Situation Report: Azerbaijan

Attention focused on the former Soviet republics and satellite states pays dividends to the observer of international affairs. Tiny Azerbaijan (a nation of Muslims with a secular government) has, by its decisions and actions, placed itself at the center of multiple controversies in Europe and the Middle East. It is difficult to imagine that such a small country so little in the minds of most people in the world could occupy such a large role, but Azerbaijan is doing so. It is almost as though the nation’s leaders have deliberately charted a path to maximizing their nation’s influence and strategic importance.

Azerbaijan has chosen to be a pro-Western and pro-American sovereignty. Like so many of the countries formerly under the control of the totalitarian Russian state, it has opted to look West rather than to join some Eurasian pact of the sort Vladimir Putin envisions.

During the long allied engagement with Afghanistan, Azerbaijan has used its strategic location to aid efforts by the American coalition in the war on terror. Indeed, it has proven friendlier than Turkey, another Islamic nation with a tradition of secular officialdom. The nation’s aid to Western forces has been particularly impressive considering its location between Iran and Russia, neither of which have been eager to see the U.S. succeed in its ambitious war in an area with which the one sympathizes and in which the other suffered a humiliating failure.

Two stories in the news of the past two months underline Azerbaijan’s highly independent and important course. The events correspond to a period in which Azerbaijan serves as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and merits special attention as a vote typically on the U.S. side.

It is well understood that the Russians have benefited tremendously (in the short and intermediate term) from the worldwide increase in energy prices. Vladimir Putin has been a “petro-ruler” in very much the same way as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez or heads of the state in the Middle East have been. As such, not only has his government been able to count upon natural resource profits to prop up his regime, but it has also relied upon “pipeline diplomacy” to influence neighbors less well endowed with oil and gas.

Azerbaijan has added its own actions to the list of uncertain variables affecting the Russian calculus of profit and leverage. In January, the country announced a deal with Ukraine for substantial importation of liquified natural gas. The planned amount would eventually add up to about 20% of Ukraine’s domestic demand. Add in the possibility of Ukrainian shale gas and the future could look considerably different in the region.

In very close proximity to that blockbuster announcement, Azerbaijan also concluded a negotiation with Israel to purchase $1.6 billion worth of arms in the form of drones, missile defense equipment, and other items. That kind of action by an American ally situated immediately next to Iran must be causing significant heartburn even in a Tehran where no one eats spicy pork.

As one reads of an Obama administration which seems to be looking more to the Pacific than to Eurasia in terms of its foreign policy, Azerbaijan and the other bold nations of the old Eastern bloc command attention. Given both their history and the potential belligerence and power of bad-actor nations around them, they have moved with determination toward a future that looks far different than the one hoped for by either Islamic, theocratic Iran or a repressive, corrupt, petro-ruling Russia in which the maximum leader sometimes openly mourns the passing of the totalitarian entity which groomed him as an intelligence officer.

Hunter Baker is an associate professor of political science at Union University. He is the author of The End of Secularism and the forthcoming Political Thought: A Student’s Guide.

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