By Nicholas Hager, Transatlantic Community Analyst
Preparations for the recent presidential election in Azerbaijan were hailed by observers as an exemplar of democratization, with one OSCE representative calling it an inclusive and “transparent campaign.” Consequently, it was rather shocking when Azerbaijan’s election monitoring service released the official results of the election one day before it actually began. Subsequently, the OSCE steered away from its almost unqualified support of the election results, highlighting numerous, serious, irregularities such as “ballot box stuffing and vote count tampering.” Similarly, the U.S. said the “election fell short of international standards.” The European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), in stark contrast, came under fire for calling the elections “a free, fair and transparent electoral process.”
Given clear indications that Azerbaijan fell short in several respects, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe may have severely undermined their reputations and future relations with a country which has growing strategic importance for the West. According to Azerbaijan’s head of public affairs, Ali Hasanov: “The European integration path is the path that President Aliyev is closely following. But if his opponents win the elections then the foreign policy of Azerbaijan’s will be called into discussion and they will call a referendum to discuss this issue.” Indeed, if Azerbaijani people, many of whom have protested the results of the election, manage to force Aliyev from his seat of power sometime in the future, it may significantly derail the country’s relations with Europe. The new government will most likely hold no allegiance to the West or its interests, given that they will see European support of Aliyev, and their sanction of the tainted election results, as complicity in their subjugation.
This is all the more important given Azerbaijan’s strategic importance, which stems from its role as a prolific fossil fuel exporter. As its capacity for the exploration and exploitation of these resources increases, it will become even more important in the global energy market. Oil and gas are also pillars of Azerbaijan’s economy, accounting for “more than 90 percent of total exports.” The Trans-Adriatic Pipeline – which extends from Azerbaijan to Greece, Albania, and, finally, Italy – is currently under construction, and set to “deliver approximately 35 [billion cubic feet] of natural gas to the European Union” per year. Moreover, it is expected to generate residual economic benefits for the countries hosting it, such as increased job creation, while increasing Europe’s energy security by alleviating its reliance on Russian natural gas. Europe and Azerbaijan are the clear winners here but another, less obvious, winner is the South Caucasus region, which could gain political and existential security as a byproduct of the region’s closer ties to the West. Conversely, however, these gains come almost entirely at Russia’s expense as Western Europe’s foray into the East threatens to undermine Russia’s regional influence.
It is no surprise, then, that Russian President Vladimir Putin is working furiously to subsume as many regional states as possible into Russia’s nascent Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in the hopes of counterbalancing the EU’s eastern push and bolstering Russia’s regional power. Russia is attempting to co-opt former Soviet republics by cajoling them, with promises of market access, or strong-arming them by imposing bans on imports of their goods. A salient example of the competitive atmosphere that exists between the EU and Russia is the extent to which Russia is attempting to dissuade Ukraine from closer ties with Europe, partly by threatening the country with forced bankruptcy and default.
Putin’s opponents criticize the EEU as being nothing more than an attempt to resurrect the Soviet Union – indeed, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Putin of trying to “re-Sovietize the region” – but, if Europe can wrestle influence in Azerbaijan away from Russia, as it appears to be doing with Ukraine, it would all but assure the failure of Russia’s putative EEU. In the context of this new Great Game, the sanguine judgments of the European Union and the Council of Europe regarding the clearly flawed Azerbaijani election results risk undermining the stability Europe hopes to create. If a regime change takes place in the country, this could be very strategically costly for Europe as a whole. To see this, we need look no further than the earlier example of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline.
Due to be completed in 2019, there is ample time for Aliyev’s government to fall and for potentially hostile Azerbaijanis to halt construction as a way to punish the EU for its intrusion into Azerbaijani politics. Failing that, it might simply increase the price of the gas it’s selling them. This is an important consideration, but it is one of many. The upshot is that by supporting the Azerbaijani elite, at the likely expense of the Azerbaijani populace, Europe may have unwittingly lit the fuse to a bomb of political antipathy which could explode at any time, and with vast political and economic repercussions. And in this politically atavistic climate, the West cannot afford to slip up.