Op-ed: Honeymoon month in Azeri-Russian relations
I t would not be an overstatement to say that Azerbaijan’s media is under tight government control. Similar to Soviet times, people are left to try and read ‘between the lines’ and decode messages that carry only hints of what is to come. There are of course social media platforms which did not exist in Soviet times and which remain uncensored (for now), but even those platforms are not trusted in Azerbaijan.
What are they hinting at?
A month or so ago, the popular online portal haqqin.az published a ‘peredovitsa’ (an old Soviet-era term that haqqin.az used which refers to an editorial piece) titled Putin’s Five Letters for Azerbaijan: CSTO and… The article outlined the advantages of Azerbaijan joining the pro-Russian military alliance.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is a military and political alliance created under Russia’s auspices in 1992 which includes a number of post-Soviet states. The Russian mass media sometimes refer to the organization as the “Eurasian NATO”, of which Armenia is a member.
Azerbaijanis who follow the news and are used to these “signals” paused to consider the latest one. Consequently, a member of parliament (name irrelevant, as they are all the same) voiced a proposal to consider joining the CSTO, motivating such a move by a “new geopolitical situation”. We can only guess what he meant by the “new situation”. I suspect he was hinting at the change of government in Armenia and its persecution of the general secretary of the organization, Armenian general Yuri Khachaturov.
To put it plainly, the proposal implied that, while Russia is figuring out its relationship with the new authorities in its forepost – Armenia (referred to this way by the former Russian parliamentary speaker Gryzlov), let us seize the moment. Perhaps we can get Putin’s support and recover a couple dozen square kilometres in Karabakh.
These expectations led to a lively discussion on social networks. At large, two positions were articulated by Azerbaijani online debaters: the proponents spoke for the necessity of friendship with Russia and suggested that it can help Azerbaijan return Karabakh to its fold. A 19th century Nekrasov poem comes to mind, which reads: “Once the master gets here, he’ll arbitrate.” The opponents, on the other hand, remembered the rhetoric of the early 1990s and warned against a new “imperial yoke”.
A historical retreat
[su_pullquote align=”right”]Many do not even know that Azerbaijan was already in one military bloc with Armenia, and that it was introduced there by none other than Heydar Aliyev[/su_pullquote]
any in Azerbaijan don’t even realize that Azerbaijan has already been a member of the CSTO, a military alliance which included Armenia. The country entered the organization under the leadership of the “all-national leader” Heydar Aliyev. Azerbaijan entered the CSTO in the midst of the hottest phase of the Karabakh war, September 1992. In this way it even beat Belarus, an early champion of the treaty, in the race to join. However, the “master” did not help much back then. On the contrary, under Russia’s silent sufferance, Azerbaijan lost its Zangilan district to occupation.
In 1999, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Uzbekistan decided to discontinue its participation in the alliance.
Why would Azerbaijan join the CSTO?
zerbaijan’s return to the CSTO is highly unlikely for a number of reasons.
First, Azerbaijan is a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, an international organization uniting 120 states on the principle of not taking part in military alliances. In fact, Azerbaijan is about to chair the organization for the next four years. In this regard, a summit will take place in Baku next year, hosting 77 heads of state. The summit has been scheduled far in advance, and entering any military alliance, be it CSTO or NATO, on the eve of such a large-scale event is unthinkable.
Secondly, the CSTO, just as the Commonwealth of Independent States (which unites a number of post-Soviet republics) is increasingly looking like a political corpse, a window dressing, devoid of content. Even Belarus, recently Russia’s closest ally, has been heard calling any further activity of the CSTO as a purely military alliance “lacking in perspective”, as president Alexander Lukashenko put it. In the meantime, Armenia, one of the CSTO’s founding members, has signed a plan for individual cooperation (IPAP) with NATO and the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the European Union (in contrast with Azerbaijan, which continues to hesitate). Moreover, Armenia attempted to arrest the head of the CSTO, general Khachaturov, though he was released after Moscow’s reaction.
[su_pullquote align=”right”]The CSTO, just as the Commonwealth of Independent States, is increasingly looking like a political corpse[/su_pullquote]
What advantages are there to CSTO membership? The proponents of entering the organization say that Azerbaijan will be able to buy Russian weaponry at discounted prices.
Three questions are in order.
Firstly, what does Russia have to gain here? Azerbaijan already buys Russian weaponry. Its expenditure on these acquisitions already reached USD 5 billion as was stated by its president during a meeting with his Russian counterpart in Sochi on 1 September. Moreover, critics posit that Russian weaponry is outdated and is sold at exorbitant prices. In other words, these purchases are merely gestures of loyalty, a reverie. The same weapons can be bought from Belarus for much cheaper, or from Israel for more modernized variants.
Is Azerbaijan’s membership seen by Russia as a guarantee against the Western military alliances’ presence in the region? The recently signed agreement on the Caspian Sea gave the Russian navy the precedence it wanted. If the West wanted to increase its presence in the South Caucasus, there is pro-Western Georgia, which, with its membership aspirations, has not been too zealously welcomed in NATO. As far as Turkey is concerned, it is having its own honeymoon with Russia these days, and Syria is showing full-on mutual understanding in its Russian relations.
Secondly, what does Azerbaijan gain from joining? Protection from a hypothetical external aggressor? From Iran, maybe? What’s the point of defending ourselves from outside aggression, when the main aggressor (Armenia) will be in the same alliance as Azerbaijan?
The entire history of the CSTO did not see a single case when the organization actually deployed for combat, even when its member-state has gone through events when they had the right to formally request CSTO’s aid. For instance, Armenia could have requested it when Azerbaijan captured its Artsvashen enclave during the Karabakh war.
Third question – why the CSTO? After all, do Azerbaijan and Russia have problems in their bi-lateral relations? Same goes for CSTO members Belarus, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. Azerbaijan only has problems with Armenia, which would not be solved by joining the organization.
[su_pullquote align=”right”]Azerbaijan’s relations with Russia are currently at the highest point since the collapse of the USSR[/su_pullquote]
As far as relations with Russia are concerned, they are currently at the highest point since the collapse of the USSR. An old critic of the government, I can only thank Aliyev and Putin for this. Neighbourly relations should be welcomed, especially that Azerbaijan and Russian now have what we can call “love with interest”.
In 2017 the trade turnover between the two countries grew by 35% and amounted to 2.5 billion dollars.
Freight traffic on the North-South route (Russia-Azerbaijan-Iran) has increased a hundredfold: if the freight amounted to only 1,700 tonnes last year, it has already increased to 170,000 tons – and that is just in seven months so far this year. Russian tourists visit Azerbaijan the most and constitute 31 per cent of the recent total tourist count. Azerbaijan has schools that offer classes in the Russian language, for which demand is so high that it is difficult to get a child in there. There are also options of earning undergraduate and graduate degrees taught in Russian at Azerbaijani universities.
My conclusion: developing friendly bi-lateral relations with Russia should only be welcomed. But to hope that Russia will solve all our problems, the Karabakh problem first and foremost, is naïve, ignorant, and even dangerous.