As talk of a potential Nagorno-Karabakh deal gains momentum, Azerbaijan appears to be making serious overtures toward Russia in hopes that the Kremlin will push Armenia to make key concessions, analysts in Baku believe. As an incentive, Azerbaijan is playing one of its most strategic cards - cooperation in the natural gas sector.
During a joint press conference with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev on April 17, Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev stated that he does "not see any restriction" on possible sales of Azerbaijani gas to Russia. The assertion has been understood to include sales of gas from Stage 2 of the multilateral Shah Deniz project, which is expected to yield 14-16 billion cubic meters of gas per year. He also indicated that oil transportation via the Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline could also increase. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Baku had earlier avoided making any commitments about gas sales to Russia or the Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline.
President Medvedev, in turn, stated that the chances for reaching "a full-fledged" agreement on gas sales between Gazprom and the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR) are high. A recent agreement envisages the sale of gas produced by SOCAR alone. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In a separate statement on April 17, the last day of Aliyev's two-day visit to Moscow, Novruz Mammadov, head of the presidential administration's Foreign Policy Department, elaborated more definitively. Gas sales to Russia or to Iran could be an alternative to the Western-backed Nabucco project, he told the Turan news agency. "If countries interested in Nabucco do not move, Azerbaijan has no option but to think about its interests," Mammadov said.
One Baku expert, however, states that Azerbaijan's energy-sector promises were not solely intended to spur Nabucco's sponsors into action.
Elhan Shahinoglu, head of the Atlas Center for Political Research, believes that Aliyev may have received some assurances in Moscow about the potential withdrawal of Armenian forces from the five regions surrounding Karabakh. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Roughly speaking, in exchange for guarantees of gas supplies to Russia, Moscow could put pressure on Armenia in order to liberate the five occupied regions, i.e. to launch the step-by-step conflict resolution plan," Shahinoglu said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Shahinoglu believes that such a development could be advantageous not only to Baku and Moscow, but also to Ankara and Yerevan. "Russia gets gas, Azerbaijan gets the territories, Armenia opens its border with Turkey. Ankara also gets progress in resolution of the Karabakh conflict, which allows it to normalize relations with Armenia without problems with Azerbaijan," the expert said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In an April 18 interview with the Russian television channel Vesti, Aliyev indicated readiness to make one serious concession to Yerevan - signaling that Baku might be willing to live with a final settlement in which the Lachin corridor that links Karabakh proper to Armenia remains under Armenian control. "[W]e do not see problems here," Aliyev said. "The issues with the Lachin corridor could be effectively solved in order to not cause anxiety for those who live in Nagorno-Karabakh and for the Azerbaijani population which will return there after the conflict's resolution."
But Rauf Mirkadirov, political columnist for the Russian-language daily Zerkalo (Mirror), believes that "it is difficult to talk about real progress even after Aliyev's visit to Moscow."
While interest from the United States and the European Union in resolving the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and establishing a corridor for gas from Central Asia to Europe may goad Moscow's interests in brokering a conflict resolution, the terms may prove unpalatable for both Armenia and Azerbaijan, Mirkadirov said.
"Moscow wants a resolution under its full control -- in other words, with its peacekeepers in the conflict zone -- while Azerbaijan and even Armenia are not ready for that," he said.
Former presidential foreign police aide Vafa Guluzade also believes that the chances for progress are slim. Without clarity on the ultimate question -- Karabakh's final status - statements by Aliyev, Medvedev and others "are just diplomatic words," Guluzade argued.
Nonetheless, those "words" show little sign of slacking off.
In an April 17 interview with the Voice of America, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza stated that Aliyev and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan are now examining "painful compromises" that have to be made before a breakthrough can occur. Nonetheless, Bryza, a noted optimist in the Karabakh peace process, believes that a "real" breakthrough is possible in the coming weeks.
In an April 20 interview published by the Trend news agency, the presidential administration's Mammadov stated that if Armenia "defines its position" at an expected May 7 meeting in Prague between Aliyev and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, "a decision will be adopted."
Mammadov called on Moscow, which will be hosting an official visit by Sargsyan in late April, to "fulfill its historic mission" to resolve the 21-year conflict.
According to Bryza, a special meeting of the US, French and Russian presidents on the Karabakh issue is possible this summer.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.