Interview with Dr. Elkhan Nuriyev Director of Centre for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan

Husrev Tabak and Ozgur Tufekci*


In this exclusive interview with CESRAN’s Hüsrev Tabak and Özgür Tüfekçi, Dr. Elkhan Nuriyev, Director of Centre for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, discusses Azerbaijan’s role in Caucasus and the contemporary international system, and the relationships with Turkey, the US, and regional states.

CESRAN: In the Post-Soviet era, the newly established Turkic states were heavily dependent on Russia, and, had Azerbaijan chosen to heavily ally with Russia, a similar position could have occurred. Bearing this in mind, how does Azerbaijan conceive itself regarding its identity? In the name of saving its independence and stability, does it bear the responsibility to cooperate with the aforementioned Turkic states in Central Asia?

Dr. Nuriyev: Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkic peoples (with the exception of the Azerbaijanis) were never organized into nation-states in the classical sense. Azerbaijan has always been the most successful Turkic state in consolidating its independence. Apart from resisting the idea of deploying Russian military bases into the country, the nationwide leader of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev succeeded in extracting oil from the Caspian shelf, which enhanced the country’s economic power base. In actual fact, the BTC and BTE pipelines, mainly built to relieve the Western world’s oil and gas dependency on the Middle East, emphasized Azerbaijan’s geopolitical importance for the European market.

Regarding its allied relations with Russia as well as Azerbaijan’s role in strengthening Central Asian stability, Moscow and Baku seek to expand their strategic partnership in the regional geopolitical context. In recent years both states have concluded a number of bilateral agreements and reached substantial progress in fostering their good neighborhood relations. The present-day interaction between two countries shows that Azerbaijan and Russia have chosen a pragmatic cooperative policy towards the Caucasus-Caspian basin. Azerbaijan has always been able to play a more independent role because of Caspian energy riches and a very experienced political leadership. Even if the threats grow from regional or big powers, Azerbaijan could easily balance it using its oil and gas leverages, its Turkish alliance, and its links with the Muslim world. Accordingly, there are public organizations that are working in the sphere of Turkic integration, and Azerbaijan strongly supports them. The Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic-speaking Countries is one of the tools to improve Azerbaijan’s relations with Central Asian Turkic-speaking countries. In general, Azerbaijani leadership pursues a multidimensional, balanced interest-based policy in foreign relations with regional and non-regional actors, and due to such a balanced diplomatic stance, Azerbaijan has been able to guarantee national security and good economic prospects.

CESRAN: Azerbaijan has already voiced its intention to support the European energy security and to supply the Nabucco pipeline with its local gas production. To what extend will Azerbaijan be a supplier, and/or is Azerbaijan planning just to serve as a transit state in feeding Turkmen gas into Nabucco pipeline?

Dr. Nuriyev: Azerbaijan plays a significant role in the planned Nabucco pipeline, which is very important for European energy security. So far, it has been the only Caspian producer fully committed to filling the pipeline at the first stage of the project. Hence, Azerbaijan’s current and projected volumes of gas will be sufficient to justify the construction of this pipeline for the first few years of its operation.

Azerbaijan’s philosophy on energy strategy is simple: energy issues should unite countries on the basis of an integrated policy, strong partnership, and mutually beneficial cooperation.

Concerning Turkmenistan’s participation to fill Nabucco, its engagement is needed in the short and medium-term despite several doubts that have arisen concerning its resource availability and transit corridors. The main obstacle to Turkmenistan’s participation in Nabucco has to do with the political unreliability of the Iranian corridor, which is unanimously considered to be the most rational way to deliver Turkmen gas westwards. Nevertheless, the improvement of Azerbaijani-Turkmen relations, as well as the present-day partnership between Turkmenistan and Russia, leaves a room for the EU and the western energy companies to maneuver. One can therefore consider Turkmenistan’s subsequent involvement in the Nabucco project weak, but still on the agenda.

“Azerbaijani leadership pursues a multidimen- sional, balanced interest-based policy in foreign relations with regional and non-regional actors, and due to such a balanced diplomatic stance, Azerbaijan has been able to guarantee national security and good economic prospects.”

CESRAN: How should Russia’s intention to deliver S-300 air defence systems to Azerbaijan be viewed? Should it be conceptualized as the Kremlin’s new balanced policy in the South Caucasus, or as a “pay-off gesture” to the recently agreed Azerbaijani-Russian gas sales deal?

Dr. Nuriyev: The issue of modernizing Azerbaijan’s army has always been the focus of attention for the reason that Azerbaijani territories are still under occupation. Despite the recent reformation of the country’s armed forces, Azerbaijan’s army continues to build up modern air-defense systems and to purchase various types of new armament. Azerbaijan uses its potential to grow in strength. This consolidation is observed in the military sphere as well. Azerbaijan lives in conditions of war. This is natural that a greater part of our state expenditure goes on defense. This is our sovereign right to liberate our lands. The territorial integrity of Azerbaijan has never been a subject of discussion. This point should be very clear to all parties.

Obviously, there will be no need for large defense costs after the Armenian- Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is resolved. But today there is a great need for it. Azerbaijan has therefore been actively cooperating with a number of partner countries in the military sphere. The “politicization” of this issue and the attempt to orchestrate a Russian gas-sale deal are out of the issue.

CESRAN: What are the expectations of Azerbaijani public from the EU? In your view, what kind of role should the EU play in the South Caucasus?

Dr. Nuriyev: Quite obviously, the EU acts tactically, not strategically, in the South Caucasus. Despite the fact that EU member states such as the UK, France, Germany, and Italy are engaged in South Caucasus at a high level, none of them is able independently to exert substantial influence in the region. The fact that key member states pursue their own national foreign policies towards the three Caucasian countries affects the coherence of the EU’s external actions. If these European countries were to act in concert, the EU could become a major player in the South Caucasus–even the most influential one in the middle to long term. But the incapability and reluctance of the European powers to shape a common and articulated policy towards the South Caucasus has prevented them from fulfilling their potential.

Certainly, the EU should take active steps to play an effective role in the conflict resolution process in the South Caucasus. The lack of progress in finding an enduring solution to the protracted territorial conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is a worrying and destabilizing factor that continues to impact European security and demands more extensive efforts by the European security organizations. In this context, Azerbaijan is keen to see a larger EU role in resolving the conflict. Clearly, the EU offers a unique combination of economic power and possibilities for solid political dialogue, adding value to conventional multilateral diplomacy under the OSCE’s aegis.

On the other hand, energy security is gaining prominence on the EU agenda and is likely to guide the EU’s relations with Azerbaijan in the coming years. In spite of the geo-economic importance of the South Caucasus, significant numbers of European statesmen and policymakers continue to underestimate the dangers stemming from regional conflicts in the South Caucasus. As such, the EU’s leverage is limited by the fact that it shares no common political view regarding regional security problems. If “sustainable peace, stability, and prosperity” are the EU’s strategic goals in the region, conflict management, and resolution strategies need to inform the formulation and implementation of any EU policy vis-à-vis the region, and all policies need to be assessed in their impact on the territorial conflicts in the South Caucasus.

“Despite the fact that EU member states such as the UK, France, Germany and Italy are engaged in South Caucasus at a high level, none of them is able independently to exert substantial influence in the region.”

CESRAN: Why has the Azerbaijani government not voiced any intention to be a full-fledged member of the European Union? Why is the government satisfied with only mere “Integration to the Euro-Atlantic institutions” rhetoric? Is there any clear intention to change this? If no, then why?

Dr. Nuriyev: Integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions is Azerbaijan’s one of the main foreign policy goals. Proceeding from the recognition of necessity to deepen its integration into the European Community, Azerbaijan has established a multi-faceted relationship with the European Union. Currently, Azerbaijan and the EU are working on an Association Agreement, which will lay a new legal foundation for EU relations with Azerbaijan. The main objective of the Association Agreements is to achieve a closer political association and a gradual eco- nomic integration between the EU and Azerbaijan. The EU association agreement, when completed, can have very significant implications in a number of crucial fields for the Azerbaijani population. In general, Azerbaijan is giving priority to a phased approach towards the integration into the EU, although Baku is not looking for EU membership in the near future. After fulfilling Eastern Partner- ship’s obligations, Azerbaijan will gain benefits that could open up membership in medium term.

CESRAN: How do you assess Turkey’s EU bid with regard to its effect on Turkish-Azeri relations? Do you think that any prospective deal between Turkey and the EU will bring a different perspective to Turkish-Azeri relations?

Dr. Nuriyev: Turkey was officially recognized as an EU candidate in December 1999, and in December 2002 the European Council announced that if Turkey met its political ‘Copenhagen’ criteria by the end of 2004, it would open negotiations without delay. Turkey’s strategic relations with Azerbaijan will boost its political benefits to join the European Community. Azerbaijan’s membership to the Council of Europe has been strongly supported by Turkey.

Turkey’s possible candidacy to the EU would benefit Azerbaijan both politically and economically. Access to the European Community is strongly supported by Turkey and Azerbaijan, who understand the gains it could derive, and the large strategic potential it would bring. Such situation would especially benefit Turkey’s increasing role as an energy hub and Azerbaijan’s role in guaranteeing EU energy security. This also gives a chance for both countries to improve their partnership relations with the EU. Ultimately, Azerbaijan awaits only positive effects from Turkey’s possible EU membership.

“Turkey’s strategic rela- tions with Azerbaijan will boost its political benefits to join the European Community.”

CESRAN: Is it fair to say that Azerbaijan is one of the closest and reliable allies of Turkey? For example, on some crucial issues such as recognition of Northern Cyprus and Kosovo, Turkey and Azerbaijan diverge. What is the main rational behind this difference?

Dr. Nuriyev: The military and political as well as economic and cultural alliance between Azerbaijan and Turkey has been outlined since the beginning of the fall of the Soviet Union. The strategic relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan are based on strong traditions and mutual interests. Over the last 20 years, Turkey has been Azerbaijan’s gateway to the West, and Azerbaijan has played the same role in Turkish relations with Central Asia. Notwithstanding certain pressure and foreign influence, Azerbaijan has insisted on building its major oil and gas pipelines through Turkey towards the West. Standing by Azerbaijan during difficult times, Turkey has earned the esteem and sympathy of the Azerbaijani people. Turkey and Azerbaijan share sound friendly ties, and the Turkey-Azerbaijan High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council, which was established on September 16th, 2010, would boost the closer bilateral relations. As such, Turkey and Azerbaijan bear the moral responsibility to defend each other’s interests.

From a realpolitik viewpoint, the different shift of both countries’ foreign policy priorities is understandable. Azerbaijan’s position on Kosovo is clear: Serbia’s territorial integrity cannot be under doubt. Over the years Azerbaijan supported a unified Cyprus and the normalization of two sides of Cyprus conflict. In future, these tensions will not deadlock two countries’ relations. On the contrary, it could even open new prospects and opportunities to work together.

CESRAN: How do you assess Iran’s nuclear policy? Do you see any prospective threat for Azerbaijan? As for this policy, what kind of strategies should be mapped out by Azerbaijan?

Dr. Nuriyev: Azerbaijani perspectives on Iran have been shaped by different factors: Azerbaijan and Iran are neighboring countries; Azerbaijan is concerned about Iranian activities on its southern border; Azerbaijan examines Iran’s policy so as to understand a level of threat from regional geopolitical standpoint, thereby averting possible U.S. military action. Azerbaijan would be unwilling to be on the front line of any containment effort against Iran. According to Azerbaijani Military Doctrine, which was adopted on June 8th, 2010, Azerbaijan supports any country’s enrichment of nuclear capacity by peaceful means. Azerbaijan closely watches developments currently underway in Iran. Azerbaijani authorities hope for a peaceful resolution of the problem. Iran is not Iraq or Afghanistan. The Islamic Republic is a significant and powerful geopolitical actor in the South Caucasus particularly and in the Greater Middle East in general. What happens in Iran has a direct impact on developments in the Caspian basin and the Middle East. For the future, the West – particularly the EU and NATO – could make Iran an offer: for instance, to provide assistance in tackling the country’s energy and economic problems, and to honor its security concerns. More importantly, proactive and pragmatic diplomacy should be given a chance in order to resolve the problem through sincere engagement and direct negotiations.

“Serbia’s territorial integrity cannot be under doubt. Over the years Azerbaijan supported a unified Cyprus and the normalization of two sides of Cyprus conflict.”

CESRAN: With regard to the status of Karabakh, what is Azerbaijan’s road map? Specifically, what is the position of Azerbaijan towards the Nagorno- Karabakh negotiations?

Dr. Nuriyev: Azerbaijan’s conflict settlement position has remained unchanged from the first days of the peace talks. We see no other way but withdrawal of the Armenian armed forces from all the occupied territories of Azerbaijan, restoration of the sovereign rights of Azerbaijan in these territories, return of the forcibly displaced population to their places of origin, establishment of conditions for restoring the communications and socio-economic growth of the Nagorno- Karabakh region of Azerbaijan in the framework of the overall economic development of the country. Obviously, the legal and political constituent for the settlement of the conflict is based upon the norms and principles of international law, laid down in the United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884 as well as the appropriate documents and decisions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Azerbaijan does not want a war, and it remains committed to a peaceful resolution. Yet if forced by deliberate actions aimed at the further consolidation of the current status quo of occupation, Azerbaijan will be ready to resort to any other available measures to legitimately restore its territorial integrity. Territorial acquisitions and the practice of ethnic cleansing are incompatible with universal and European values and contradict the principles and ideas of peace, democracy, stability, and regional cooperation.

A good-case scenario creates good opportunities for continuation and completion of the first stage of negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan, Armenia and OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs in order to start working at a new comprehensive peace agreement. However, the success of the peace process depends on a similar commitment and constructive approach on the part of Armenia, as well as on the active contribution of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group. International organizations and principal powers should provide a clear signal to those destructive forces who try to attempt to lead the peace process into a deadlock and accept the occupation of Azerbaijani lands as a fait accompli.

CESRAN: What makes Azerbaijan important to the USA? What factors affect the Azerbaijan-US relations? What should be done to sustain the strategic partnership between Azerbaijan and the USA?

Dr. Nuriyev: Azerbaijan and the U.S. share a number of strategic interests, including energy, terrorism, and peace, stability, and security in the South Caucasus-Caspian basin where the security dynamics are rapidly changing. In recent years the U.S. has ignored these developments to its own detriment. By contributing troops to missions in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Azerbaijan is also seen as a major player in the region, thus helping to curb terrorism and extremism. In addition, Azerbaijan’s strong economic growth makes the country a burgeoning force in the South Caucasus-Caspian basin.

“Azerbaijan does not want a war, and it remains committed to a peaceful resolution. Yet if forced by deliberate actions aimed at the further consolidation of the current status quo of occupation, Azerbaijan will be ready to resort to any other available measures to legitimately restore its territorial integrity.”

Nevertheless, the U.S. lacks any coherent vision on where and how Azerbaijan fits into a broader American strategy. If the U.S. really wants to have an effective and strategically visionary policy in the region, Washington needs to take a different tack. The U.S. needs a strong ally in Azerbaijan, not least because of Azerbaijan’s unique independence in the region. Continuing to constructively engage with Azerbaijan and to work together successfully on the shared interests requires that the U.S. craft a more coherent policy towards Azerbaijan.

To achieve this task, the U.S. needs to offer greater support on the issues that are of crucial importance to Azerbaijan. The most important thing the U.S. can do now is to demonstrate that Washington has a principled approach to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and give a big push for progress. America’s strong partnership with Azerbaijan answers to the consolidation of the U.S. strategic presence in the Caucasus-Caspian Sea region.

CESRAN: Thank you very much for your time and the interview.

Note:

* Hüsrev Tabak is Postgraduate student in School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London.
* Özgür Tüfekçi is Doctoral Researcher in Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

Dr. Elkhan Nuriyev assumed the directorship of the Center for Strategic Studies under the President of Azerbaijan according to the Decree of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan dated February 8, 2008, after a career in government and policy studies. From 1992 to 1994 he held diplomatic positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan. In 1996-97, Dr. Nuriyev served as a J. William Fulbright Research Fellow at The George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC. He was a Senior Research Associate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (California, 1998-99), a Research Fellow at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Washington, DC, 1999), Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow at the Peace Research Institute (Bonn, 2000-2003), a Visiting Research Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Berlin, 2005-2006). From 2001 to 2004 Dr. Nuriyev served as a Co-chairman of the Southern Cauca- sus Regional Stability Study Group of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) Consortium at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch, Ger- many. In addition, Dr. Nuriyev is currently Professor of Political Science at Western University in Azerbaijan. He is also the author of numerous publications on the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the wider Black Sea-Caspian basin, including most recent books and monographs such as The South Caucasus at the Crossroads (LIT, Berlin, 2007), Azerbaijan and the European Union: New Landmarks of Strategic Partnership (Routledge, Francis & Taylor, London, UK, 2008), ‘Conflicts, Caspian Oil and NATO: Major Pieces of the Caucasus Puzzle,’ in Crossroads and Conflict: Security and Foreign Policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia, (ed. G. Bertsch, Routledge, London, 2000). His professional expertise lies in the fields of regional security in the South Caucasus, as well as the issues of pipeline politics and foreign policy strategies in the wider Black Sea-Caspian basin. Married with two sons, he is fluent in English, German, and Russian.

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