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Baku's Difficult Balancing Act

Nikolas K. Gvosdev

 

It has been a ill-omened start of the year for Azerbaijan's foreign policy. For the last several years, Baku was attempting to embrace its position as a so-called "keystone state" in one of the world's most strategic pieces of real estate."Keystone states" are those countries "located at the seams of the global system and serve as critical mediators between different major powers, acting as gateways between different blocs of states, regional associations, and civilizational groupings."

"Keystone states" are those countries "located at the seams of the global system and serve as critical mediators between different major powers, acting as gateways between different blocs of states, regional associations, and civilizational groupings."

Taking to heart the lessons of Georgia in 2008, Azerbaijan sought to ensure its security and prosperity through balancing its relations with all the major regional and global actors and to avoid dependence on any one power. Baku sought to market itself as the central terminal uniting the north-south route from Europe through Russia and Iran to India with the silk road connecting China and the West. The government found ways to make sure that every key player had incentives to maintain Azerbaijan's stability and independence. It marketed itself to Turkey and Europe as a source for Eurasian energy independent from Russia, but still found ways to give Moscow and Tehran stakes in its energy industry. It cultivated its position as a nominally Shi'a Muslim state interested in good ties with Israel without compromising its outreach to the Arab world and Iran (even though this has also made Baku a tempting target for terrorist activity). It pursued security cooperation with NATO while holding joint maritime exercises on the Caspian Sea with the Russian navy. It has distributed positions in major energy projects across a wide range of American, European, Middle Eastern, Eurasian and Asian firms—one of the rare instances where U.S., French, Iranian, Russian and Japanese companies might end up as de facto—or even de jure—partners.

Ironically, the aftermath of the 2014 crisis in Ukraine actually boosted Azerbaijan's prospects. European states anxious to preserve energy security have turned to Azerbaijan as an alternate supplier, while Russia seeks to boost economic ties with Baku to compensate for items now unattainable due to the pattern of sanctions and counter-sanctions. Baku not only hosted European-level sporting and cultural events but played host to major delegations from all of the major powers seeking to reaffirm or expand ties with Azerbaijan. Baku also benefitted from being designated as the special dialogue partner by Turkey during its presidency of the G-20, heightening its visibility on the global stage. With all of these new developments, Azerbaijan was even hoping that progress might be made in resolving the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh crisis more in Baku's favor, on the longshot hope that Russia, in particular, might be able to influence Armenia to be more accommodating of Azeri demands.

 

The article’s full-text is available here.

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