council are implemented in other parts of the world just in a few days, in case of Azerbaijan it takes twenty-four years.
A similar attitude is shown in the issues of democracy and human rights. For example, European parliamentarians can devote entire resolutions to individuals convicted in their country for specific illegal actions, but they will not say a word about the rights of a million Azerbaijani refugees.
Let us say that not everything is perfect in Azerbaijan regarding democratic freedoms as expected in Europe. But let us see in which of the participants of the Eastern Partnership everything is in line with a bar set by Azerbaijan. Another question is that the self-sufficient and implementing the independent policy of Baku is less compliant than the same Yerevan, from which the demand is low. The question of human rights in such cases acquires a more important meaning, as an instrument of pressure on the authorities.
It is clear that the policy of world forces is based on geopolitical motives and economic interests. However, the realities are changing, and the tactics of building relations must change according to new realities.
For Azerbaijan, it is important to have equal partnerships in new political and economic environment based on the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. Considering the country's development and its role in international processes, Baku does not intend to assume new political commitments that undermine its political authority.
On the other hand, as part of its prudent foreign policy, Baku tries to get maximum benefits from its geopolitical location and prevent the country from becoming a hostage to the geopolitical struggle of the world's poles. According to the statements of the country's leadership, Azerbaijan does not want to delay the negotiations on a new agreement with the EU, but it is not going to rush things either. The parties have to smooth out the existing contradictions and come to such denominators that would ensure mutual interests and sustainable long-term cooperation.