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Putin's Baku visit: background and consequences
18 August, 2013
Russian President Vladimir Putin's one-day visit to Azerbaijan last week passed without any of his characteristically enigmatic promises or apparent changes to bilateral relations, as some experts had predicted. Nonetheless, Putin's visit (his first since 2006; former President Dmitry Medvedev came in 2010) has sent ripples across the region.
Though local analysts and the media speculated that Putin would arrive, James Bond-like, at Baku port in the Russian Caspian flotilla, they were wrong. But during Putin's visit, the squadron of the Russian Caspian Flotilla, including the missile ship “Dagestan” and small artillery ship “Volgodonsk” did dock in Baku.
The expectation before Putin's visit was that it would illuminate a number of unresolved questions. Broadly speaking, over the past year, the two countries' relationship has been seen as problematic, especially after Putin returned to the presidency for the third time, bringing ambitious plans to connect the Post-Soviet space countries under Moscow's economic-security umbrella. The so-called Eurasian
Union has caused concerns across all the republics, in particular Azerbaijan. Prior to this, the Azerbaijani leadership rejected Moscow's invitation to Commonwealth of Independent States meetings on a number of occasions. Compounding the failure to reach a lease agreement for the Gabala Radar station in December 2012, bilateral tensions increased. Another part of the discussion, at least at the non-official level, is Azerbaijan's upcoming presidential election. Azerbaijan's opposition candidate, Rustam Ibrahimbeyov, has Russian citizenship -- and Azerbaijani legislation prohibits dual
citizenship. Thus, in one key way, Ibrahimbeyov's candidacy is dependent on Moscow's assistance in removing his citizenship.
It is against this background that Putin's one-day visit to Baku should be considered. He arrived with a large delegation that included the foreign minister, defense minister, minister of transport, energy minister and the presidents of energy companies Rosneft and Lukoil. During the meeting, he signed a number of bilateral agreements, most significantly the “Agreement on Cooperation between the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan and Rosneft Oil Company” and “Main Terms of OilTransportation between the State Oil Company of the Republic of Azerbaijan and Rosneft.”
Despite expectations, nothing was said about the Azerbaijani presidential election and
the citizenship status of the main opposition candidate, at least not as far as the public
is aware. Furthermore, it would be politically naïve to suggest that the recent visit was a demonstration of Putin's support for the incumbent, President Ilham Aliyev. Second, this visit proved once more that Moscow, specifically Putin, has no significant interest in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution negotiations. Already, since the start of Putin's third term, there were signs that Russia wanted to end the trilateral meetings between the Azerbaijani, Armenian and Russian Presidents, which took place most recently in January 2012 in Sochi. Moscow has been in no hurry to start a new set of negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution. Moreover, there are ongoing tensions between Moscow and Yerevan, in regard first of all to Armenia's wish to sign an Association Agreement with the EU at the forthcoming Vilnius summit in November and, secondly, to the lack of open support for the Russian-led Customs Union and Eurasian Union initiatives. Thus, we must not fall prey to the naïve assumption that Moscow is still a “muscular mediator” in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict negotiations. There are signs that Moscow no longer has a clear idea of an end game for this particular issue. Notably, in a press conference after the bilateral talks, Putin said vaguely that “Russia is actively contributing to the soonest resolution of the conflict that is possible only by peaceful means.” Third, there is a widespread belief -- especially among the Armenian media -- that Putin sent a message to Yerevan from Baku. But Putin's real message was addressed to the West, particularly to Washington. The subject of this message is defense cooperation: Recent months have seen active negotiations on increasing Azerbaijan's defense cooperation with Turkey and Georgia, as approved at the March 28 trilateral meeting in Batumi. This is crucial for the future of military cooperation. In addition, Azerbaijan-US talks are continuing, regarding Afghanistan. Approximately two weeks ago, Azerbaijan's defense minister visited Washington for negotiations with the Pentagon. The presence of the Russian defense minister during Putin's visit is a bad sign. Russia's aim is to kill the trilateral cooperation with Georgia, Turkey and any military involvement with Washington. Most people tend to focus on the Gabala Radar Station issue, but the visit concluded that this chapter between Moscow and Baku is closed. As suggested before, Moscow's chief intention in the military realm is to make Azerbaijan dependent on Russian arms exports. Fourth, it is possible that behind closed doors, Russia raised the issue of the opening of the Abkhaz railway with Azerbaijan. Baku strongly opposes this idea, while Moscow sees that the project can help rescue Armenia from its current geographic isolation through rail connections. It's unclear whether or not this matter was discussed; after his Baku visit, Putin's met with the leader of the breakaway Abkhaz region, Alexander Ankvab, a meeting which fuelled speculation. Last but not the least, during the bilateral negotiations, there was no discussion of the “union” issue -- either the Customs or the so-called Eurasian Union, or Azerbaijan's negotiations with the European Union. And neither Moscow nor Baku used the word
“united” -- the visit does not mark a new chapter for bilateral relations, but nor has it proved that they will have a united position on a number of key issues.