Foreign Policy Blogs

Caucasus year in review, part 1

This just in: Matt Bryza was confirmed today (December 29) as the new US ambassador to Azerbaijan. About time. This was a “recess appointment” by the White House, necessitated by a “hold” placed on Bryza by California Senator Barbara Boxer and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, both Democrats responding to strenuous criticism of Bryza from the Armenian lobby – criticism that in my view is misplaced.

This development may smooth the waters between the US and Azerbaijan, a relationship that has been battered this year due to a number of factors, most recently the Wikileaks cables. For the most part, the Wikileaks documents reveal a savvy, level-headed understanding of Azerbaijan’s Byzantine power relationships, although the recent disclosure of a cable describing Azerbaijan’s first lady in unflattering terms can’t have helped matters.

Now on to the major Caucasus developments during 2010. Actually, let’s talk for a moment about what was most disappointing and work from there.

Nagorno-Karabakh: Armenian President Sargsyan’s apparent offer in March to trade the seven districts abutting Nagorno-Karabakh went nowhere amid allegations from the Azerbaijani side that Armenia was foot-dragging. What followed were the usual threats from President Aliyev and reminders that it was continuing its defense spending spree. An unusually aggressive attack on Armenian lines in June was an unsubtle message that the Azerbaijani side was losing patience.

But was it? I keep putting the question to Azeri analysts, and the response I often get is, “The two sides are content with the status quo.” But what about the threats? The spike in the defense budget? “That’s just money that goes to the oligarchs. They skim it off the top. Azerbaijan won’t start a war,” they say, because it is precisely the oligarchs who comprise the highest echelons of the Azerbaijani government who have the most to lose.

Sounds rational, but I’m not so sure that this view represents reality.

The OSCE Astana summit in December failed utterly to achieve any progress on Karabakh, so as usual, we are back to the Minsk Group’s Basic Principles, blah blah blah….

The two sides really are very close to an agreement. I don’t believe that the final status of Karabakh is the chief impediment, mainly because President Aliyev last year implied that he could live without Karabakh being re-integrated into Azerbaijan. What he really wants is the seven districts surrounding it.

President Aliyev complained to Undersecretary Burns that a proposal by Armenian President Sargsyan at the Sochi talks (in January) to specify a date for a referendum to determine Karabakh’s final status was undermining the peace process. Once again, President Aliyev apparently was ready to agree to Karabakh’s autonomy outside of Baku’s control, a remarkable concession.

Interestingly, when (premature) news of a breakthrough was leaked earlier this year, the chatter on Azeri web forums was not focused on not getting NK back. Rather, Azeris were upset that apparently Armenia needed more time to hand over Lachin and Kelbajar – two strategically important provinces adjacent to Armenia.

President Sargsyan’s decision to boycott NATO’s November summit in Lisbon was curious and probably counter-productive, given that the reason he stayed in Yerevan was nothing new. Language in the summit declaration stressing territorial integrity as the guiding principle for reaching a settlement was more or less in line with long-standing US declarations, for example.

The real issue for Armenia are the specifics of the “Madrid Principles,” which are based on the OSCE Minsk Group’s Basic Principles and define them in greater detail, but apparently in a way that some interest groups in Armenia (and Karabakh) fear will lead to “capitulation” or worse.  In July, former President Levon Ter-Petrossian’s Armenian National Congress charged that the Madrid Principles, if enacted, are tantamount to “treason.”  Ter-Petrossian’s spokesman told me at the time that he was unavailable for comment.

Azerbaijan: The release of Donkey Bloggers Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli was great news, although one of the Wikileaks cables reveals that President Aliyev implied to US Undersecretary of State Burns that he would release the two men, and then took nine months to actually do it. Journalist Eynullah Fatuallyev continues to rot in prison and won’t be released anytime soon. The more digging I do, the more I realize that Fatullayev’s prison sentence is due to many things, possibly including a power struggle within the upper reaches of the Aliyev cabinet.

The Wikileaks revelation that most surprised me was the apparent enmity that President Aliyev feels for Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, at least if the president was being honest with Burns. We should remember that in a seemingly candid chat between a president and a foreign ministry official, President Smith may tell Undersecretary Jones what he thinks Jones wants to hear. So when President Aliyev tells Burns that Erdogan’s foreign policy toward Israel is naïve, let’s just inject a little skepticism.

And what of reconciliation and the view from Baku? Well, I’ve written on this previously and don’t want to dwell on the topic, but go here for a very thoughtful piece by Murad Gassanly. I don’t always agree with Murad, but his analysis is a much-needed antidote to the view that the deterioration in US-Azerbaijani relations was primarily due to a confused US Caucasus policy.

More to come (on Armenia and Georgia) in the next day or two…



Karl Rahder

Karl Rahder has written on the South Caucasus for ISN Security Watch and ISN Insights (, news and global affairs sites run by the Swiss government. Karl splits his time between the US and the former USSR - mostly the Caucasus and Ukraine, sometimes teaching international relations at universities (in Chicago, Baku, Tbilisi) or working on stories for ISN and other publications. Karl received his MA from the University of Chicago, and first came to the Caucasus in 2004 while on a CEP Visiting Faculty Fellowship. He's reported from the Caucasus on topics such as attempted coups, sedition trials, freedom of the press, and the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For many years, Karl has also served as an on-call election observer for the OSCE, and in 2010, he worked as a long-term observer in Afghanistan for Democracy International.