Author: Eldar PASHAYEV
On August 23-25, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a working visit to Azerbaijan as part of her tour to the South Caucasus. She has met Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev repeatedly at various international events; Azerbaijan and Germany have a long history of cultural and humanitarian relations, but this was the chancellor's first ever visit to Baku. The program of visit was very rich – the leaders discussed a wide range of political, economic, trade and cultural relations, regional issues and democratic development. The conversation was concrete and promising.
Both leaders underlined that Azerbaijan is Germany's largest trading partner in the South Caucasus (about 70% of the trade turnover). About 150 companies and the Chamber of Foreign Trade represent Germany in Azerbaijan. After the meeting of representatives of business circles of Germany and Azerbaijan, these figures will only grow. Now that Azerbaijan is seriously engaged in the development of the non-oil sector of its industry, agriculture, infrastructure, tourism and ICT, Germany, which is the fourth most important economic power on the planet, can significantly help Baku in this process. According to Merkel, there are already construction and infrastructure projects also engaged in the production of construction materials. "We can work in the agriculture by manufacturing agricultural machinery and technologies, as well as in the digital and educational sectors," the Chancellor said in Baku.
Obviously, Germany is economically interested in Azerbaijan as its partner for diversifying Europe's energy supply, especially after the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway (BTK) and the TANAP pipeline, which is part of the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC). The issues related to these projects were one of the main topics of discussions during the meeting in Baku. While still in Georgia, Merkel admitted that Russian gas is cheaper for the EU countries, but Europe does not risk putting all the eggs in one basket, and this demand makes the SGC project relevant. At the same time, considering the current energy demand of the EU states and its further grow in the near future, the competition between Azerbaijan and Russia in terms of gas supplies seems irrelevant. Especially, after the recent signing of the Caspian Sea convention, Turkmenistan can also join the SGC but Ashgabat will have the last say on this issue. According to Ilham Aliyev, if in the east of the Caspian Sea they decide to export gas through the territory of Azerbaijan, Baku "may become interested in this and have its own say."
Security is the greatest priority
All this underlines the geostrategic importance and transit possibilities of Azerbaijan, which is located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, shares borders with Iran, Russia and Turkey, and has an access to the Caspian. In such a complex region with many different states, safety is of paramount importance for any project. Therefore, the settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is of special importance. Ilham Aliyev once again informed Merkel that the territories of Azerbaijan recognized by the international community have been under the occupation of Armenia for many years. As a result, over one million Azerbaijanis have become refugees and internally displaced on their native land. According to Merkel, after visiting Armenia and Azerbaijan, she has a clear idea of the urgency of resolving the issue and assured that Germany will make its efforts more active for political settlement of the conflict. "The establishment of new government in Armenia can contribute to the improvement of this particular situation, intensify the talks involving Germany as one of the participants of negotiations," German Chancellor said without providing any details. Perhaps Germany's interest in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will give the long-awaited impetus to the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group.
Furthermore, Merkel and Aliyev discussed the issues of humanitarian and cultural cooperation. For example, not many people know that 200 years have passed since the establishment of German settlements on the territory of Azerbaijan. The state leaders also discussed issues related to human rights and democratic construction. By the way, during a joint press conference, a German journalist from Deutsche Welle made an ambiguous statement, which was widely discussed by local media and social networks later. In fact, she showed that she was not aware of her actual location - Azerbaijan or Afghanistan, but she decided to ask the heads of state a "tricky" question about democracy. To his credit, Ilham Aliyev did not publicly chastened the journalist. Rather he cited concrete facts proving that all democratic standards are in fact observed in Azerbaijan and basic freedoms are ensured.
A different agenda
Remarkably, the energy issues were also discussed in Tbilisi, where Merkel signed an agreement for a loan of 150 million euros for a gas storage project that can be filled in the summer to avoid interruptions in winter supplies. In general, it can be said that Merkel's mission in Georgia was to encourage her long-standing partner in the post-Soviet space. Another question is if she could actually accomplish this mission. Chancellor's last visit to Gerogia was ten years ago, right after the end of the August war in 2018. This time the same topic was also one of the main ones. Merkel visited a site near the administrative border with South Ossetia and looked through binoculars at the Russian military base stationed there. Calling the situation unfair, she noted that the process of settling the conflict still promises to be long. Meanwhile, regarding the possible entry of Georgia into NATO, the Chancellor, again, like ten years ago, urged not to expect quick results: "Such things do not happen quickly. The Western Balkans are now preparing to join the EU. Soon, Britain will leave the Union. Considering these facts, it is difficult to make a decision on Georgia's membership." According to some media reports, Berlin is now showing a concern bordering on irritation over the results of visa liberalisation between the Schengen states and Georgia, which led to inflow of many asylum seekers from Georgia to Germany.
As for the visit to Armenia, Merkel's main objective, apparently, was a desire to know the new Armenian Prime Minister, Nikola Pashinian, through a personal contact. He has already drawn attention thanks to his inappropriate criticism of the EU, complaining that Europe's position towards Armenia is not entirely clear, which actually implies "Brussels gives us little money." During his meeting with the German Chancellor, Pashinian expressed his hope for "qualitative changes" in the relations between Yerevan and Berlin, but, judging by Merkel's statements, she had not yet decided anything about the new Armenian authorities, and Pashinian has all the same reasons to complain further.
Moscow was closely monitoring the Chancellor's visit to the South Caucasian, which took place just a week after her talks with Vladimir Putin in Berlin. Many leading Russian mass media have agreed that Germany, which previously did not show much activity in the South Caucasus, now seems interested in becoming one of the leading external actors there. In this context, a visit to Azerbaijan as the key state of the region can be called historic.
Most likely during the meeting of Aliyev and Merkel the issues of big politics were also discussed. Especially given the close relations between Baku and Ankara, the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Azerbaijan's neighbor - Iran, and amid increasing tensions in Germany's relations with the United States. But the main thing is, of course, the economy, projects affecting energy supplies and the non-oil sector. It seems that we have witnessed the start of a qualitatively new relationship between Azerbaijan and Germany, and hence the whole of the European Union, where the status of an interesting, valuable and respected partner and ally has finally been established in Baku.