A middle road in Azerbaijan

There’s probably no country in the world watching the Russia-Georgia conflict more intently than this small, energy-rich nation to the south and east of the turmoil. It too leans toward the West. Its oil runs through the pipeline that crosses Georgia. And it too wants to know how far Russia will go to keep its former vassal states within its sphere of influence.

Azerbaijan was one of the first Soviet republics to win independence. It’s a rare secular Muslim nation with a tradition of religious tolerance -- it enjoys friendly relations with Israel. It also signed on to the U.S.-led war on terrorism, contributing troops to coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it has felt some heat from other Muslim nations because of it.

But as friendly to the West as Azerbaijan is, it is under no illusions about its place in the world. It is betwixt and between superpowers and religious and ethnic groups in a volatile neighborhood. And unlike headstrong Georgia, which clearly miscalculated the extent to which the West would come to its aid, Azerbaijanis don’t lean too far in any direction. They seem intent on pursuing a sometimes torturous process of diplomacy, compromise and caution.

Consider what Sheik Allahshukur Pashazadeh, the chairman of the Muslim Board of the Caucuses, told me over tea and grapes: “There are never friends in politics. Individuals have friends, countries don’t. Their interests are too complicated.”

“What does ‘friend’ mean?” echoed Samad Seyidov, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee in the Azerbaijani parliament. “We just want normal relations.”


I came to Azerbaijan as a guest of the government for a conference on U.S.-Azerbaijani relations. The sheik wasn’t on the official agenda, but the pragmatism he expressed was often repeated at the conference and across Baku by government representatives, thirtysomethings, businessmen and passersby.

Not that Azerbaijanis are only Kissinger-esque realists. They harbor a flagrant and bitter -- and frankly debilitating -- enmity toward Armenians and Armenia, to whom Azerbaijan lost nearly one-fifth of its territory in a still technically unfinished war in the early 1990s -- a cease-fire is in place, but not yet a truce. Beyond that, however, relations with nearby and neighboring states are decidedly textured and complicated.

Turkey is their natural ally, another secular Muslim state and one with which Azerbaijan shares a common ethnic and linguistic heritage. But in Baku, Turkey’s move toward a stronger mix of Islam and government can come in for criticism, even as some Azerbaijanis consider with envy its NATO membership and its attempt to join the EU.

In general, for Azerbaijanis, shared religion does not predetermine cooperation or enmity. Azerbaijanis clearly see Georgia, a majority Christian country, as an ally and sympathize with it in the current conflict. Meanwhile, Iran, which like Azerbaijan is a majority Shiite nation and with whom it has cordial formal relations, is still looked upon with a healthy dose of distrust. And although Russian cultural and linguistic influence remains strong, and binational relations are good, you’d be hard-pressed to find an Azerbaijani who isn’t deeply suspicious of Vladimir Putin et al. (It is not insignificant that Iran and Russia supported Armenia -- the former tacitly and the latter militarily -- in its war with Azerbaijan.)

Such nuance ran through a wide-ranging discussion I had at a Georgian restaurant packed with young, educated residents in Baku. “You try to serve all masters,” said 27-year-old journalist Olga Pukhayeza. “You try to be polite to everyone while maintaining your independence.” Said Rashad Novruzov, 23: “For us, there’s nothing really black-and-white. You can’t trust everyone, and you can’t distrust everyone.”

Azerbaijanis know their caught-in-the-middle status presents them with an opportunity. “Maybe we could be the answer to the clash of civilizations,” Seyidov said. But mostly, it leaves them with the sense that they enjoy only a tenuous grip on their own destiny. The deputy minister for national security, Ali Shafiyev, even conceded that his nation’s great resource, its oil and gas reserves, contributes to its shaky status. “On the one hand, interest in our oil makes us more secure, and on the other, it makes us more vulnerable,” he said.

One thing seems to be certain. Even as Azerbaijan makes its move toward the West, it will not challenge or turn its back on Russia in the way that Georgia did a week and a half ago. On Thursday, Vitaliy Baylarbayov, the deputy vice president of SOCAR, the State Oil Co. of Azerbaijan Republic, told his American visitors that his company is considering an offer by Russia to buy all of the firm’s natural gas production for both domestic use and export to Europe. The move would clearly give Russia even greater political leverage over energy-dependent Western European nations.

Wouldn’t such a deal impede Azerbaijan’s embrace of Europe and the United States? No, Baylarbayov insisted. His state-owned company is strictly a commercial, not a political, enterprise, he said. Could any answer have been more pragmatic or more “Western” than that?