ISTANBUL: Russia-Azerbaijan: Understanding the dynamics behind curre

Today’s Zaman, Turkey
May 27 2013

Russia-Azerbaijan: Understanding the dynamics behind current tensions

ZAUR SHIRIYEV
[email protected]

Russian-Azerbaijani relations have been subjected to much discussion
recently — this month has seen a number of developments that have
highlighted tensions between the two countries.

This month, the Russian government terminated a bilateral agreement on
the transit of Azerbaijani oil via the Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline.
This agreement had been in place since 1996. Subsequently, we saw the
development of the Eurovision scandal, in which Azerbaijan received
top marks from Russia but gave the Russian team zero points in the
final of the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest, hosted in Malmo, Sweden.
Russian media and officials alike both formally and informally
declared this development as a move against Moscow. The furor
highlights the increasing politicization of the Eurovision Song
Contest — Moscow clearly views Azerbaijan’s vote as an answer to a
political question: Do the Azerbaijani people want to join the
European Union or the Moscow-sponsored Eurasian Union? Following this
development, a visit to Moscow by Azerbaijan’s foreign minister, Elmar
Mammadyarov, and his consultations with his Russian counterpart sent
the message that there are no `serious’ problems in the bilateral
relationship.

Taking into account this latest development and the political climate,
Azerbaijani political analysts claim that despite the ongoing high
level contacts between Moscow and Baku, tensions are high. Why are
these developments happening and, as the Russian Eurovision contestant
asked in her song, `What if’?

Clearly, since Russian President Vladimir Putin started his third term
in office, the relationship between the two countries has been in
decline. Since last January, Moscow has not put any effort into
meeting the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents, while during Dmitry
Medvedev’s presidency it was one of Russia’s missions to hold
trilateral meetings. Both the termination of Russia’s lease of the
Gabala radar station last December and the recent decision to
terminate the Baku-Novorossiysk agreement are indications of Moscow’s
dissatisfaction and both moves are seen by Baku as `power instruments’
deployed by Moscow.

Beyond these developments, there are a number of factors that can
illuminate the current dynamics.

First of all, Russia wants to see Azerbaijan in the orbit of its
foreign policy; that is, these developments are a means of pressuring
Baku to give a positive answer to joining its Customs Union and as
well as the so-called Eurasian Union. The chief card for Moscow
towards Azerbaijan, beyond its role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,
is the Azerbaijani population in Russia, estimated to be close to 2
million. In recent years, Russian authorities have tightened
regulations on migration from Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)
countries, now requiring immigrants to complete a Russian language
exam. A few days ago the Russian Federal Migration Service declared
that a proposal was being presented to legislators regarding changes
to the existing law to require CIS citizens to receive an invitation
to come to the Russian Federation. It is possible that in the coming
years, Russian authorities will amend the law to constrict the
mobility of citizens of countries that are not members of the Customs
Union. Russia’s new approach towards migrants from CIS countries puts
pressure on governments to join both the Customs Union and the
so-called Eurasian Union.

Second, the clearest evidence of the deteriorating relationship
between Moscow and Baku seems to be the termination of the lease of
the Gabala Radar Station in Azerbaijan. The reality, however, is that
Russia has been uneasy since Azerbaijan and Turkey brought forward the
realization of their Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) project in 2012.
Indeed, Russian energy giant Gazprom’s strategic interest is to ensure
that Azerbaijani gas doesn’t reach European markets with competitive
spot market prices — it is true that the Azerbaijani State Oil
Company (SOCAR) does not have an advantage over Gazprom in terms of
their comparative capabilities. But SOCAR is trying to invest in the
Greek gas market and given the possibility that Iraqi and Israeli gas
may be involved in TANAP in the near future, Russia’s worries are
increasing. The latest move to terminate the Baku-Novorossiysk
agreement, even after the Russian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers
declared that they would work on a new contract, sent a clear message
to Azerbaijan. It might be that from an economic standpoint, the
Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline was not reliable but given the fact that
this pipeline passes across the North Caucasus, it is in Russia’s
interest to attract investment to this unstable region. It is also in
Baku’s interests to stabilize the North Caucasus, where instability
would immediately provoke problems along Azerbaijan’s borders, with a
flood of refugees, infiltration of guerrillas and the emergence of
religious radicals.

Third, despite the fact that by joining the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)
in May 2011, Baku gave Russia the impression that it is not interested
in NATO membership. The possibility of using the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars
(BTK) railway for transporting NATO forces during the post-2014 period
in Afghanistan makes Moscow uneasy. Azerbaijan and Georgia started
lobbying in Brussels and Washington, stating that the BTK will be
ready for NATO forces after their withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Further, the latest trilateral meeting between the Azerbaijani,
Georgian and Turkish foreign ministers in March and the Batumi meeting
joint communiqué repeated this intention. Most probably, Moscow
assumes that there is possibility that the US and NATO may give Baku
and Tbilisi the equipment from its Afghan operations because from an
economic point of view, it is better for NATO to give this military
equipment to allies than to transport it back.

In this sense, it is likely that during the fourth meeting of the
Russian-Azerbaijani inter-regional forum, the “Russian-Azerbaijani
dialogue 2013,” which will be held in the Russian city of Volgograd
next month, high-level government officials will participate and the
parties will discuss bilateral ties to try to reduce tensions.

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