Commentary Magazine


Topic: Azerbaijan

Is Putin’s Next Move Against Azerbaijan?

Azerbaijan is a key American ally. The only country to border both Iran and Russia, it has angered both with its consistent efforts to orient itself to the United States. While many Americans point out Azerbaijan’s democratic deficit, President Ilham Aliyev’s strategy of building up the middle class first has merit: To force reforms prior to establishing a strong, stable middle class would play into the hands of both Iran and Russia, neither of which care an iota about democracy.

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Azerbaijan is a key American ally. The only country to border both Iran and Russia, it has angered both with its consistent efforts to orient itself to the United States. While many Americans point out Azerbaijan’s democratic deficit, President Ilham Aliyev’s strategy of building up the middle class first has merit: To force reforms prior to establishing a strong, stable middle class would play into the hands of both Iran and Russia, neither of which care an iota about democracy.

As much as Azerbaijan orients itself toward the West, neighboring Armenia has planted itself firmly in Russia’s orbit. Indeed, Armenians are perhaps the only people who would willingly vote to embrace Russia rather than the West even if Russia did not lift a finger to influence or force them. Culturally, Russians and Armenians have much in common, and Russia remains Armenia’s chief patron.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh erupted into hot conflict almost immediately upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the regaining of independence by both states. In December 1991, Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh declared their own republic, one of those fictional states that the Kremlin has helped prop up with increasing frequency—for example, Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and more recently Crimea and Donetsk in the Ukraine.

Visiting Georgetown University Professor Brenda Shaffer is right when she writes in the Wall Street Journal that “Freezing lawless regions invites conflicts.” Nagorno-Karabakh has become a center for money laundering, weapons trafficking, and general instability. In sum, it has become the typical Putin proxy.

With the West distracted by events in Iraq, it seems Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh sought to make their move against a pro-Western ally which has moved to become an energy hub outside Russia’s orbit. Clashes began last week, and have escalated over subsequent days.

When it comes to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, there’s a tendency by American policymakers to engage in moral equivalence or simply to seek quiet, regardless of principle. This is wrong on four counts:

First, while Western policymakers see diplomacy as a means to conflict resolution, Russian Present Putin sees international relations as a zero-sum game in which for Russia and its client states to win, the United States and its allies must lose.

Second, whatever the emotional commitment many in the Armenian Diaspora in the United States have toward Armenia and their desire to seek acknowledgement for the events of a century ago, the fact of the matter is that the Armenian government has repeatedly undercut U.S. interests, even going so far as ship Iranian weaponry to be used to kill American soldiers in Iraq.

Third, it’s time the White House recognize that friendship and alliance go two ways. We cannot expect Azerbaijan to so continuously align itself with the United States and promote American interests if we turn our back on its friendship in its hour of need.

And fourth, there is no longer any excuse to not see Putin for what he is. No more Bush-era soul gazing, or Obama-era reset. That Bush and Obama hardly reacted when Russian forces invaded Georgia surely contributed to Putin’s willingness to invade Ukraine. That Obama fiddled and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to appease in the aftermath of that crisis only encouraged Putin to move once again to destabilize the South Caucasus, and its most consistent pro-Western republic. If the United States does not stand up for Azerbaijan, then Putin will understand that we are neither serious about freedom or liberty, friendship or alliance. In such a case, beware Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and even Poland.

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What Will It Take to Maintain Putin’s High?

Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Ukraine hasn’t been simply about uniting ethnic Russians; just as with the 2008 Georgia invasion, it has also been about the economy. Too many Western diplomats and policymakers—especially those who do not regularly follow Russia—are behind the curve with regard to Russian perceptions of Putin. True, Putin won plaudits for picking Russia up by its bootstraps in the wake of Boris Yeltsin’s terms, but much of his economic success was less than met the eye and due more to the steep rise in oil prices. As oil has leveled off, the Russian economy has stagnated.

The European Foundation for Democracy’s Anna Borshchevskaya (full disclosure: my wife) had a great piece a few years ago looking at Russia’s economic vulnerability against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. In short, Russia’s economy is stagnant. Rather than fix the problems and address the corruption from which he personally benefits, Putin has discovered that it is easier to whip the flames of nationalist fervor. But every time he makes a land grab–Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 and Crimea and perhaps soon eastern Ukraine in 2014–he must subsidize the new territory, creating an even greater drain on Russian resources, all the more so since he also subsidizes client states like Belarus to keep them in line.

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Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Ukraine hasn’t been simply about uniting ethnic Russians; just as with the 2008 Georgia invasion, it has also been about the economy. Too many Western diplomats and policymakers—especially those who do not regularly follow Russia—are behind the curve with regard to Russian perceptions of Putin. True, Putin won plaudits for picking Russia up by its bootstraps in the wake of Boris Yeltsin’s terms, but much of his economic success was less than met the eye and due more to the steep rise in oil prices. As oil has leveled off, the Russian economy has stagnated.

The European Foundation for Democracy’s Anna Borshchevskaya (full disclosure: my wife) had a great piece a few years ago looking at Russia’s economic vulnerability against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. In short, Russia’s economy is stagnant. Rather than fix the problems and address the corruption from which he personally benefits, Putin has discovered that it is easier to whip the flames of nationalist fervor. But every time he makes a land grab–Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 and Crimea and perhaps soon eastern Ukraine in 2014–he must subsidize the new territory, creating an even greater drain on Russian resources, all the more so since he also subsidizes client states like Belarus to keep them in line.

Therefore, with every territory he grabs, the speed with which the Russian economy unravels increases, forcing the need for even more land grabs to stay ahead of the issue. It’s analogous to a cocaine addict who must constantly up his dose to get the same high.

As diplomats and analysts consider what might be next in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cross hairs, it would be a mistake to focus only on eastern Ukraine, the Baltics, and Moldova because if he really wants to bolster his economy, he must retain its energy monopoly. Here, pro-Western Azerbaijan, a neighbor to Georgia, may actually have cause for concern. Azerbaijan is a major energy hub, and last summer announced that it would direct its new pipeline to southern Europe, bypassing Russia. The completion of the project will undercut Russian leverage and the Kremlin’s ability to blackmail Europe. Russia knows this, of course, and has worked to permeate the opposition to President Ilham Aliyev, who has stood firm against both Russian pressure and Iranian attempts to infiltrate and radicalize Azerbaijan.

President Obama tends to play checkers instead of chess, but it’s time to think several steps ahead, and bolster Azerbaijan. It may really be the most crucial piece in the new great game.

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Azerbaijan Convicts Iranian in Terror Case

On Friday, an Azerbaijani court convicted Fayzi Bahram on charges relating to a plot to attack the Israeli embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. According to the Azerbaijani press:

According to the indictment, Fayzi Bahram, an employee of the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security of the Islamic Republic of Iran, wanted to explode the Embassy of Israel in Azerbaijan. In his testimony during the pre-trial investigation, Fayzi Bahram said that he moved Baku in 2006. Fayzi Bahram said that he had been instructed to organize unauthorized protests outside the Embassy of Israel in Baku, inflict harm on embassy employees and explode the building….

The story should concern American policymakers for a variety of reasons. First, is the fact that Bahram came to Azerbaijan in 2006. This suggests he was part of a sleeper cell. The notion of Iranian sleeper cells has been the subject of much discussion in the Gulf Cooperation Council over the past several years. And, before that, the trial into the 1992 Mykonos Café assassinations in Berlin suggested the presence of Iranian sleeper cells in Germany. Should Tehran have infiltrated sleeper cells in Western-oriented countries, and if both President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are truly dedicated to a new approach, then step one would be for Tehran to unilaterally withdraw its operatives.

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On Friday, an Azerbaijani court convicted Fayzi Bahram on charges relating to a plot to attack the Israeli embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. According to the Azerbaijani press:

According to the indictment, Fayzi Bahram, an employee of the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security of the Islamic Republic of Iran, wanted to explode the Embassy of Israel in Azerbaijan. In his testimony during the pre-trial investigation, Fayzi Bahram said that he moved Baku in 2006. Fayzi Bahram said that he had been instructed to organize unauthorized protests outside the Embassy of Israel in Baku, inflict harm on embassy employees and explode the building….

The story should concern American policymakers for a variety of reasons. First, is the fact that Bahram came to Azerbaijan in 2006. This suggests he was part of a sleeper cell. The notion of Iranian sleeper cells has been the subject of much discussion in the Gulf Cooperation Council over the past several years. And, before that, the trial into the 1992 Mykonos Café assassinations in Berlin suggested the presence of Iranian sleeper cells in Germany. Should Tehran have infiltrated sleeper cells in Western-oriented countries, and if both President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei are truly dedicated to a new approach, then step one would be for Tehran to unilaterally withdraw its operatives.

The second issue that is interesting is the fact that the suspect supposedly worked at the Ministry of Intelligence. While Western security officials tend to focus on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps when it comes to Iranian terrorism, Iran’s intelligence ministry has long run its own operations. In 2010, Kuwaiti security intercepted an Iranian intelligence ministry cell, allegedly planning assassinations of prominent Kuwaiti religious figures. The interesting thing about the intelligence ministry is that rather than contain them, Rouhani has actually empowered them.

Rouhani is a master diplomat. He has shifted Western perception of Iranian intentions. While the West is enthusiastic for diplomacy, it should take care about attributing sincerity to Rouhani, for there seems to be a dangerous dissonance between his words and the Islamic Republic’s actions.

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Is Armenia a Weak Link in Iran Sanctions?

Yesterday, I testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Europe and Eurasian Subcommittee, which was investigating Iranian strategy, influence, and interests in the Caucasus. As always, there’s good news and bad news from the region. Azerbaijan remains a stalwart U.S. ally intolerant of Iranian approaches. Georgia is as well, but after its October election remains very much in play. Turkey’s efforts to subvert sanctions are well known. The greater problem today is Armenia:

  • According to a State Department cable released by Wikileaks, in 2008, U.S. diplomats concluded that Armenia shipped Iran weaponry, which Iran then used to kill Americans.
  • Bank Mellat, a sanctioned Iranian bank, operates in Yerevan, and Iranian businesses dot the city.
  • In October 2011, a member of Armenia’s Nuclear Energy Organization told the Iranian press that Tehran had enticed several Armenian nuclear scientists to work in Iran’s nuclear program.

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Yesterday, I testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Europe and Eurasian Subcommittee, which was investigating Iranian strategy, influence, and interests in the Caucasus. As always, there’s good news and bad news from the region. Azerbaijan remains a stalwart U.S. ally intolerant of Iranian approaches. Georgia is as well, but after its October election remains very much in play. Turkey’s efforts to subvert sanctions are well known. The greater problem today is Armenia:

  • According to a State Department cable released by Wikileaks, in 2008, U.S. diplomats concluded that Armenia shipped Iran weaponry, which Iran then used to kill Americans.
  • Bank Mellat, a sanctioned Iranian bank, operates in Yerevan, and Iranian businesses dot the city.
  • In October 2011, a member of Armenia’s Nuclear Energy Organization told the Iranian press that Tehran had enticed several Armenian nuclear scientists to work in Iran’s nuclear program.

The Armenian community in the United States is fortunate to be both vibrant and organized. It is unfortunate that organizations representing the Armenian Diaspora in the United States and the congressmen who partner with them do not do more to encourage change in the Armenian government’s geopolitical behavior. Certainly, Armenia is between a rock and a hard place. Russia looms large, both culturally and politically, and Armenians are loathe to unravel that relationship in an age when no one believes U.S. guarantees of continued commitment.

Cultural links are also strong to Iran; when I first studied in the Islamic Republic in the mid-1990s, my apartment was in Julfa, Isfahan’s chief Armenian neighborhood. The Armenian community need not drop its advocacy for recognition of the Armenian genocide, but by ignoring Armenia’s pro-Iranian orientation, the Armenian-American community squanders an opportunity to build a true strategic partnership between Washington and Yerevan, a partnership which would certainly be to both countries’ benefit.

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The Cost of Diplomatic Goodwill

The press attaché at the U.S. embassy writes in response to my post to alert me to an embassy statement disputing Azerbaijani press accounts of U.S. Ambassador Richard Morningstar’s earlier comments. The correction comes 15 days after the story first appeared in the Azeri press. While the Azeri news agency has now removed the original report in English, it is still available in Azeri.

I will certainly take Ambassador Morningstar’s word against that of a regime that is less than democratic, but the episode highlights well another problem with American diplomacy: The tendency of undemocratic regimes to utilize visits by American diplomats and officials to imply endorsement where none is intended. The Azeris believed they could use Morningstar’s visit to the semi-autonomous Nakhchivan region to suggest American support for the decidedly undemocratic regional government. Likewise, when Secretary of State Clinton visited Armenia, she met with only government officials and gave the opposition a cold shoulder; that was a message that both the Armenian government and its opposition heard loud and clear, even if it was not a message Clinton intended to transmit. It is probably not a coincidence that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sought to eviscerate any remaining checks and balances immediately after Clinton visited Cairo and heaped praise upon the Egyptian leader.

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The press attaché at the U.S. embassy writes in response to my post to alert me to an embassy statement disputing Azerbaijani press accounts of U.S. Ambassador Richard Morningstar’s earlier comments. The correction comes 15 days after the story first appeared in the Azeri press. While the Azeri news agency has now removed the original report in English, it is still available in Azeri.

I will certainly take Ambassador Morningstar’s word against that of a regime that is less than democratic, but the episode highlights well another problem with American diplomacy: The tendency of undemocratic regimes to utilize visits by American diplomats and officials to imply endorsement where none is intended. The Azeris believed they could use Morningstar’s visit to the semi-autonomous Nakhchivan region to suggest American support for the decidedly undemocratic regional government. Likewise, when Secretary of State Clinton visited Armenia, she met with only government officials and gave the opposition a cold shoulder; that was a message that both the Armenian government and its opposition heard loud and clear, even if it was not a message Clinton intended to transmit. It is probably not a coincidence that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sought to eviscerate any remaining checks and balances immediately after Clinton visited Cairo and heaped praise upon the Egyptian leader.

If Senator John Kerry really wanted to be secretary of state (or defense), perhaps he should not have referred to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as “my dear friend” on several occasions, a hopefully unintended endorsement that made staffers cringe (as related by one). The problem is bipartisan: Iraqi Kurdish journalists—some of whom have survived assassination attempts and others who have been thrown in prison for their writing—lambaste Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain for the praise they heap upon Masud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdistan region’s increasingly authoritarian leader.

Engagement is not cost-free. Because dictators often twist words, it is even more important for American diplomats first to speak with moral clarity, never issue false praise under the guise of politeness, and always tie meetings with those in power to meetings with those in democratic opposition groups. Alas, careless diplomacy too often sets the American brand back years.

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Ambassador to Azerbaijan Finds Democracy Where None Exists

Azerbaijan is an important American ally for a number of reasons. Unlike Turkey, it remains true to its secular principles. Unlike neighboring Armenia—a country which continues to occupy one-third of Azerbaijan—it remains firmly oriented to the West and does not readily do Russia’s and Iran’s bidding. And unlike Iran to its south, its majority Shi’ite Muslim population realizes that empty religious rhetoric is no panacea.

Azerbaijan does have its flaws, however. Chief among them is its leadership’s reticence to reform and failure to make much if any progress in the Azeri peoples’ demands to move toward democracy. Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan firmly in the “Not Free” camp.  Reporters Without Frontiers ranks Azerbaijani press freedom even below that of Turkey and Russia, a depth which censors and security forces must go out of their way to achieve.

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Azerbaijan is an important American ally for a number of reasons. Unlike Turkey, it remains true to its secular principles. Unlike neighboring Armenia—a country which continues to occupy one-third of Azerbaijan—it remains firmly oriented to the West and does not readily do Russia’s and Iran’s bidding. And unlike Iran to its south, its majority Shi’ite Muslim population realizes that empty religious rhetoric is no panacea.

Azerbaijan does have its flaws, however. Chief among them is its leadership’s reticence to reform and failure to make much if any progress in the Azeri peoples’ demands to move toward democracy. Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan firmly in the “Not Free” camp.  Reporters Without Frontiers ranks Azerbaijani press freedom even below that of Turkey and Russia, a depth which censors and security forces must go out of their way to achieve.

How unfortunate, then, that Richard Morningstar, the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, has according to the Azeri press recently praised the “democracy” which has taken root in Azerbaijan’s autonomous Nakhchivan province. More from the Azeri Report. Morningstar last came to notice last spring when, upon first traveling to Azerbaijan as ambassador, he apparently bowed before the statue of modern Azerbaijan’s less-than-democratic former leader.

It diminishes the achievement of democracies to pretend that democratic systems exist where they clearly don’t, and it undercuts the reputation of the United States among broad swaths of the Azerbaijani electorate when our professional Foreign Service officers offer such empty and demonstrably false platitudes.

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Ambassador Bows Before Dictator’s Statue

Conservatives castigated President Obama for bowing before the Saudi king and to the Japanese emperor. To be fair, President George W. Bush also bowed to the Saudi king; when it comes to Saudi Arabia, sycophancy is too often bipartisan. Nevertheless, it should be covered in Diplomacy 101 that American officials should not bow down before foreign leaders, let alone their statues.

Alas, that message seems not to have been transmitted to Richard Morningstar, the new U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan. Azeri Report has released a photograph of Morningstar, a long-time diplomat, bowing before a statue of Heydar Aliyev, who ruled Azerbaijan from shortly after its independence until his death in 2003.

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Conservatives castigated President Obama for bowing before the Saudi king and to the Japanese emperor. To be fair, President George W. Bush also bowed to the Saudi king; when it comes to Saudi Arabia, sycophancy is too often bipartisan. Nevertheless, it should be covered in Diplomacy 101 that American officials should not bow down before foreign leaders, let alone their statues.

Alas, that message seems not to have been transmitted to Richard Morningstar, the new U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan. Azeri Report has released a photograph of Morningstar, a long-time diplomat, bowing before a statue of Heydar Aliyev, who ruled Azerbaijan from shortly after its independence until his death in 2003.

Azerbaijan is a trusted U.S. ally in a rough neighborhood, but such obsequiousness is never appropriate. Let us hope that any new secretary of state will inculcate U.S. diplomats from a culture that cultivates such behavior.

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