After Ukraine, the West must encourage regional partners like Azerbaijan

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Azerbaijan is a major supplier of gas to Europe. [James Crisp/Flickr]

If the Ukraine crisis has taught us anything, it’s that the West needs to safeguard its allies in Russia’s backyard and encourage them to implement reforms, but be more understanding of their growing pains, writes Taras Nazarenko.

Taras Nazarenko is an independent political and energy analyst based in Ukraine.

But that’s not what’s happening with Azerbaijan — and the consequences could be dire.

When Azerbaijan became independent in 1991, it made a conscious decision to forge closer ties with the West. One reason was that it thought it could be more prosperous by focusing its oil- and gas-based economy on the West.

Another was that it never wanted to fall under Russian domination again, and closer ties with the United States and the European Union could help achieve that goal.

Azerbaijan has risked Russian ire by developing closer relations with the West. Rather than expressing its gratitude, the West’s public pronouncements about Azerbaijan have consisted mostly of criticism of its human-rights and media-freedom records. 

That has made the leadership in Baku increasingly frustrated. In pursuing closer ties with the West, Azerbaijan has not just talked the talk. The prime example is that it’s been helping build pipelines that skirt Russia to supply oil and gas to Europe.

Until the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) and South Caucasus pipelines were launched in 2006, all the Europe-bound oil and gas originating in Azerbaijan and Central Asia had to flow through Russian pipelines.  

That gave Russia a foreign-policy lever on Europe that in recent years has made the continent quake.

The BTC and South Caucasus pipelines send oil and gas from Azerbaijan’s capital Baku through Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and Turkey to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. From Ceyhan it can be loaded aboard ships heading for Europe.

Azerbaijan has also helped construct the Baku-Supsa Pipeline that sends oil to a Black Sea port in Turkey. 

And the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline is also in the works that will go from Azerbaijan through Turkey, then under the sea to Greece and Italy.

Europe and the United States are glad Azerbaijan is helping to break the Russian oil and gas chokehold, but you can imagine the resentment in the Kremlin.

In addition to helping the West with oil and gas supplies, Azerbaijan has helped supply coalition forces in Afghanistan. Fully one third of the non-lethal equipment and supplies going to those forces have come through Azerbaijan.

An even more admirable commitment to Western military efforts in the region — because it involved putting Azerbaijani lives on the line — was Baku’s decision to send troops to Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan to fight alongside American forces.

Azerbaijan’s leadership has wanted more public acknowledgement of these efforts from the United States and Europe.

Instead, most of the West’s public comments on Azerbaijan have been complaints about its human rights and media-freedom records.

Many Azerbaijanis feel the West is employing a double standard by lavishing praise on other governments in the region, like Kazakhstan, that have human rights issues, and by preaching about Azerbaijan’s failings while ignoring the West’s own shortcomings.

Examples of recent zingers from the West include President Barack Obama’s pronouncement that Azerbaijan’s laws “make it incredibly difficult even for NGOs to operate”, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s assertion that Azerbaijan needed to end its “ongoing and increasing number of repressive actions against independent media and advocates of freedom of expression”, and a bill recently introduced by a US lawmaker that would deny US visas to senior Azerbaijani officials due to “appalling human rights violations”.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s leaders are aware that Human Rights Watch and other international rights organisations have criticised the United States for keeping prisoners at its Guantanamo Bay facility for years without charge, for sending War on Terror captives to other countries for harsh interrogations that included torture, and for having a disproportionate number of African-Americans in its prisons. Europe has also faced its fair share of criticism.

While acknowledging that Azerbaijan’s human rights and media freedom records could be better, its leaders have noted that a democracy isn’t built in a day.

They point out that their country has been independent a little more than two decades, whereas the United States has had 230 years — and many countries of Europe much longer — to grow a democracy that many admire but that is still far from perfect.

The frustration that Azerbaijan has felt about not getting its due from its Western partners at one point prompted it to hire lobbyists who might help it tell its story better in the West.

It wasn’t seeking a whitewash. What it wanted was balance — acknowledgement in official pronouncements in Washington, Brussels and other Western seats of power that it has done many things to help the West, even at the risk of antagonising the Russian bear.

Western leaders would be wise to think about this in an unstable region where Russia’s influence — as is clear with Ukraine — is only increasing. Their harsh words are creating an unproductive atmosphere for cooperation that has seen Russia in recent months begin to assertively court this once fail-proof Western partner anew.

If their public pronouncements about Azerbaijan continue to be lopsided instead of balanced, Baku may throw its hands up and consider dancing with the bear again.

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