Azerbaijani officials have taken aim at the West in recent weeks, in what some analysts believe could be an attempt to secure Russia's support for a Baku-friendly settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process.
The most surprising proposal in recent days to come out of Baku was a call for Russia to reestablish a military presence in Azerbaijan; Russian troops departed the country in 1993, and no mention had been made, until now, about their possible return.
On November 26, MP Gudrat Hasanguliyev proposed that Azerbaijan should join the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Moscow-dominated military pact, and allow Russia to establish a military base in Azerbaijan. Hasanguliyev, a leader of the United Popular Front of Azerbaijan Party, presented the idea as a trade-off for Russian recognition of "Azerbaijan's sovereignty over Karabakh."
Although Baku's national security strategy, approved in 2007, clearly defines "pursuing Euro-Atlantic integration" as a diplomatic priority for Azerbaijan, Hasanguliyev and others now complain that Baku has received little from the West in exchange for its interest in closer ties. Georgia's own experience with the Atlantic Alliance suggests that Azerbaijan would never gain NATO membership, Hasanguliyev contended. Baku has not applied to join the Brussels-based military alliance.
Representatives of the government and the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party have not disavowed Hasanguliyev's statement. Moreover, the statement appears to be part of a trend. At a November 20 conference in Baku organized by the presidential administration's Center for Strategic Research, the United States and European Union came in for heavy criticism for their alleged failure to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Russia, which mediates the talks along with France and the United States, escaped censure. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The pressure recently put on Armenia and Turkey to sign protocols on rapprochement "has never happened on the Karabakh issue," charged Novruz Mammadov, head of the presidential administration's Foreign Policy Department. Such an imbalance could lead to changes in Azerbaijan's foreign policy, he suggested. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Mammadov went on to accuse the West of ingratitude for Azerbaijan's cooperation with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. The lack of economic assistance for the $1 billion Mammadov says Azerbaijan lost from the 2008 economic crisis shows that "the West forgot us and helped Armenia," he said.
Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Ziyafet Askerov went a step further: Since force has been shown to be more effective than international law -- a reference to the 2008 Georgia-Russia war and recognition of Kosovo -- "the Karabakh conflict [could] be solved by the Azerbaijani army," he threatened. "US foreign policy has become a hostage of the Armenian lobby," he added.
Discontent over Western criticism of the trial of two Azerbaijani bloggers - "Western media wrote more about the bloggers' trial than about the Karabakh conflict since it began," Novruz Mammadov claimed - and perceived NATO ingratitude for the 90 Azerbaijani peacekeepers serving in Afghanistan has added to the chill.
Baku analysts are divided over the cause of this rhetoric.
Azerbaijan's irritation that more progress has been made on rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey than with the Karabakh peace process, now in its 15th year, could be driving Baku's criticism of the West, believes Elhan Shahingolu, director of the Atlas Center for Political Research. "After the Turkish-Armenian protocols, Azerbaijan feels itself isolated and needs fast progress on the Karabakh issue," Shahinoglu said.
Russia's absence from the criticism of the Karabakh mediators indicates that Baku hopes that "increased volumes of gas supplies and wider economic cooperation" mean that "Moscow would help in the Karabakh conflict," Shahinoglu added. Annual trade turnover between Azerbaijan and Russia currently stands at $2.5 billion.
After a November 24 meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at which the Karabakh conflict was discussed, an upbeat Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev declared that "if every country would have such relations as exist between Russia and Azerbaijan, there would be no problems in the world," news agencies reported.
Another political analyst, Zafar Guliyev, believes that more than the Karabakh conflict stands behind Baku's anti-Western statements. An uptick in Western criticism of Azerbaijan's democratization and human rights record - particularly the recent sentencing of two youth activists to prison terms -- could play a role, too, he said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
As Baku sees the West start to stick its neck out on such issues, the Azerbaijani government feels obliged to nudge it back into place, Guliyev noted. "In 2009, the Western powers and Turkey undertook efforts to reinforce their positions in the South Caucasus, and it is likely that some forces in the Azerbaijani government are concerned that the balance between the West and Russia [in the region], which always helped Baku to maneuver, could be broken," Guliyev said.
Both experts, however, believe that the rhetoric does not signal an official foreign policy line. The comments "so far" are "more muddled and emotional statements than a defined concept," noted Guliyev.
Shahinoglu, who opposes closer ties with Moscow, also believes that Baku is unlikely to change horses in mid-stream. "Azerbaijan has been pursuing Euro-Atlantic integration for more than 15 years and such abrupt changes now would not deliver anything positive," he said.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.