The Oriental Partnership, The Geopolitical Stakes And Azerbaijan

Aug 3 2009

On May 7th and 8th , the Czech presidency of the European Union was
able to reunite the key players of Eastern Europe in the hopes of
reestablishing ties between the EU and its ex-Soviet Union neighbors
(Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldavia and Ukraine) to
help reinforce their independence and assure new sources of energy
supplies. The EU is trying, on a basis of pragmatic cooperation,
to maintain European presence in these countries, which has lead to
speculation that it is about to encroach on the sphere of Russian
strategical interests. But appearances are deceiving.

To begin, Europe does not have a strategic global vision, and it would
be wrong to view the whole new oriental partnership as an attempt to
diminish Russian influence. Two factors support this point of view:

– Firstly, the EU is not yet a powerful political/military force and
prefers to cooperate with Russia in the handling of crises;

– Secondly, the economic ties between Russia and its immediate
neighbors are sufficiently strong, and the latter doesn’t want to
risk such a market, which absorbs their industrial and agricultural
products as well as millions of migrant workers, for a project whose
future is still uncertain.

Although certain elements of the partnership remain promising,
it is a long way off from making a useful contribution to the
emergence of an economic pole in geopolitical pluralism within the
Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). It is more likely destined to
promote relations between the EU and its partners and reinforce their
integration in different means of cooperation but at the same level of
interaction as with Russia. It is more a matter of complementarity of
cooperation than of competition and more about reinforced integration
than membership. It is for this reason that the affected States of the
ex-USSR adopt a more reasonable approach even if Ukraine still hopes
for full membership pure and simple. The greatest weakness of this
partnership is in fact the lack of means for its goals and above all,
its incentives in terms of membership.

Also, the new international context, which is linked to the
multilateral approach and to the more pragmatic international policy
of the new Obama Administration, tends to put Russia at ease. The
new president is fixed on two priorities – Iran and Afghanistan –
and is looking, in contrast to his predecessor, to avoid unnecessary
provocations by notably abandoning the pursuit of the new version
of the containment policy. This policy is aimed at reducing Russian
sway by promoting "revolutions of colors"in the ex-Soviet sphere
of influence, which were considered to be "natural steps" in the
strategic vision of the Kremlin. This approach seems to suit Moscow,
as it would be more advantageous for it to adopt a cooperative
approach under the condition that it maintains its dominant position
in its old guarded domain. Behind this point of view, one can find a
point of equilibrium in the relations between Russia and the United
States. For example Washington renounced its unilateral initiative
of antimissile shields in favor of a common project with Moscow,
in which they engage in problematic affairs, such as those found
in Iran and Afghanistan. This could allow for a reconfiguration
of the power struggle, and it would assure Russia that it remains
the major force in that region, allowing everyone a piece of the
pie. Indeed, the help that Russia could bring the Iranian question
would be enormous and fundamental for regional and international
security. Iran seeks to become a regional power, putting itself in
competition with NATO member and EU candidate Turkey, in order to,
among other things, contain the influence of the UnitedState. The
first trip of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after his reelection took him as
invitee to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in
Yekaterinburg in the Ural. This organization was created in 1996 by
Russia and China to be an alternative to NATO and in response to US
influence in central Asia. Four central Asian countries are members,
all the former Soviet republics: Kazakhstan, Kirghistan, Uzbekistan and
Tajikistan. Iran holds an observer status. It is important to note,
that in October 2007, the Caspian Summit in Teheran, held during the
peak of the nuclear crisis, has been a success for Iran as well as
for Russia.

This agreeable arrangement with Russia could also contribute to
the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia
and Azerbaijan. Indeed, one goal of the Obama Administration is to
improve the American image in the Muslim world. In this context,
Turkey is an ally not to be ignored in connecting American interests
of becoming a regional player in the Middle East and also in the South
Caucasus. Hence the American incentives to normalize relations between
Turkey and Armenia, that have been broken off in 1993 following
the occupation of 20% of the territory of Azerbaijan by Armenian
military forces. But this issue pre-requires diplomatic progress in
finding a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which
demands a more active role of the United States and Russia. However,
the Russian motivations are different: first, by excluding such a
possibility for the resolution of the Ossetian and Abkhazian conflict,
Moscow continues its efforts to bring the Saakhashvili regime to its
knees, again to ensure direct access to Armenia, its stronghold in
the South Caucasus; then in the setting of a potential rapprochement
between Turkey and Armenia, the Kremlin thinks about balancing its
relations with Azerbaijan, while encouraging them to sell the bulk
of its natural gas to the Russian gas giant "Gazprom", which aims to
challenge the European gas pipeline "Nabucco".

Contrary to what one might think, Azerbaijan has not attempted to use
its energy weapon as a means of diplomatic pressure in the process
of normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. But it
suggested to lead the two negotiations in a single process and to
push the progress in resolving the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh
towards the rapprochement between the two countries. The historical
and cultural ties that bind the Turkish people to those of Azerbaijan
and the popular reaction that Ankara’s policy has sparked in both
countries, has made the Turkish government aware that without
eliminating the causes that led to the closing of the borders, no
action can be taken to remedy the effects. This position has relieved
Baku and "dispelled all suspicions" as declared by the President Ilham
Aliyev, following the visit of the Turkish Prime Minister on May 13,
2009. Azerbaijan considers its demand legitimate due to the fact that
20% of its territories are still under Armenian occupation. It has
called on Turkey and the international community as a whole to adopt
a common position and to stand firm in this situation, rather than
to consolidate the Armenian position at the round table negotiations
demanding open borders between Turkey and Armenia.

Azerbaijan has yet to give in to Russian requests to purchase all of
its gas as they are looking to ensure the security of their resource
routes by diversifying the pipelines in multiple directions. This is
the reason for which, in the past, they postponed the exploitation of
the second phase of the Shah Deniz well, expected to produce over 16
billion cubic meters of natural gas per annum. Under the circumstances,
Azerbaijan, which already exports gas to Turkey and Greece, was
favorable towards the "Nabucco" pipeline project to transport the
majority of its gas, although they can no longer infinitely await the
Europeans. Furthermore, with its increased gas production, it is in
need of markets and competitive prices which only Russia is taking
the initiative to offer. During President Medvedev’s visit to Baku
on the 29th of June 2009, Gazprom proceeded to sign an agreement
of purchase with the Azerbaijanis state petrol company (SOCAR)
concerning 500 million cubic meters of gas as of the 1st of January
2010. For Baku, this contract is based on commercial considerations
with prices as high as 350 dollars per 1000 cubic meters of gas. For
the moment though, the volume in question is too insignificant
to be a fatal blow by depriving "Nabucco" of a reliable and vital
source. In any case, the danger is not far off if the Europeans do
not soon decide the fate of their projects and do not rapidly offer
purchasing contracts to Azerbaijan. Wasting time could, in effect, put
an end to this project. Even more so as the key actor in the region,
which is Azerbaijan, constitutes a strategic transit zone for Central
Asia which is among the top suppliers of "Nabucco". Azerbaijan’s
eventual change of course could incite the Central Asian countries,
such as Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, to turn to Asia instead. Let us
be reminded that after the recent explosion on the pipeline between
Turkmenistan and Russia, Turkmenistan has been made more aware than
even of the vulnerability of their dependence on their large neighbor
to the north. It is no coincidence that Turkmenistan’s authorities
have recently proposed new opportunities to western companies
in the exploitation of hydro-carbons. In this colossal game, the
realization of "Nabucco" does not depend on Russian opposition with
their competing projects such as "South Stream", but largely on the
engagement of European partners. In this relationship, the European
Union has two strategic imperatives, the first being an improved
level of cooperation with Russia, which is part of Eastern Europe,
and the second being the continuation of the adhesion process for
Turkey. It is in the strategic, balanced position that the right path
can be found to its policies and the defense of its energy interests.

Olivier VEDRINE President of the Atlantic-Ural College Paris, FRANCE
Lecturer of the European Commission (TEAM EUROPE France)