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Saturday, November 11, 2006

Azerbaijan between East and West

08 November 2006 [22:09] - Today.Az –Before coming to Moscow on November 8, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev visited the opposite geopolitical pole, Brussels. He is carrying on his father's policy of balancing and maneuvering.
The Azerbaijani president wants to maintain and develop constructive relations with Moscow, although the country is also trying to strike a geopolitical balance between East and West. Aliyev has to tread very carefully so as not to irritate either side. However, it looks as if relations with the Kremlin are reaching a new level. Moscow's influence in Azerbaijan is focused on political factors. Azerbaijan does not receive Russian state investment, loans or grants, and Russian capital does not play a major role in the Azerbaijani economy. A year ago, Baku signed a framework agreement with Russian aluminum giant RusAl on the construction in Azerbaijan of an aluminum plant worth $1 billion, but ground has still not been broken on the project. In early December, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov will visit Baku, becoming the first Russian premier to visit Azerbaijan since Soviet times. His visit should add zest to bilateral economic relations. The Kremlin has a strong political standing in Azerbaijan, notably in settling the Nagorno-Karabakh problem. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO's Secretary General, said during his visit to Moscow that Russia played a major role in resolving South Caucasian conflicts. He said Russia was an irreplaceable factor in the efforts to restore peace in areas of ethnic tension in the former Soviet states. Some Azerbaijani politicians think NATO might join forces with Russia to settle the Karabakh problem. Now that the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which bypasses Russia, has been inaugurated, the West intends to ensure the safe and uninterrupted flow of oil along it. This calls for settling the Karabakh problem, which is impossible without Russia. The pipeline can be described as an American political and economic project in a region that is in the sphere of Russian interests. The parties may decide to follow up the oil pipeline with a gas pipeline from Baku through Tbilisi to Erzurum. President Aliyev recently made an interesting comment, with Moscow and Tehran in mind. He said in an interview with the Qatar-based television channel Al Jazeera: "The [Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan] pipeline is not spearheaded against anyone. On the contrary, we hope that it will also benefit our neighbors after we expand it and build a parallel pipeline." He did not specify what kind of "parallel pipeline" might be built and how Azerbaijan's neighbors would use it, but he had an important reason for disclosing the possibility. In principle, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline will have sufficient capacity for delivering oil from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, which means that Aliyev has offered a purely political project (the parallel pipeline) to the neighboring oil producers, Russia and Iran. Russia will be able to use the BTC pipeline to transport its oil only after 2015-2020, when Azerbaijan's Azeri, Chirag and Guheshli oilfields become depleted. However, the presidents of Russia and Azerbaijan will discuss not only oil projects in Moscow, but also Azerbaijan's relations with NATO. Political analysts in Azerbaijan say uncertainty surrounding Azerbaijan's admission to NATO is creating problems in the Baku-Moscow-Brussels triangle. When Geidar Aliyev, the father of the current president, came to power in Azerbaijan, he made certain promises to NATO in a bid to strengthen his own and the country's position. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan intuitively moved toward the West. But when Russia got back on its feet, Baku halted its incorporation into NATO. The current balancing act between Moscow and NATO suits the Azerbaijani elite, because it offers them a chance to obtain support from both sides. Moreover, a vague foreign policy allows the government to avoid "cumbersome commitments." So, where will Azerbaijan move? Ilham Aliyev may have to answer this question on his trip to Moscow.

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