Russian President Vladimir Putin has paid a so much talked-about visit to Azerbaijan. If official new bulletins are anything to go by, the two presidents had a very good time after the negotiations. They visited the patrol vessel Dagestan, the flagship of the Russian Caspian Flotilla, were given sailor’s caps and striped vests as souvenirs, had an official dinner, and had a cup of tea thereafter. An idyllic picture, isn’t it?
Azerbaijanand Russia have accumulated quite a few problems. The two parties failed to agree on extending the lease of the Gabala radar station, and Russia refused to operate this strategically important military facility.
It seriously irritated Azerbaijan to learn that a new organization, Union of Azerbaijani Organizations in Russia, was established last fall in Moscow as a counterbalance to the Baku-controlled All-Russian Azerbaijani Congress. The new organization incorporated many well-known Russian businessmen of Azeri origin, for which some Azerbaijani media began to call it a Kremlin project. Baku seriously suspects that a foreign-based opposition is in the making, as was the case in the neighboring Georgia.
The main problem in the bilateral relations is Moscow’s attitude to the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Russia is so far making no sufficient use of its influence on Armenia to resolve it. Azerbaijan believes, not without reasons, that Moscow holds the key to resolving this old and acute problem. Unlike his predecessor Medvedev, Putin has not been paying sufficient attention to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, which resulted, to a large degree, in stagnation and even tension in the Azerbaijan-Russia relations.
The Caspian region is interesting with its reserves of hydrocarbons. Azerbaijan is the leading producer of the latter. Naturally, both Moscow and Brussels attach considerable importance to the extraction and transportation of oil and gas. As part of Putin’s visit, Rosneft and Azerbaijan’s state-run energy company SOCAR signed a contract on developing the Apsheron gas deposit on the Caspian Sea shelf. Given that Rosneft with Igor Sechin at the head is trying to seriously compete with Gazprom as well as Putin’s affectionate attitude to the company, the signed contracts helped create a favorable atmosphere for the visit. On his part, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev noted that the signed agreement marked a new stage in energy cooperation.
The Russian president is visiting in the period of a presidential election campaign. One of its participants, film scriptwriter Rustam Ibrahimbeyov, has to renounce Russian citizenship to take part in the elections. Earlier in July he sent a request to the Russian authorities but never received an answer. Many Baku experts view this, as well as Putin’s visit to Baku, as the Kremlin’s indirect encouragement for Ilham Aliyev to run for a third term.
At the same time, one should not exaggerate this factor. The Azerbaijani opposition has no broad electoral support. It is divided and has sunk into internecine squabbles and disputes. In these conditions, it cannot seriously rival Aliyev in his attempt to be reelected for a third term. From this angle, Aliyev does not exactly need Putin’s support.
By all accounts, Baku has succeeded in taking advantage of tension in the Armenian-Russian relations. Moscow has long been watching with overt discontent the pro-Western U-turn of Yerevan.
There is one more reason why Moscow is trying to strengthen its positions in the Caspian region. The point is not only to advance Rosneft but also to exercise control over as much extraction and transportation of oil and gas as possible. And this has a direct impact on other countries, including Ukraine. Kyiv regards the Caspian region as a likely alternative to Russia’s Gazprom in gas supplies. Moscow is clearly aware of this and is trying, as far as it can, to hamper this. Naturally, this is not said aloud, but every time the cold season is coming up, gas problems tend to be aggravated at the instigation of Moscow. Therefore, Azerbaijan’s ability to supply more energy resources is very important for us.
As for relations between Moscow and Baku, no essential progress is in the offing. According to Mehman Aliyev, director of the Azerbaijani news agency Turan, Putin’s visit may have reopened the dialogue, but it made no breakthroughs in bilateral relations. “There will be an expansion of trade and economic relations. I think there will still be a tendency to purchase Russian goods for both military and civil purposes. Azerbaijan will refrain from joining any Russian-formed blocs, including the Customs Union and military alliances. In other words, there will be a drift towards the European Union,” the expert says.
The central problem is settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Russia is so far not going to essentially change her position in this matter. Striped vests and sailor’s caps may remain the only tangible result of this visit.