Expanding cooperation on the development of Caspian Basin energy resources is prompting a general upswing in Azerbaijani-Russian relations. Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev is expected to travel to Moscow in late January, when the two countries are expected to sign a series of bilateral agreements.
Aliyev's Moscow visit, scheduled for January 22-24, should produce a settlement of the long-standing strategic issue of Russia's Gabala radar installation in Azerbaijan. Aliyev and Russian President Vladimir Putin are also expected to finalize a framework that eases the ability of citizens of one country to live and work in the other. Azerbaijan stands to benefit greatly from such an agreement, as tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis work in Russia and send their earnings to relatives at home.
In addition, Aliyev and Putin plan to sign up to eight additional agreements, most of which aim to increase trade between the two states. Many local observers believe the deals do not have any long-term significance for Azerbaijani-Russian relations. Instead they are representative of a pragmatic approach taken by Aliyev and Putin, in which the two countries are willing set aside strategic differences to reap near- and medium-term economic benefits.
Russia is intent on retaining its strategic influence in the Caucasus region, and has thus long sought to bolster its economic presence in Azerbaijan. Accordingly, Moscow has exerted considerable diplomatic pressure on Baku. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Conversely Aliyev has sought to maneuver Azerbaijan out of Russia's sphere of influence.
A deal at this point should help Russia consolidate an economic foothold in Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, a reduction in Russian pressure can help Aliyev concentrate on domestic issues, including the possible transfer of power to his son, Ilham.
Azerbaijani-Russian relations began taking a turn for the better in mid-December, following a visit by Vagit Alekperov, chief of the Russian Lukoil conglomerate, to the Azerbaijani capital. The visit resulted in Lukoil's decision to participate in the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline venture, as well as in large oil exploration/development projects.
Russian cooperation in such ventures provides a significant boost for their chances of realization. Moscow's long standing opposition to Baku-Ceyhan's construction has eased since Lukoil gained its 7.5 percent stake in the plan. Also, Lukoil's involvement in the development of the Araz-Sharg-Alov offshore field bodes well for an eventual settlement of a dispute between Azerbaijan and Iran over the territorial rights to the area.
As an incentive for Russia to cooperate, Aliyev appears to be compromising on the matter of an ongoing Russian presence at the Gabala installation, northwest of Baku. Russia has sought a long-term lease for the early warning radar facility, while Azerbaijani authorities pushed for a three- to five-year lease. Azerbaijan now appears willing to commit to a longer-term Russian lease arrangement.
According to local media reports, Russia and Azerbaijan have struck a deal on the base under which Moscow will pay an annual rent of $2 million for 10 years. Also envisioned under the agreement, Azerbaijani officials and military personnel will not have access to the facility, but will be entitled to access of radar data. At the same time, Russia agreed to employ local civilians in a variety of support and service capacities on the base.
Nailia Sohbetqizi is a freelance journalist based in Baku.