To begin, Europe does not have a strategic global vision, and it would be wrong to view the whole new oriental partnership as an attempt to diminish Russian influence. Two factors support this point of view:
- Firstly, the EU is not yet a powerful political/military force and prefers to cooperate with Russia in the handling of crises;
- Secondly, the economic ties between Russia and its immediate neighbors are sufficiently strong, and the latter doesn’t want to risk such a market, which absorbs their industrial and agricultural products as well as millions of migrant workers, for a project whose future is still uncertain.
Although certain elements of the partnership remain promising, it is a long way off from making a useful contribution to the emergence of an economic pole in geopolitical pluralism within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). It is more likely destined to promote relations between the EU and its partners and reinforce their integration in different means of cooperation but at the same level of interaction as with Russia. It is more a matter of complementarity of cooperation than of competition and more about reinforced integration than membership. It is for this reason that the affected States of the ex-USSR adopt a more reasonable approach even if Ukraine still hopes for full membership pure and simple. The greatest weakness of this partnership is in fact the lack of means for its goals and above all, its incentives in terms of membership.
Also, the new international context, which is linked to the multilateral approach and to the more pragmatic international policy of the new Obama Administration, tends to put Russia at ease. The new president is fixed on two priorities – Iran and Afghanistan – and is looking, in contrast to his predecessor, to avoid unnecessary provocations by notably abandoning the pursuit of the new version of the containment policy. This policy is aimed at reducing Russian sway by promoting “revolutions of colors”in the ex-Soviet sphere of influence, which were considered to be “natural steps” in the strategic vision of the Kremlin. This approach seems to suit Moscow, as it would be more advantageous for it to adopt a cooperative approach under the condition that it maintains its dominant position in its old guarded domain. Behind this point of view, one can find a point of equilibrium in the relations between Russia and the United States. For example Washington renounced its unilateral initiative of antimissile shields in favor of a common project with Moscow, in which they engage in problematic affairs, such as those found in Iran and Afghanistan. This could allow for a reconfiguration of the power struggle, and it would assure Russia that it remains the major force in that region, allowing everyone a piece of the pie. Indeed, the help that Russia could bring the Iranian question would be enormous and fundamental for regional and international security. Iran seeks to become a regional power, putting itself in competition with NATO member and EU candidate Turkey, in order to, among other things, contain the influence of the UnitedState. The first trip of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after his reelection took him as invitee to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Yekaterinburg in the Ural. This organization was created in 1996 by Russia and China to be an alternative to NATO and in response to US influence in central Asia. Four central Asian countries are members, all the former Soviet republics: Kazakhstan, Kirghistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Iran holds an observer status. It is important to note, that in October 2007, the Caspian Summit in Teheran, held during the peak of the nuclear crisis, has been a success for Iran as well as for Russia.
This agreeable arrangement with Russia could also contribute to the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Indeed, one goal of the Obama Administration is to improve the American image in the Muslim world. In this context, Turkey is an ally not to be ignored in connecting American interests of becoming a regional player in the Middle East and also in the South Caucasus. Hence the American incentives to normalize relations between Turkey and Armenia, that have been broken off in 1993 following the occupation of 20% of the territory of Azerbaijan by Armenian military forces. But this issue pre-requires diplomatic progress in finding a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which demands a more active role of the United States and Russia. However, the Russian motivations are different: first, by excluding such a possibility for the resolution of the Ossetian and Abkhazian conflict, Moscow continues its efforts to bring the Saakhashvili regime to its knees, again to ensure direct access to Armenia, its stronghold in the South Caucasus; then in the setting of a potential rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia, the Kremlin thinks about balancing its relations with Azerbaijan, while encouraging them to sell the bulk of its natural gas to the Russian gas giant "Gazprom", which aims to challenge the European gas pipeline "Nabucco".
Contrary to what one might think, Azerbaijan has not attempted to use its energy weapon as a means of diplomatic pressure in the process of normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. But it suggested to lead the two negotiations in a single process and to push the progress in resolving the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh towards the rapprochement between the two countries. The historical and cultural ties that bind the Turkish people to those of Azerbaijan and the popular reaction that Ankara's policy has sparked in both countries, has made the Turkish government aware that without eliminating the causes that led to the closing of the borders, no action can be taken to remedy the effects. This position has relieved Baku and “dispelled all suspicions" as declared by the President Ilham Aliyev, following the visit of the Turkish Prime Minister on May 13, 2009. Azerbaijan considers its demand legitimate due to the fact that 20% of its territories are still under Armenian occupation. It has called on Turkey and the international community as a whole to adopt a common position and to stand firm in this situation, rather than to consolidate the Armenian position at the round table negotiations demanding open borders between Turkey and Armenia.
Azerbaijan has yet to give in to Russian requests to purchase all of its gas as they are looking to ensure the security of their resource routes by diversifying the pipelines in multiple directions. This is the reason for which, in the past, they postponed the exploitation of the second phase of the Shah Deniz well, expected to produce over 16 billion cubic meters of natural gas per annum. Under the circumstances, Azerbaijan, which already exports gas to Turkey and Greece, was favorable towards the “Nabucco” pipeline project to transport the majority of its gas, although they can no longer infinitely await the Europeans. Furthermore, with its increased gas production, it is in need of markets and competitive prices which only Russia is taking the initiative to offer. During President Medvedev’s visit to Baku on the 29th of June 2009, Gazprom proceeded to sign an agreement of purchase with the Azerbaijanis state petrol company (SOCAR) concerning 500 million cubic meters of gas as of the 1st of January 2010. For Baku, this contract is based on commercial considerations with prices as high as 350 dollars per 1000 cubic meters of gas. For the moment though, the volume in question is too insignificant to be a fatal blow by depriving “Nabucco” of a reliable and vital source. In any case, the danger is not far off if the Europeans do not soon decide the fate of their projects and do not rapidly offer purchasing contracts to Azerbaijan. Wasting time could, in effect, put an end to this project. Even more so as the key actor in the region, which is Azerbaijan, constitutes a strategic transit zone for Central Asia which is among the top suppliers of “Nabucco”. Azerbaijan’s eventual change of course could incite the Central Asian countries, such as Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, to turn to Asia instead. Let us be reminded that after the recent explosion on the pipeline between Turkmenistan and Russia, Turkmenistan has been made more aware than even of the vulnerability of their dependence on their large neighbor to the north. It is no coincidence that Turkmenistan’s authorities have recently proposed new opportunities to western companies in the exploitation of hydro-carbons. In this colossal game, the realization of “Nabucco” does not depend on Russian opposition with their competing projects such as “South Stream”, but largely on the engagement of European partners. In this relationship, the European Union has two strategic imperatives, the first being an improved level of cooperation with Russia, which is part of Eastern Europe, and the second being the continuation of the adhesion process for Turkey. It is in the strategic, balanced position that the right path can be found to its policies and the defense of its energy interests.
President of the Atlantic-Ural College
Lecturer of the European Commission
(TEAM EUROPE France)
This text is also available at: http://blog.multipol.org/post/2009/08/01/ANALYSE-%3A-The-Oriental-Partnership-the-Geopolitical-Stakes-and-Azerbaijan