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Sergey Markedonov
20 years of relations between Russia and Azerbaijan

1 September 2011

On 30 August 1991 Azerbaijan’s Supreme Council at its special session adopted Declaration on Restoring of State Independence of the Republic of Azerbaijan. With this act the republic put a full stop to its existence within the Union of SSR and proclaimed legal succession to the first independent Azerbaijani national state - ADR (Azerbaijani Democratic Republic). That state formation existed in 1918-1920.


Prior to Northern Azerbaijan’s joining the Russian Empire (XIX c.), 15 khanates existed on its territory, as well as several smaller estates in vassalic dependence on Persia. Following from peace treaties of Gjulistan (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828), which concluded Russian-Persian wars of 1804-1813 and 1826-1828, the territory of Northern Azerbaijan joined the Russian Empire. The territories of present Azerbaijan in tsarist Russia administratively were united into the provinces of Baku and Elisavetpol. After October 1917 the state authority on the South Caucasus passed to the hands of Transcaucasian commissariat, and then - Transcaucasian seim. In May 1918 Transcaucasia collapsed as a unified state formation. On 28 May 1918 Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (ADR) was proclaimed. Musavat (Equality) party became the ruling one. In April 1920 and for seven long decades Soviet authority was established in Azerbaijan. After the failure of GKChP coup the Azerbaijani elite opted for restoring of independence and recreation of national sovereignty.


The fact itself that the  restored Azerbaijani statehood exists for 20 years (and not merely exists, but demonstrates viability and efficiency, plays a key role in the Big game on the South Caucasus and Middle East), deserves special attention. The first Azerbaijani republic existed a bit less than two years. ADR was declared on 28 May 1918, and already in April 1920 establishment of the Soviet authority began. In 1920 the “first” Azerbaijan was de-facto acknowledged by the Supreme Council of Allied States at a peace conference in Paris. However, ADR did not enter the League of Nations.


It is a different matter with post-Soviet Azerbaijan – an example of state with diversified external policy. In this respect Baku learned to take lessons out of its own history. The “second Azerbaijan” acts by far more delicately, trying no to put all eggs in one basket, being considered “affiliate” both in US and Russia. On the one hand, it is a part of pro-Western GUAM, on the other, it declares strategic interest in partnership with RF.


In Russia’s Caucasus policy Azerbaijani direction has a special place. Baku is situated between two extreme poles of Caucasus “Big game”. If the extreme anti-Russian pole is Tbilisi, then Yerevan is considered most consecutive pro-Russian power. This is to say that unlike Georgia, which purposefully declares strategic course at Euro-Atlantic integration and rescue from Russian “imperial heritage”, Azerbaijan strives for constructive relations with Russia. Moscow and Baku share a common position in relation to Caspian Sea. According to deputy foreign minister of Azerbaijan Khalaf Khalafov, «due to the Russian side the first achievement in this issue is the agreement between Azerbaijan and Russia over status, to which Kazakhstan joined later». There are no “museums of occupation” set up in Azerbaijan; instead there still are 346 schools with lessons in Russian. 15,000 students have such an opportunity as well. In Baku they do not view the Russian military presence (Gabala radar station, Kasfor project) as demonstration of “de-sovereignty”. Many Azerbaijani officials, starting with President Ilham Aliev, have often given high assessment of Russia’s peacekeeping potential in the process of Karabakh settlement. And the fact that the idea of potential deployment of Russian peacekeepers in the area of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict in 2006 was twice voiced in Baku proves much. It is not possible to imagine positive expressions about Russian peacekeepers in Tbilisi. In 2010 Russia and Azerbaijan, after 14 years of complicated negotiations, reached agreement on demarcation and delimitation of state borders. Therefore, Russia became the first among Azerbaijan’s neighbors, with whom the border issues were formally regulated.


But this is just one side of the coin. On the other side, Azerbaijan is an active participant of projects which in Europe and USA are dubbed “energy alternative” to Russia’s domination. In this line we could mention Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum, and the potential project Nabucco. This is where the West’s readiness to turn a blind eye on inconsistency between Azerbaijan’s internal policy and high democratic standards stems from. Moscow is jealously watching development of Azerbaijan-US relations. Relations of Moscow and Baku lack the level of cooperation, in military and political spheres above all, which exists in relations between Russia and Armenia. Unlike Armenia, Azerbaijan is not a member of EurAsEC or CSTO. Azerbaijan has own approaches towards relations with Georgia, and mutual Georgian-Azerbaijani cooperation is a priority of extreme importance to both Tbilisi and Baku. There is serious discrepancy between Moscow and Baku around Russian-Armenian strategic partnership. Azerbaijan is not joining CSTO; membership in GUAM and active cooperation with NATO and US is by large dictated by Armenia’s pro-Russian orientation. Azerbaijan’s leaders see danger of escalation of Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation in Russian military presence in Armenia, especially after exit of Russian units from Georgia and their relocation into the neighboring country. Another issue is whether or not these fears are justified.


However, despite all complexity of bilateral relations, Russia and Azerbaijan have a large potential for development of partnership. One of the most powerful Azerbaijani diasporas is the diaspora in Russia. Diaspora is a powerful factor of development of Russian-Azerbaijani relations. In its turn, Azerbaijan is the territory of settlement of diasporas of Dagestani nations (Lezgians, Avars, Tsakhurs), whose influence on ethno-political processes on Russian Northern Caucasus is noticeable as well. But the most important is that Baku and Moscow over 20 years have acquired experience on correction of mistakes committed by them. This lacked dramatically in relations between Georgia and Russia. The 20-year long history of bilateral Russian-Azerbaijani relations has seen both periods of rise and periods of fall. But the spirit of pragmatism meant here much more, than emotions and exaltation.


Sergey Markedonov has a Doctorate in History, and is a Visiting Fellow at the Center of Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, USA.  

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