Azerbaijan: Caught Between Two EUs
Moscow and Brussels have gone courting Azerbaijan, the last nonaligned place in the South Caucasus, where Russia and the European Union increasingly compete for influence.
Over the next week, two top officials from Russia and one from the European Union will be descending upon Azerbaijan to chat up Baku, which, unlike neighboring Armenia and Georgia, says it is not ready to commit to a serious relationship with anyone, be it the Brussels-based EU or the Moscow-led EU (Eurasian Union). But neither of the energy-rich country's big suitors seem to take no for an answer.
José Manuel Barroso, president of the EU's executive arm, the European Commission, will be visiting Baku on June 12 as a part of his tour of several ex-Soviet republics that Brussels corralled together to prime for integration with the EU. Two of these countries -- Moldova and Georgia -- will be signing association agreements, which include free-trade deals, with the EU in two weeks. Barroso will be checking on both countries to make sure all's set for the big day.
Breaking with the tradition of European leaders binge-visiting all three South Caucasus countries in one fell swoop, Barroso is conspicuously skipping Armenia. Brussels is still disgruntled about Yerevan discarding an association-agreement at the last minute to hop on a train headed in the opposite direction -- toward the Eurasian Union, and economic integration with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
But Baku, so far, has been playing hard to get with its European and Eurasian suitors. Yet both Brussels and Moscow appear to feel there is room for talk. Barroso will try to "inject new momentum into bilateral talks" about an association agreement, reads a release.
The moment Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev sees Barroso out, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on June 17 will be knocking on the door. Visits from Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin and Russian Duma Speaker Sergei Narishkin will follow almost immediately.
It is not quite clear how Moscow can tempt Baku. Making a move in the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict over breakaway Nagorno Karabakh might be a way of exercising Russian influence, but it would risk offending Russia's strategic pal Armenia, now on the verge of making things official with the Eurasian Union.
Many Azerbaijani commentators are convinced that Moscow is going to make a big offer, most likely an economy-related one, but few believe that it will be one Baku can't refuse.