The cancellation of next month’s military exercises with the United States has prompted some speculation that the White House may be in the process of "losing" Azerbaijan. But Azerbaijani analysts say that they see no sign that relations between the two countries are heading into a crisis phase.
Azerbaijan’s decision to cancel the May 2010 exercises came two days after an April 17 visit to Baku by US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, who met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Defense Minister Safar Abiyev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov.
Officials in Baku gave no reasons for the cancellation, but it was preceded by a presidential warning that Baku would take "adequate steps" against countries that support Armenia "regardless of size [or the] economic and military power of these states." Ali Hasanov, the influential head of the presidential administration’s Political and Public Affairs Department, added muscle to that warning with a caution that "if America will not change its non-objective position on the Karabakh issue, Baku could reconsider its strategic partnership relations with the United States," local media outlets reported.
At first glance, heightened concerns over the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement, and its implications for Azerbaijan’s dispute with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, would appear to explain Baku’s recent moves. It is also noteworthy that since Armenia’s April 22 announcement on suspending its reconciliation process with Turkey, Baku has ceased making such aggressive statements. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
One clear line has already been drawn for actions that could be interpreted as anti-American, however. It appears to run through the energy sector, the focal point for foreign-investor interest in the Caspian Sea state.
During an April 20 session of parliament, MP Fazail Agamaly, the leader of the pro-government "Ana Veten" (Motherland) Party, called for a reduction in American companies’ stakes in oil development projects. His motivation for the move, he indicated, was a US Congress decision to allot humanitarian assistance to the separatist government in Karabakh.
Parliamentary Speaker Ogtay Asadov responded by switching off Agamaly’s microphone and demanding that he "stop talking about things about which he does not know," news outlets reported. The next day, Hasanov disavowed Agamaly’s statement by saying that Baku stands by its strategic partnership with the United States.
"Our government remains committed to strategic partnership with the United States, including [in the] security and energy sectors," media reported Hasanov as saying.
Baku may have a long laundry list of complaints with the Washington - including American criticism of its media rights record, support for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, failure to name an ambassador to Baku and failure to invite President Ilham Aliyev to the Nuclear Summit held earlier in April - but those complaints only stretch so far.
The United States has always acted as a major lobbyist for Azerbaijani energy projects - such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline -- that promote the country as an independent regional player, noted energy expert Ilham Shaban. Baku is unlikely to want to dispense with that support, he added.
American companies currently do not have large shares in oil projects in Azerbaijan. Their presence is limited to four minority stakes in the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli project: ExxonMobil (8 percent), Chevron (10.2 percent), HESS (2.7 percent) and Devon (5.6 percent).
Rethinking American companies’ shares in the multi-billion-dollar Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli project "requires a unilateral reconsidering of the production-sharing agreement and I do not expect it," Shaban said. The government will sign contracts with participating companies in May.
Mubariz Akhmedoglu, head of the Baku-based non-governmental Center of Political Innovations and Technologies, also says that he sees no signs that the Azerbaijani government is planning to abandon its strategic cooperation with the United States on energy issues, anti-terrorism and regional security. Azerbaijani officials’ anti-US statements "have already stopped," he noted.
"The government is keen to continue its balanced foreign policy and I do not expect serious changes in relations between Baku and Washington," Akhmedoglu said.
Elhan Shahinoglu, head of Baku’s Atlas research center, agrees: "neither side is interested in the further deterioration of relations."
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan.