Author: Rasim MUSABEYOV, Member of Parliament, political scientist
Despite the decreasing international activity traditionally observed during the summer holidays, the diplomatic agenda of President Ilham Aliyev in July was extremely rich. He received his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who after his convincing victory in the elections made his first foreign official visit to Azerbaijan. Then President Aliyev visited Brussels where he took part in the NATO summit. He also held talks there with the leadership of the European Union. On July 17-18, Mr. Aliyev received the President of Italy Sergio Mattarella in Baku, and on July 19-20 made a visit to France.
President held important meetings in Paris with politicians and statesmen, as well as with influential representatives of business circles. He visited the National Assembly of France, where he had conversations with the Chairman of the Senate Gérard Larcher and the Chairman of the National Assembly François de Rugy on the development of Azerbaijani-French relations.
Meetings with the representatives of international business communities was very rich and impressive in terms of the composition of participants and the scale of discussed projects. Thus, Ilham Aliyev held talks with the leaders of eleven largest French multinational companies including SADE, Iveco France, CIFAL, Thales International, SUEZ Group, Rothschild and Co., Wilmotte & AssociésArchitectes, as well as old partners of Azerbaijan, such as Total and Airbus, one of the world leaders in passenger aircraft manufacturing.
Meeting and discussions between Ilham Aliyev and Hervé Guia, CEO of the NAVAL Group specialised in the military industry drew close attention of the media. President Ilham Aliyev also met with the Chairman of Rothschild and Co., David de Rothschild, who expressed his intention to expand cooperation with Azerbaijan recalling the work of his grandfather in pre-revolutionary Baku at the beginning of the last century. Rothschilds for many centuries played a leading role in international finance, and the current President of France, Emmanuel Macron, before joining politics worked exactly in the bank structures of the Rothschilds.
Meetings and negotiations held with the French business elite had concrete results. Parties signed contracts worth more than 2 billion euros. So, Azersu JSC and SUEZ Group signed Annex No. 2 to the service agreement of 2014 for operational training, transfer of know-how and technical assistance, as well as an agreement on managing water resources and water losses in Sumgayit. The following documents were also signed: framework agreement on cooperation in space between Azerkosmos OJSC and the National Centre for Space Research (France); Memorandum of Understanding on industrial cooperation in civil aviation between Azərbaycan Hava Yolları CJSC and Thales; agreement between Azərbaycan Hava Yolları, Modern Construction Group and Thales on the installation of a radar system for the Heydar Aliyev International Airport, as well as a number of other important documents.
President of France, Emmanuel Macron, received his colleague Ilham Aliyev at the Élysée Palace. The sides held meaningful negotiations noting the increasing development of Azerbaijani-French relations in politics, security, economy, energy, environment, transport, and culture. Among the political topics, presidents discussed Azerbaijan's relations with the European Union, energy security issues in the context of the implementation of the Southern Gas Corridor project. Of course, special attention was paid to the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Ilham Aliyev informed Mr. Macron in detail about the position of Azerbaijan and expressed his hope that Emmanuel Macron, as the French president who is the co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, will directly participate in the promotion of peace talks. At the end of the visit, a dinner was given in honour of Ilham Aliyev on behalf of the French President at the Élysée Palace.
The appeal of President Aliyev to activate France's role in the Karabakh settlement was heard. Thus, the final communiqué released by the Élysée Palace reads: "The Presidents of the two countries exchanged views on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. France, as co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, has a special responsibility for ensuring long-term peace in the region. The French president stressed that he will continue to work in search of a negotiated solution, which is the only option to end this conflict on a long-term basis and in the interests of all the peoples of the region." The communique also notes that Emmanuelle Macron welcomed the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan on July 11 in Brussels. "The French President will closely monitor the situation, and France, together with the Russian and American co-chairs, will take all initiatives to make progress in the settlement process."
President Ilham Aliyev's visit demonstrated the high level of political dialogue between Paris and Baku, the growing level of trade, economic and cultural cooperation between the two states. Azerbaijan and France build their relations on the principle of equality and consideration of mutual interests, according to which they develop in depth and breadth, filled with concrete content. The Azerbaijani-French relations are supported by the implemented cultural and educational projects, where the leading role belongs to the Heydar Aliyev Foundation chaired by First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva. This includes the restoration of historical monuments of France, including Versailles, the Cathedral of Strasbourg, the Church of Normandy, and the Louvre, the activities of the French Lyceum and the Azerbaijan-French University in Baku, as well as the Days of Culture of Azerbaijan and the exhibition of French art in France regularly held in France.
The above illustrates clearly that Azerbaijan and France are getting closer. Not surprisingly, all this was met in Armenia with undisguised concern. Some of Armenian media outlets have titled their materials devoted to the visit of the Azerbaijani leader to Paris with panicky headlines. They wrote that "Armenia is losing France" and that "special relations" with this European power, traditionally patronizing the Armenians, are under threat. I believe that this is a journalistic exaggeration. The lobbying positions of Armenians in France are still strong. But the illusions of the new Armenian authorities that the Western financial aid (primarily from France, the European Union and the US) will flow to Armenia after "velvet" shift of the criminal-oligarchic regime of Sargsyan, and that they will get political support in the context of the Karabakh conflict will soon dissipate. In this connection, the media, even positively inclined towards the new authorities, reproach Pashinian and his associates for incompetence and lightness in international affairs.
This is confirmed by the inconclusive visit of the Armenian Prime Minister to Brussels, where he received compliments, but was sent empty-handed, refusing additional financial assistance. There are also signs of the worsening Armenian-Russian relations. Pashinian's endless assurances of his firm commitment to the Russian-Armenian alliance, his lack of intent to change the vector of Armenia's geopolitical orientation with the EurAsEC and the CSTO to the European Union and NATO, badly correlate with the personal staff of the Pashinian government and its unconcealed efforts to get stronger Western support. Pashinian’s rather ambiguous statement made in Brussels ("for Armenia, democracy is not a foreign policy orientation, but a value system") did not dispel doubts and fears of Moscow either.
Accumulating mutual distrust and irritation literally broke out after the incident in the village of Panik, Shirak region. Troops of the 102nd Russian military base stationed in Armenia conducted military exercises using blank cartridges without informing the local residents. Frightened villagers surrounded the Russian military in a parking lot and vigorously expressed their discontent. Russians apologized. It seemed that the incident was over, especially since no damage was inflicted on people and their property. However, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian considered the incident a good reason for expressing dissatisfaction with Moscow and qualified it as "a provocation against the Armenian-Russian relations and the sovereignty of the country," emphasizing that the perpetrators of the incident should be identified and brought to justice.
Russian military had to provide additional explanations and again apologize. Colonel Yelkanov, commander of 102nd base, at a meeting with Armenian Defence Minister Tonoyan noted that the event was planned, and the command of the base informed the competent authorities of Armenia accordingly. However, taking into account the fact that when choosing the venue for the event, all possible inconveniences for the local residents were not considered, he assured that measures will be taken to prevent such things in the future.
It’s hard to guess the trend of future Russian-Armenian relations. Pashinian's assurances of his unwavering commitment to alliance with Russia are just words. Mikhail Saakashvili had made many such statements initially after becoming the President of Georgia. But all of these words remained just as words… Moscow's distrust of the new Armenian leadership has not been dispelled. Thus, several well-known Russian media published negative comments on the results of Pashinian's visit to Brussels suspecting the Armenian prime minister in his desire to lead the country along the so-called Ukrainian path. A number of Russian experts, members of parliament did not hide their sympathies for the Armenians but publicly warned Yerevan.
Neither the politicians nor the generals from Moscow reacted to Pashinian's flattering incantations in his interview with Ekho Moskvy radio: "I and all Armenians are confident that Russia has all the means to prevent escalation of situation in our region and to hold Azerbaijan from attacking Armenia and Karabakh. I cannot believe that our strategic partner, our centuries-old brother and friend will tolerate war. I cannot believe this". It has already been announced that starting from 2019, Armenia expects an increase in prices for gas and oil products. Prices have almost doubled on world markets, and Russia is preparing a tax manoeuvre that will prevent all those dependents from the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) from receiving gas at domestic Russian prices. The delivery of weapons to Armenia in return of a 100-million-dollar loan provided by Russia back in the days of Serzh Sargsyan is not fulfilled yet, although it was planned for 2018.
Currently, Armenia heavily depends on Russia in terms of mutual military, economic and energy relations. But it is quite obvious that there is a breach in these relations, while distrust and mutual discontent are intensifying. Perhaps both parties can reduce confrontational rhetoric, however, it will be difficult to eliminate mutual frustration and different interests in the long term. Moreover, Moscow is not sure whether the current rulers of Armenia are interested in political alliance with Russia.