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Eurasia’s Hinge: It’s More than just Energy

Eurasia’s Hinge: It’s More than just Energy

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This policy brief looks at Azerbaijan's global strategic importance.
This policy brief looks at Azerbaijan's global strategic importance.

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Published by: German Marshall Fund of the United States on May 11, 2012
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Foreign Policy and Civil Society Program

May 2012

Summary: Without energy, the small Caucasian state of Azerbaijan would likely have been an afterthought in the post-Soviet space. But Azerbaijan is much more than an energy hub. It is precisely at the hinge of powerful cultural forces where old empires overlap and modern states compete — and it has energy. It is infused with Iranian culture, ethnically and linguistically Turkic, and historically part of the Russian, then Soviet empires, and all three influences are competing for the greatest attention.

Eurasia’s Hinge: It’s More than just Energy
by Joshua W. Walker and S. Enders Wimbush
In early May 2012 in Washington’s venerable Willard Hotel, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and former Governor Hailey Barbour of Mississippi drew comparisons between their states and the Republic of Azerbaijan as part of a buoyant celebration of Azerbaijan’s 20-year relationship with the United States. Their sentiments, and those many of the guests, were focused largely on Azerbaijan’s status as a critical mid-sized energy power connected to world markets, and increasingly to Europe, through important pipeline systems. Indeed, energy is the principal reason most governments and corporations pay attention to Azerbaijan. Energy wealth in today’s world is enough to generate interest almost everywhere. Indeed, without energy, the small Caucasian state of Azerbaijan would likely have been an afterthought in the post-Soviet space: a Muslim country deep in the shadows of the Christian civilizations of Georgia with its compelling cultural attachments to Europe, and Armenia with its engaged and potent political diaspora on both sides of the Atlantic. But Azerbaijan is much more than an energy hub. It is precisely at the hinge of powerful cultural forces where old empires overlap and modern states compete — and it has energy. Azerbaijan is the sum of three elemental tendencies that accentuate the pivotal nature of its geographic position: infused with Iranian culture, ethnically and linguistically Turkic, and historically part of the Russian, then Soviet empires. Eurasia’s future is likely to play out in and around Azerbaijan for reasons that are independent of the Caspian’s energy wealth but are amplified by it. Put differently, Azerbaijan’s importance to the West goes well beyond oil and gas. From the vantage point of Baku, its strategic universe is increasingly complex and worrisome, if not threatening. To the north, Russia is a lethal cocktail of dysfunctional politics, official corruption, economic torpor, regional fissures, and ethnic shifts — all within the cone of a demographic death spiral and powered by resentment at having lost an empire and its corollary, unrequited imperial ambition. Russia has never forsaken its appetite for its former Caucasian possessions. Its wars in the North Caucasus, its attack on Georgia in 2008, and its efforts to impede a settlement between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh are a way to increase its own presence and influence in the region and block Azerbaijan’s access to Turkey illuminate Russia’s strategic design. For Russia, the key to this region is Azerbaijan. To the south, Iran is on the cusp of conflict. Azerbaijan shares a 700 kilometer border with Iran, and up to 25

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Foreign Policy and Civil Society Program

percent of Iran’s population, according to some estimates, are Azeris. Iran’s mullahs of Azeri descent have made Baku a special target, as they are mostly Shiite Muslims, and Iranian authorities have never made a secret of their disdain for Azerbaijan’s independence. Their strategies will resonate in Azerbaijan to the extent that the smaller northern state fails to anchor its citizens in a more potent set of values and lives by them. A destabilized Iran, whether from internal revolution or attack from outside, will pose a special range of challenges for Azerbaijan. It is implausible to imagine that Azerbaijan can be isolated from the resulting turmoil, and therefore it is in the West’s interest to assist Azerbaijan in advancing inoculations of strong civil society antibodies. Yet there is every reason to believe that a stable Azerbaijan linked politically, economically, and militarily to the West can serve as a model for post-conflict Iran, as well as a conduit for the West’s values and ideas. Turkey represents a counterforce to Iran, an important influence impeding Azerbaijan from sliding into Iran’s orbit. Its links to Azerbaijan have grown steadily, based on common ethnic and linguistic foundations, and there are growing economic, social, educational, political, and military ties. Major energy pipelines connect the two. Former Turkish Prime Minister Abdulfaz Elcibey may have struck close to the mark when he inaugurated the concept of Azerbaijan and Turkey as “one nation with two states.” Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan against Armenian claims on Nagorno-Karabagh has been constant. Yet the Arab Spring, and particularly turmoil in Syria, have exposed institutional weaknesses in Turkish foreign policy that could eventually affect a range of Turkish interests, including Azerbaijan. And Europe, reluctant to give Turkey traction toward full membership, will miss a singular derivative opportunity to pull Azerbaijan into its embrace. Azerbaijan faces difficult challenges in governance, civil society, and democratic development that must be addressed if it is to maintain its delicate balancing act amid these powerful interests and states. But it also boasts important strengths and instincts. A strong sense of national identity, as well as its historic tradition of Islamic modernism, has been a barrier to the inevitable inflow of radical Islamist ideas, though this is a constant worry. It actively seeks strong relations with Europe and the United States, despite the often distracted attention of both. (Washington currently has no ambassador in Baku.) Azerbaijan’s young

professionals can be found in most Western and Asian capitals and universities today, and its cadre of professional diplomats, prepared increasingly by the globally-linked Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, are notable. But these strengths and Azerbaijan’s growing sense of selfconfidence should not detract from the larger sobering picture. Azerbaijan’s neighborhood grows increasingly dangerous and unstable, while many of the most potent political, economic, and cultural dynamics intersect the small Caucasian country. It is hard to imagine where modest investments from the West that reaffirm Azerbaijan’s inclination and predispositions might pay a larger dividend, nor where failure to do so could have more extended consequences. It’s about a lot more than energy.
About the Authors
Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow and S. Enders Wimbush is the Senior Director for Foreign Policy & Civil Society at the German Marshall Fund of the United States based in Washington, DC.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.

About the On Wider Europe Series
This series is designed to focus in on key intellectual and policy debates regarding Western policy toward Wider Europe that otherwise might receive insufficient attention. The views presented in these papers are the personal views of the authors and not those of the institutions they represent or The German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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