With the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly twenty five years ago, the political and strategic orientation of its former republics changed nearly overnight. As Moscow reorganized itself, and Western capital flooded into Russia leading to the economic and social disaster of the early 1990s, the formerly Soviet Republics quickly began to realign themselves in preparation for the post-Soviet period. It is within this period of realignment that Azerbaijan first began to assert itself, charting a course for an independent foreign policy that had as its main goal the formation of economic and political relations that would lead to increased cooperation with the West.
By the mid 1990s, newly discovered oil reserves in the Caspian Sea vaulted Azerbaijan to the top of the list of potential allies for the US and Europe. Western energy companies saw in Baku a new and exciting opportunity for profit, while Western capitals saw a potential partner in a volatile region, one that could become central to strategic planning both in the context of Russia and Iran. With its complex mix of Shia and Turkic peoples, combined with secularists from the Soviet era, Azerbaijan seemed a prime candidate for incorporation into the US-NATO-Israel sphere of influence. Indeed, that is precisely what happened.
Azerbaijan has become in recent years a geopolitical crossroads. While it has long-standing ties with Washington and Tel Aviv, and a somewhat tumultuous relationship with Russia (and Russian ally Armenia), Azerbaijan should not be seen as entirely in the orbit of the West. Despite having developed close working relationships with Western energy corporations and governments, Baku has attempted to maintain a somewhat independent foreign policy, one that seeks good relations with the West while keeping it at arm’s distance. Baku has showed a willingness to work with Europe and the US while remaining leery of the West’s intentions. Indeed, the growing mistrust between Azerbaijani officials and their Western counterparts marks a decided change from the previous decade when all Western officials were greeted with open arms in Baku.
And so, the questions today are numerous and multi-dimensional. While Azerbaijan is obviously interested in cultivating a multi-vector foreign policy similar to that of other former Soviet Republics, it does so with a skeptical eye trained on the West. Likewise, despite the historical animus toward Russia, Baku is increasingly becoming friendly with Moscow, seeing in it a counterweight to the West and potentially significant market for its own exports and economic development.
In order to truly assess the political and economic calculus of Azerbaijan, one must also be aware of the various organs of western “soft power” which have taken root in the country. Through a vast network of NGOs and other institutions, the West has attempted to assert influence and indirect control over the political course of the country. In so doing, the West has in many ways alienated the government of President Aliyev, and driven it closer to Russia, particularly in light of recent events in Ukraine which have been correctly interpreted as a possible preview of what might come to Azerbaijan should Washington deem it necessary. Such forms of indirect control and influence exerted by the West further complicate an already complex relationship with Azerbaijan today reassessing many of its assumptions about the West, Russia, and its place on the regional and global chessboard.