Author: Mustafa GURBANLI
Since the collapse of the USSR, Azerbaijan and Russia have maintained relations of a complex nature. On the one hand, many areas of cooperation enjoyed stability and predictability. On the other hand, as an independent sovereign state, Azerbaijan has always defended its regional interests by following an independent policy and by balancing between superpowers, sometimes leading to uncertainty in bilateral relations between the both states.
Since the beginning of this century, Azerbaijan has intensified its contacts with Russia, which contributed significantly to the development of commercial, economic, scientific, educational, cultural, and military relations. In September 2018, the heads and wide delegations of both states met twice and signed important intergovernmental documents, road maps in various areas of cooperation to deepen the strategic partnership between the countries.
Thanks to gradual establishment of close political, economic and humanitarian ties between the two countries, as well as the military and technical cooperation in recent years, one can expect transformation of strategic partnership into allied relations. Obviously, not only the personal relations between presidents Ilham Aliyev and Vladimir Putin but also the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus facilitate the rapprochement between Azerbaijan and Russia.
The quality of our relations and geopolitical changes in the region have eventually led to discussions about the relevance and likelihood of Azerbaijan's accession as an observer country or a full member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
The CSTO is a significant international regional organisation dealing with a wide range of security problems. In addition to military threats, the CSTO also focuses on the issues of combatting international terrorism, drug trafficking, illegal migration, transnational organised crime, collective response to emergencies, humanitarian catastrophes, information security and cybercrimes.
The CSTO was founded on May 15, in 1992 Tashkent (Uzbekistan) when the heads of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan signed the Collective Security Treaty. Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Georgia joined it later in 1993.
The Collective Security Treaty was concluded for a period of five years but this term could be extended later, if necessary. In 1999, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan signed the Protocol on the Extension of the Collective Security Treaty. However, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan have ceased their membership in the treaty. At that time, relations between Azerbaijan and Russia were far from satisfactory, and this decision was a tribute to uneasy geopolitical situation.
The leadership of Azerbaijan never characterized its foreign policy as pro-Russian, pro-Western or pro-Turkish. It has always been pro-Azerbaijani. In 1999, self-sufficient and independent Azerbaijan did not extend its membership in the Collective Security Treaty based on its national interests. Today the realities of international relations are different and demand active involvement of Azerbaijan in new platforms for upholding national interests, especially those that directly affect the balance of regional powers.
Undoubtedly, Azerbaijan's accession into the CSTO and its close interaction on this platform promise many advantages and preferences.
First, the CSTO can be a great platform for upholding Azerbaijan's foreign policy interests and solving important problems. For many years, due to the absence of Azerbaijan in the CSTO, Armenia shamelessly accused Azerbaijan of "aggression" and "violation of international norms and principles" in the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). As a CSTO member, Armenia have repeatedly lobbied the Council of Collective Security and the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly to adopt various resolutions condemning the "aggressive foreign policy of Azerbaijan".
Given the absurdity of Armenian resolutions discussed at the highest bodies of the CSTO and inter-parliamentary cooperation, which mainly served to blame Azerbaijan, they were not considered serious by other CSTO member states and suffered a stunning fiasco. The key members of the CSTO, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus, have always supported Azerbaijan as its natural allies. During the April war, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko contacted Ilham Aliyev and supported him. Let us also recall the well-known position of the Kazakh President Nazarbayev, who once again supported the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan in May 2014 on the signing day of the agreement on the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and reading a letter from Ilham Aliyev. Knowing such a friendly and favourable attitude of the CSTO member states but Armenia towards Azerbaijan and the recognition of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, we can assume that full membership in the CSTO will enable Azerbaijan to expose the occupation policy of Yerevan and effectively put pressure on it through a different international organisation.
Secondly, if Azerbaijan joins the CSTO, the strategic rapprochement between Azerbaijan and Russia will accelerate and the process of establishing truly allied relations between our countries will finalise. In different times of our common history, our countries have repeatedly joined forces to protect the Eurasian civilisation from external threats. Clearly, Azerbaijan will enjoy its status in the organization both as an ally and as an equal partner of Russia. Since independence, Azerbaijan has developed tremendously and, undoubtedly, is one of the countries capable to determine their own destiny.
For many years, the Armenian lobby and the pro-Armenian establishment of Russia have promoted the idea that Azerbaijan was not a reliable partner but a security threat. By spending huge funds for propaganda activities and using their connections in the Russian media, Armenians tried to create an image of Azerbaijan as an enemy threating the southern borders of Russia and to provoke hostility of Russians against Azerbaijan and its people. Azerbaijan’s membership in the CSTO will destroy the propaganda efforts of the Armenians.
Moreover, it will be a serious psychological blow to Armenia. For many years, the Armenian population considered the CSTO as a protection umbrella. Armenian political elite has always promoted the idea that in the event of a war with Azerbaijan, they can rely on a powerful military organization. This idea was a kind of sedative for Armenians to calm them down. Azerbaijan’s membership in the CSTO will help to neutralise this psychological tool allowing Armenians to look at the current situation more soberly.
Thirdly, Azerbaijan's membership in the CSTO will make it possible to speed up the process of peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This should encourage Russia to use all efforts to resolve the conflict between the two partners of this organisation as soon as possible. Given the cooling of relations between Russia and Armenia, which are associated with the obvious pro-Western aspirations of the newly minted Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, Azerbaijan has a chance to isolate Armenia forcing it finally to a comprehensive peace in line with all norms and principles of international law.
The Kremlin now understands that Armenia cannot act as a reliable partner and ally. Over the years, Yerevan has created the appearance of loyalty to the allied relations with Russia to receive cheap loans and free financial and military assistance. As soon as the economic situation in Russia deteriorated, the Armenian government, without hesitation, began looking at the Western patrons and immediately forgot about the kindness of the “big brother”.
Fourthly, as a member of the CSTO, Azerbaijan will may speed up the improvement of its military potential, since the member states of the organisation enjoy preferential prices when purchasing weapons. Thus, Azerbaijan will be able to purchase the latest weapons in Russia at domestic prices, as well as get access to specialised educational institutions of the Russian Federation for the free training of military personnel.
Fifthly, if the peace talks fail and Azerbaijan starts the liberation of the occupied territories, it will be able to neutralise direct military intervention of the CSTO and ensure its neutrality, for it's a member of the same organisation. Turkey made a similar manoeuvre in 1974 to liberate Cyprus and ensure peace on the island. Since Turkey and Greece were members of NATO at that time, the organisation refrained from applying the well-known Article 5 of the statute of the Alliance and limited itself to appeals to the parties of the conflict to cease hostilities.
Sixthly, using the experience and potential of the CSTO, Azerbaijan will be able to respond more effectively to regional and global challenges such as combatting religious extremism and its manifestations.
However, considering all the advantages and preferences of the CSTO membership, Azerbaijan should carefully analyse all pros cons of the full membership status. Since independence, Azerbaijan has strictly followed the policy of positive neutrality worked out by Heydar Aliyev and has not entered into any military blocs and alliances, maintaining partnerships with all regional and global powers. The accession of Azerbaijan into the Non-Aligned Movement in 2011 demonstrates Azerbaijan's intention to coexist peacefully with all peoples on the principles of independence and equality. Despite attempts by external players to change the country's foreign policy course, the Azerbaijani leadership has always pursued an independent and balanced policy that meets national interests. We have managed to establish excellent working and good neighbourly relations with all regional countries (except Armenia, which pursues a policy of aggression against Azerbaijan) and ensure mutually beneficial cooperation.
While remaining neutral, Azerbaijan faces numerous regional challenges that need to be addressed jointly. Armenian occupation of 20% of Azerbaijani territories, the growing threat of religious extremism and terrorism in the region, destabilisation of the world order and many other serious challenges make the issues of close coordination and consolidation of forces between the states relevant in order to maintain stability and security.