Could Baku get a ‘Maidan’ of its own?

Could Baku get a ‘Maidan’ of its own? –

A recent statement by Richard Morningstar, the US Ambassador in Azerbaijan, has resulted in what could be described as a full-blown crisis in the relations between Baku and the US. Why would a top American diplomat act so undiplomatically and why has his statement caused such bitter response from the government? Is there any chance that he could be right, and Azerbaijan could have a ‘Maidan’ of its own? Voice of Russia is exploring the issues with Rasim Musabekov, an independent political analyst based in Baku, Sabit Bagirov, Chairman of the Azerbaijan Business Development Foundation, Richard Giragosian, Director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), based in Yerevan, and Professor Alexander Markarov, Head of the Armenia program at the CIS Institute.

June, 2 the Swiss President and Head the OSCE Didier Burhalter arrived to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan – the first stop in his tour of three Caucasus states. His visit came at a particularly sensitive moment. Baku is recovering from shock and awe caused by a recent statement made by Richard Morningstar, the US Ambassador to Azerbaijan interviewed by Radio Azadliq. Here’s what he said: “I think one of the unfortunate things from Azerbaijan maybe, is that the government does not want to see anything happen here like what happened in Maidan Square, and that that might be giving them an excuse to crack down even harder with respect to human rights and democracy issues….If you take too hard a line and don’t give enough breathing space to civil society, arguably, it’s more likely that, at some point, there could be a real issue”.

Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the US envoy’s remarks as “the US’ interference in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs and attempts to direct it.” 

“This statement is groundless, says Rasim Musabekov, an independent political analyst based in Baku. – An ambassador should refrain from any hypothetical statements. One could come up with all kinds of ideas. One can suppose that such a Maidan will appear in front of the White House in a year’s time, or that the Occupy Wall Street movement would eventually result in the fall of the US government. Well, in any case, his abilities to work in Azerbaijan in that sense are very limited. The government itself supports youth organizations, public organizations, may be even three times more than the US does it through their funds”…. 

One of the reasons why Baku could remain so confident, could be the country’s role in the global energy market. Says Sabit Bagirov, Chairman of the Azerbaijan Business Development Foundation: “Azerbaijan is the biggest economy of the three Caucasian republics, with its GDP bigger than GDP of Georgia and Armenia combined, mostly due to its rich oil and gas resources. Oil and gas sector has been dominated by two large consortiums formed by some of the leading international investors led by BP, as well as Statoil, Chevron and others. Azerbaijan is exporting oil mostly to the West and the Mediterranean. And the overall trade balance is mostly West-oriented”…

However, a closer look reveals a more complicated reality. Richard Giragosian, Director of the Regional Studies Center (RSC), based in Yerevan:

“First of all, in the broader context we see two pronounced trends underway in Azerbaijan. The first was a rather careful and cautious reaction to developments in Ukraine and Crimea where Azerbaijan was trying to establish a more delicate position regarding Russia in the near abroad. But at the same time the second trend was a creeping crackdown on Azerbaijani civil society groups, especially targeting those engaged in contacts or negotiations with Armenian counterparts. What this represents in many ways is an attempt to strengthen the Aliev government domestically and to prevent any type of at least in their perception western interference in domestic issues. This is especially the case when we see a recent interview and statements by the US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Morningstar. But what is most significant is that the US Ambassador is on his way out. He will be replaced by a new US ambassador in the coming months and in the broader context we do see an Azerbaijani government attempt to silence civil society and actually to push back on any Western agenda or Western attempt to inspire change within Azerbaijan.

… Theoretically, if the situation in Azerbaijan gets worse, if it eventually destabilizes, how is that going to affect the oil and gas supplies to Europe?

What we have is two essential factors: the first is, this is even more dangerous than the theoretical discussion because the instability, potentially within Azerbaijan, is made much worse by the lack of an effective avenue for expressing discontent. In other words, any sign of defender opposition is immediately rewarded by an arrest or imprisonment. Therefore, that only radicalizes the society. Secondly, in terms of energy, any potential domestic turmoil or instability within Azerbaijan will directly challenge oil export routs in pipelines that largely serve the West and Turkey. This, therefore, makes Turkey much more a vested actor or an interested party in preventing any instability. At the same time, this is the 20th anniversary this year of the ceasefire in effect between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, which may actually only increase the stakes, and also for Russia pose a new risk of potential instability along the Russian southern periphery, especially regarding let’s say conflict spillover or instability in Dagestan for example.

And if we proceed discussing potential instability in Azerbaijan, how is that going to affect Iran?

Unfortunately, Iran lately seems to be greatly distressed by the trend going on in Azerbaijan. In other words, Azerbaijan and Iran suffered through unresolved conflict and tension regarding territorial claims to identity to the Caspian Sea, for example. This may make Iran actually become more assertive in its view or perception of the Caspian reserves or the division of Caspian Sea. But at the same time I think Western engagement with Iran over its nuclear program makes Iran more predictable and less of a threat especially in terms of regions stability”…

Professor Alexander Markarov, Head of the Armenia program at the CIS Institute, believes the US Ambassador has overplayed the risk of a ‘Maidan’ in Baku:

“There is probably some exaggeration between the statements that were sounded by representatives of the diplomatic corps in Azerbaijan and the real situation inside the country, – he says. – based on the type of regime we have in Azerbaijan, we might assume that power holders are really able to use their military or paramilitary forces to oversee the situation in Azerbaijan. And second, comparing Azerbaijan to Ukraine – if we really can compare the two countries – we can see there is a huge difference between the opposition potential in these countries. …

In Azerbaijan the opposition is rather weak, for it has been marginalized all the time… So the statements could be considered as some sort of a threat … and a possibility of the destabilization of the situation in Azerbaijan. But it’s hard to see who are the potential forces who might come up as potential ‘destabilizers’ of the situation in the country….

In fact the authoritarian stability which we can see now in Azerbaijan is the most useful status quo for foreign investors. In case of an instability it would be really hard to say who is who to deal with in Azerbaijan. Stable though authoritarian Azerbaijan might be more predictable for international stakeholders….

But then why would the US representative make this kind of statement?

… Such statements might not always and not necessarily sound very rational, but that might be a sign that the US is trying to get a little more involved in the affaires in Southern Caucasus…. On the other hand it could have been done to bring Azerbaijan to a more interested position in the negotiation process regarding the exports of energy resources and its position of the country that could potentially come a transit country for other energy resources…

Could the US’ closer involvement in the region also pursue some goals in Iran?

… Azerbaijani card could be used somehow to influence Iranian politics, but that could not really be foreseen in the nearest future… “. 

The Voice of Russia

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