The Brexit crisis could create geopolitical headaches for Azerbaijan at a time when Baku is worried about keeping the country’s leaky economy afloat.
The Azerbaijani government so far has not officially commented on the Brexit situation. Reflecting the official attitude, Rasim Musabayov, an MP, said he did not expect Brexit to have a significant impact on EU-Azerbaijan bilateral relations because they “were not close to begin with.”
That may be true in a narrow sense, but there are a couple of big reasons why Brexit could have unwelcome implications for Azerbaijan.
First, it is reasonable to expect that the Brexit vote will prompt the EU to become more introverted, as it must concentrate more on its own survival in the coming months and years than in projecting influence eastward. That is unfortunate given that in recent months Brussels and Baku had started to take steps to place relations back on solid ground after going through a period of prolonged mutual antagonism.
The chief catalyst of rancor was Azerbaijan’s poor rights record. Over the past few years, President Ilham Aliyev’s administration embraced authoritarianism, and took steps to muzzle all forms of dissent, including independent journalism. Baku’s crackdown prompted criticism from the EU, along with individual member states. Accordingly, relations took a nosedive.
In the months prior to the Brexit vote, a thaw appeared to be taking shape. Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, visited Baku in early 2016. Not long after that visit, the Aliyev administration released some prisoners who the international community classified as political detainees. Then, in mid-June, the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee gave its consent to the framework agreement on the principles of Azerbaijan’s participation in Union programs, after it had been stalled for a year because of human rights concerns.
Now, while contacts on the expert and bureaucratic level should continue, Brexit likely means any major EU diplomatic initiative in the EU neighborhood will be put on hold.
The Brexit vote is also not good news for those hoping to find some way of getting the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process back on track.
The early April flare up in fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh reinforced the case for the EU’s deeper engagement in conflict-resolution efforts between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But it is now unlikely that the EU will embrace a larger role in the Karabakh peace process – at least over the near- and medium-term.
Another unwelcome implication for Azerbaijan is connected with separatism. Brexit could well lead to a fresh referendum in Scotland on the matter of independence in Scotland, and, given the scale of Scottish support for the EU, it is easy to imagine that another referendum would produce a “yes” vote that results in the breakup of the United Kingdom. Such an outcome could further embolden those who argue that the principle of self-determination should take precedence over a state’s territorial integrity. This would be a blow to Azerbaijan’s official position on Karabakh.
It is understandable why the Azerbaijani government is not giving the Brexit crisis much thought at the moment. Baku has bigger problems, namely the poor state of the economy: the State Statistical Committee reported in June that Azerbaijan’s economy contracted by 4.2 percent during the first five months of 2016, compared with the same period the previous year. The downward trend is expected to continue for at least the rest of this year.
But Azerbaijani authorities may soon bemoan Brexit. It will make it more difficult for them to achieve two major goals: economic stabilization and a Karabakh settlement to their liking.
Eldar Mamedov is a political adviser to the Socialists & Democrats Group in the European Parliament. He writes in his personal capacity.