By: Ilgar Gurbanov
During the June 22 Eastern Partnership (EaP) meeting in Minsk, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov outlined his country’s key areas of cooperation with the European Union and said the two sides are close to signing a document listing their “Partnership Priorities” (Mfa.gov.az, June 22).
EU-Azerbaijani relations suffered in the past because of the European Parliament’s (EP) critical resolutions on Azerbaijan (see EDM, June 22, 2017). But the level of dialogue increased particularly following Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s two visits to Brussels in 2017 (President.az, February 6, 2017; November 24, 2017).
EU High Representative Federica Mogherini called the most recent meeting of the EU-Azerbaijan Cooperation Council “constructive” and “forward looking” (Eeas.europa.eu, February 9).
Azerbaijan recently inaugurated the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC)—a cornerstone of its strategic partnership with the EU—and held an opening ceremony (with Turkey) for its longest link, the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP). Made up mainly of an expanded South Caucasus Pipeline, TANAP and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), the SGC will transport Azerbaijani natural gas to Southeastern Europe (President.az, May 29; June 12).
Partly thanks to significant European funding for the project, the SGC, which is strategically important for the EU’s diversification efforts and growing gas needs, proved more successful than previous European concepts for importing Caspian-basin gas (Nabucco, ITGI)—and this despite persistent anti-SGC campaigns (see EDM, April 3; Trend, February 9; Ec.europa.eu, June 12).
Notably, the SGC’s final section, TAP, which is supposed to be complete by 2020, has faced local protests, and now Italy’s new government has taken an ambiguous position toward this pipeline (see EDM, April 26, 2017; EurasiaNet, June 13, 2018).
Concerning the SGC, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented that Russia is ready to compete against the SGC with its own regional pipeline solution—Turk Stream (Vzglyad, June 13).
Beyond energy, Azerbaijan is also becoming a major transport/logistic hub between Europe and Asia thanks to the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railway, Baku International Sea Trade Port, and the South Caucasus country’s accession to the Trans-European Transport Network (Trend, January 30; Cbc.az, May 7).
EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn said the EU will support the Baku port becoming an international logistics/trade hub linking Europe with Asia (Azertag.az, May 10). Brussels is supposed to finance the port’s technological-operational capabilities. The facility notably provides for the shortest and cheapest trans-Eurasian transit options (Trend, January 30, March 16, May 2; Apa.az, March 16).
Azerbaijan and the EU’s joint signing of the “Common Aviation Area Agreement” will further boost the weight of their cooperation portfolio. The document has strategic value in terms of connecting Europe with Central Asia through Azerbaijan, with an aim to integrate regional aviation markets and bring new opportunities for both consumers and operators (Eeas.europa.eu, February 9).
Moreover, Azerbaijan has demonstrated unprecedented political will to complete negotiations with the European Union on a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), which President Aliyev called “a new format of cooperation” (see EDM, June 22, 2017; CACI Analyst, January 23, 2018; President.az, February 15, 2018).
According to the EU’ ambassador to Azerbaijan, Kestutis Jankauskas, the SPA’s main goal is adapting the conditions and opportunities because this agreement will be more ambitious and comprehensive than the 1999 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (Azernews.az, June 2, 14).
Ongoing talks between Brussels and Baku focus on the two parties’ political obligations, investment and trade, as well as sectoral issues. According to both Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry and EU officials, certain divergences exist regarding trade issues due to Azerbaijan’s non-membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). But Azerbaijan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mahmud Mammad-Guliyev has expressed hope that, “by the end of 2018, Azerbaijan and [the] EU will complete talks” on the SPA (RIA Novosti, February 14; Trend, March 12; Apa.az, May 7).
Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the EU, Fuad Isgandarov, said that “the pace of negotiations on different chapters may vary, but this does not question our objective” (EurActiv, May 28). That said, the EP’s recent recommendation conditioned the ratification of the agreement on Azerbaijan’s compliance with the EU’s fundamental values (Europarl.europa.eu, May 23).
Although, Russia negatively perceives the EU’s relations with the EaP states and would like to see Azerbaijan join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (Mid.ru, April 8, 2018; November 20, 2017), Baku has hitherto been able to successfully balance its position between the EU and Russia. According to Foreign Minister Mammadyarov, Azerbaijan’s strategic partnerships with Russia and the EU do not affect one another (RIA Novosti, February 14).
Europe’s unclear position toward Armenia and Azerbaijan’s ongoing conflict over Karabakh, however, downgrades relations with Azerbaijan—notwithstanding the “one-size-fits-all” commitment of the November 2017 Brussels Summit’s declaration regarding the territorial integrity of all EaP states (Vocaleurope.eu, December 12, 2017).
Mammadyarov has argued that the EU’s support should be spelled out in all its documents while also go beyond just words, as “a matter of [the] EU’s consistency and credibility” (Mfa.gov.az, June 22).
Notably, European Parliament resolutions regularly highlight the occupation of Georgian, Moldovan and Ukrainian territories, but simultaneously neglect the case of Azerbaijan (Europarl.europa.eu, July 5, 2017; October 16, 2017; December 13, 2017).
President Aliyev has said Azerbaijan expects a unified approach by the EU regarding all conflicts, otherwise it looks like a double standard (President.az, October 4, 2017).
According to Ambassador Isgandarov, the EU’s non-involvement in the Karabakh conflict settlement process does not prevent it from promoting international law–based support for its partners’ territorial integrity (EurActiv, May 28, 2018).
It is worth pointing out that most EU member states do not want Brussels to expand its role in conflict resolution. They prefer a peripheral approach, endorsing efforts by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), with some limited representation through the EU’s Special Representative for the South Caucasus (EurActiv, December 15, 2017).
Baku has also condemned visits to EU countries (France, Belgium) by members of the Yerevan-backed separatist regime of Azerbaijan’s occupied territories; European companies’ illegal economic activities there; and the export to Europe of natural resources/goods from the occupied territories, labeled as “Armenian,” in violation of the EU’s GSP+ trade rules (Mfa.gov.az, February 9; Apa.az, May 7).
Furthermore, Baku protests that the EU’s possible funding for integrating Syrian refugees in Armenia (Consilium.europa.eu, June 21) might end up being re-distributed by Yerevan to fund the resettlement of Syrian-Armenians in Azerbaijan’s occupied territories.
Without prejudicing its relations with different actors and the competing interests in the region, Baku has sought to pragmatically balance the negative geopolitical trends it faces by transforming them into opportunities. Nonetheless, Azerbaijan does not plan to compromise on issues pertaining to its territorial integrity.
Ilgar Gurbanov is a Baku-based independent analyst on energy security issues.