Staunton, October 18 – Moscow would much prefer to see Azerbaijan in the Eurasian Economic Union than Armenia, but that is not how things have worked out, although Irena Dzhorbenadze says that Russia has not lost hope that it will, given that discussions about Azerbaijan’s possible future membership continue to percolate in the Baku expert community.
In a commentary on Rosbalt.ru yesterday, Dzhorbenadze says that everyone is aware that Baku pursues a “floating” foreign policy, shifting from one side to the other in order to preserve its independence But “sooner or later,” she suggests, it is going to “have to define itself” and come down definitively on one of them (rosbalt.ru/exussr/2014/10/17/1328248.html).
The economic benefits for Azerbaijan of joining are obvious, she suggests: membership in a larger free trade zone, bigger markets, and the free movement of capital and labor. Moreover, she continues, it would give Baku an expanded role in the North-South corridor and in the development of Trans-Caspian projects.
Of course, Dzhorbenadze acknowledges, “almost all of these are not that important for Azerbaijan” as an oil exporter, although as Russia’s experience shows, relying on petroleum exports alone is not a long term winning position. Far more important, however, are geopolitical and political considerations.
“There is the opinion and it probably is not far from reality that the entrance of Azerbaijan into the Eurasian Economic Community would allow the Nagorno-Karabakh problem to be resolved in Baku’s favor. At least, this is what many in Armenia very much fear. One Armenian even wrote that Moscow would give Karabakh to Baku to get it to join.
But there are broader security considerations as well, she suggests. If the situation in the Middle East becomes even more tense, Azerbaijan may not be able to get all the support it needs from Turkey. It will need Russia, and many in Baku understand that.
They “also understand very well that Russia is vitally interested in the presence of Azerbaijan in the Eurasian Union.” Not only would that give Moscow greater influence in the region, but it would even help Armenia: Armenia would gain a common border with the Union and the two things would “compensate” Moscow for the loss of Georgia.
Why then is Azerbaijan “still not seeking to join the Eurasian Union?” Dzhorbenadze asks. The reason is not just that Baku prefers its multi-vector foreign policy. Instead, it reflects concerns in Baku that “the West, which is attempting to blow up Eurasian integration will try to harm the current Azerbaijani authorities” by organizing a “’color’” revolution there.
Another reason, she suggests, is that Azerbaijanis are not yet prepared to be fellow members of an organization in which Armenia is also a part. That is pushing some in Baku to talk about retaking Karabakh by force, a move that could lead to the deterioration of its security situation as a whole.
However, the underlying reason for Baku’s reluctance to join is that there simply has not been enough time since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of Azerbaijan as an independent country. “This has played into the hands of the West,” she says, and it is pushing its own Eastern Partnership in place of what it views as the failed CIS.
Most of the calculations about the re-ordering of the security environment among the three countries of the southern Caucasus presuppose something that does not now exist: “relatively peaceful circumstances.” In the current period of tensions, Dzhorbenadze continues, governments there need to make a clear choice and make it soon.
“Questions of security” are now paramount, and “they in a greater degree depend not so much on those which [are or may be] integrated as on the struggle of Russia and the West for influence in the Trans-Caucasus and also on the processes which have been developing in the Middle East.”
In navigating through this period, Moscow will be most successful, she argues, if it avoids appearing to force any of these countries to join its Eurasian Economic Union. If it puts too much pressure on them, then the likelihood is that such policies will backfire and drive the countries involved into the hands of the West.