What happens when a stalwart American ally “postpones” the visit of a high-level US delegation for no reason?
For Azerbaijan, apparently nothing.
This September, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia and others were expected to arrive in the capital of Baku to “observe preparations” for the October 9 presidential election, but the Azerbaijani government postponed.
These elections are paramount because Azerbaijan’s opposition parties have only symbolic representation in parliament — the two-term limit on the presidency was abolished in March 2009 by popular referendum.
“[Postponement] suggests that the Azerbaijani government doesn’t place a high value on the democracy-building concerns the US government has in the run-up to the election,” said Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch.
Meanwhile, current president Ilham Aliev is expected to win a third term in October despite opposition candidate Camil Hasanli’s intense campaign.
The Western world is hoping the country’s repressive political environment will not trump increasing bilateral cooperation.
USAID announced it will fund part of an $18-million program to boost competition and trade in Azerbaijan over a period of three years. This is one of many signs Azerbaijan is strategically important enough to the US to merit such an oversight. The US “gave up on these [October 9] elections a long time ago,” according to expert Michael Tkacik from Austin State University.
It is not difficult to see why. Human Rights Watch reports “the number of arrests, the adoption of harsher laws, and extensive government efforts to stop and prevent peaceful public protests indicate a new concerted effort to curtail political and civic activism in the country.” Melia and the State Department have urged Azerbaijan to improve its record, but their words have fallen on deaf ears.
Both parties know Baku is indispensable as both a partner in the global war on terror and in balancing Iran, but it is Azerbaijan’s emergence as an energy powerhouse in the resource-rich Caspian that has piqued Washington’s interest.
Azerbaijani natural gas and crude oil exports can significantly decrease Europe’s reliance on Russian hydrocarbons, which would be beneficial to the US. Azerbaijan is “fully committed to energy trade with the West,” the report says, with the alternative being “westward trade … with Russia, which is not an attractive prospect.”
“This strategic US initiative would advance US interests by alleviating Russian gas-fueled pressure against NATO allies, bolstering bilateral relations in the Caspian Sea region, and further isolating Iran,” wrote now-retired Sen. Dick Lugar about the “Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) for NATO Act,” a bill he introduced in December.
Additionally, the Shah Deniz oil field consortium’s recent selection of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) proposal was an important step in advancing US interests, allowing transport of natural gas from Greece to Western European markets, bypassing Russia. Another initiative, the Southern Gas Corridor, will “encourage Turkmenistan and other Caspian basin gas producers to resist Russian pressure to use its planned South Stream system instead.”
These developments are sure to bother Russia’s government-owned Gazprom, which “covers a quarter of Europe’s gas needs,” according to Reuters. “Moscow has expended a lot of energy in an attempt to bring Azerbaijan within its sphere of influence, but the politicians in Baku haven’t been swayed,” reported the Wall Street Journal.
Given Azerbaijan’s bright future as an energy supplier to Europe, it’s no wonder Washington is turning a blind eye to its non-democratic character. When it comes to reducing Russian influence, the US views Azerbaijan’s desire for partnership too good to spoil in the name of human rights.