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US-Azerbaijan: What Vision for the Future?

When it comes to a long-distance relationship, it's always good to know what attracts the other side. And, as shown at a shindig in Baku this week to mark 21 years of official ties with the US, Azerbaijan has its attractions for Washington down pat.

They number four: a supply corridor for NATO's military campaign in Afghanistan; a foothold for American interests in regional stability (Iran is just next-door) and fighting terrorism; and, finally, oil and gas for Europe.

Hearing Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev cover the lot, US diplomats, congresspeople and officials attending the May 28-29 "Vision for the Future" convention nodded approvingly. “Azerbaijan is an undoubted friend, business partner and military ally of the United States,” commented Richard Lugar, the former chairperson of the US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, Trend news service reported.

This is no co-dependent relationship, however. Aliyev made clear that, as a return for its attractions, Azerbaijan expects Washington to support its efforts to reclaim breakaway Nagorno Karabakh from Armenian and separatist control. Armenia's American Diaspora runs a well-organized lobbying operation across the US to make sure that many US politicians view Armenia's problems as their own.

Azerbaijan has been trying to put its energy wealth to good use of late, though, to outdo its rival for American hearts. On May 10, a celebration of Azerbaijan's Flower Day was held on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The event featured many flowers, both real and painted on children's faces, and was complete with a flower-adorned portrait of President Aliyev's father, the late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev.

Yet, as can happen, not everyone will necessarily be happy about the terms of this relationship on display in Baku. Human rights activists and local democracy advocates might well ask if the US came to Baku as a suitor equally interested in "shared democratic values" or "rule of law."

Most recently, Human Rights Watch reported an increase in the practice of police planting drugs on critics, a phenomenon it linked it to Azerbaijan's upcoming presidential election.  Alleged intolerance toward dissent -- including the jailing of two opposition leaders for supposedly stirring up a riot in a provincial town -- is another spoiler.

But a look at the convention’s agenda suggests that the US delegates seem to be inclined to dwell on the positive. (As do four video valentines sent by senators and governors unable to attend the gathering.) After all, who would want to mar the day with talk of Azerbaijan’s authoritarian ways when a glass of oil is raised to friendship?

US-Azerbaijan: What Vision for the Future?

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