Azerbaijan’s identity in the South Caucasus: “geopolitical pivot” or “geostrategic actor”?

26 mai 2010
Inessa Baban, Visiting scholar au Centre des études stratégiques auprès du Président de l’Azerbaijan
Located in the South Caucasus, the region that connects Eastern Europe to Central Asia, Azerbaijan is accordingly to Zb.Brzeziznski, former US National Security Adviser under J.Carter administration one of the most significant “geopolitical pivots” of Eurasia. Due to its geography, Azerbaijan has a “sensitive location” that presents itself as a “defensive shield” for the Caspian Sea: it opens or blocks the access to many significant extra-regional actors, oil and gas thirsty. Baku has a pair of keys to the rich energetic Caspian Sea region whose place in the global geopolitics of energy is increasing proportionally to the degree of instability in the Middle East.

Lately the ambitions of Azerbaijan go beyond its “geopolitical pivot” limits, especially after the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline in 2005 considered strategic to the improvement of the Euro Atlantic energy security. Even if this controversial project has been interpreted by its neighbours like Russia and Iran as the result of American strategy, it helped Azerbaijan to straiten its position and encouraged it to assume its role as an actor.

Consequently, Baku started to promote its foreign policy’s interests talking more openly to political actors using the energy language. The time when Baku was low-voiced geopolitically and high-voiced geoeconomically seeking to use the oil companies canal to influence the policies of their mother-countries are in the past. Baku has become more conscious about its role in euro-Atlantic energy security matters and learned from some of its Caspian sea neighbours how to use the energetic potential as a tool of foreign policy speaking directly to the governments whose actions or initiatives could damage its national interests. And this tactic is working as it shows the recent episode in US-Azerbaijan relations that passed through a “snowing period” in spring’s April.

American attempts to conciliate Turkey and Armenia whose bilateral relations have been broken after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict dissatisfied Azerbaijan because there have been contrary to its strategy and objectives. Baku connects the normalization of the Turkish-Armenian relations to the solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue and refuses to split Erevan’s problems with its neighbours on the Armenian-Azerbaijan and Armenian-Turkish two different dimensions. Or, Washington pressed Ankara to ratify the protocol for the normalization of the Armenian-Turkish relations without any reference to the Nagorno-Karabakh unsolved problem.

This initiative was considered “erroneous” by Azerbaijani officials who envisaged the possibility to “re-examine” their policy in relations with the US that could damage to some important US-Azerbaijan energetic transnational projects” (Ali Gasanov, chief of public and political department of the Presidential Administration, Nezavisemaiya Gazeta , April 4, 2010)
It was a soft but suggestive remark whose message has been understood in Washington as well as the Azerbaijani’s refusal from joint military trainings with US previewed for May that have been postponed by the Azerbaijani Defence Ministry.

In these circumstances, on April 29 a group of the US Congress members prepared a letter to the US chair of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee requesting to repeal the Section 907 to Freedom Support Act. This act adopted by the American Congress in 1992 bans any US aid to the Republic of Azerbaijan in response to Azerbaijan’s blockade of Armenia after the Nagorno-Karabakh military conflict.

The need to re-examine this act nowadays has been justified by American congressmen by the role that Azerbaijan could assume as the “US reliable partner” in attempting the priorities of Obama administration concerning the relations with the Muslim world, energy security issues and struggle against the international terrorism (, April 29, 2010).
Actually the US Congress initiative is not new because there are regularly talks regarding this subject but significant is the context of these discussions: the risk of deterioration of the Azerbaijan-American bilateral relations. Even big powers like US understand the role that Azerbaijan has already been playing in the regional context and the possibility to increase it at the Eurasian level because it has a set of natural qualities like its geography and energetic resources that recommend it as a “geostrategic player”. Coincidentally or not, the same day, on April 29 the US Charge d’Affaires in Azerbaijan Donald Lu affirmed in Baku that “We hope that these trainings will be held in future again” referring to the postponed US-Azerbaijan military exercises.

Yet, Azerbaijan is not a “geostrategic player” because all its initiatives in energetic and strategic fields have been used in internal geopolitical reasons concerning the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Azerbaijan is not seeking to “exercise power or influence beyond its borders in order to alter the existing geopolitical state of affairs” and it’s not seeking “for whatever reason – the quest for national grandeur, ideological fulfilment, religious messianism, or economic aggrandizement to attain regional domination or global standing” (see Zb. Brzezinski’s ‘’geostrategic player” definition in « The grand chessboard. American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives », 1997).

Baku uses petroleum politics and pipelines diplomacy in a pragmatic manner and creates strategic axis not like an Offender as an active “geopolitical player” should be, but as a Defender of its territorial integrity hoping in the regain of Nagorno-Karabakh territories considered “occupied” by Armenia.

Nagorno-Karabakh unsolved question is the “Achilles tendon” of Azerbaijan that impedes him to become an active “geostrategic player”. Anatomically the “Achilles tendon” is known as the strongest and largest tendon that connects muscles in the lower leg with the heel bone and there is obvious that no sportsman could practice any sport with a tendon rupture.

So, as long as Azerbaijan doesn’t fix his tendon, it will remain in the volatile situation between “geopolitical pivot” and “geostrategic actor”. This situation favors its neighboring “geostrategic players” like Iran and Russia, but it’s susceptible to affect long term interests of some extra-regional actors like EU that is seeking to have a zone of stability at its borders and to consolidate its energy security.