The Eastern Partnership: the view from Azerbaijan

Commentary



Food-for-thought paper: Azerbaijan

The outcome of six years of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) for Azerbaijan is clearly controversial. Azerbaijan proved its importance for EU energy security and its role in the Southern Gas Corridor by signing contracts on the production and transport of gas to European markets for decades to come. The Trans-Anatolian and Trans Adriatic gas pipelines which replaced the EU’s Nabucco project will give the EU alternative gas supplies from Azerbaijan and will contribute to future transregional gas projects. This was hailed by both sides as a success in bilateral relations. Another success story is mobility. In 2013–2014, Baku signed visa facilitation and readmission agreements, a Mobility Partnership, and increased cooperation with Frontex. In sharp contrast with the success in energy cooperation, 2014 was also the year that Azerbaijan’s civil society experienced a huge crackdown which paralysed major human rights NGOs and media outlets. According to independent sources, the number of political prisoners has risen to 100. Azerbaijan has not signed either the Association Agreement (AA) or the Deep and Comprehensive Trade Area (DCFTA), as it still is in the process of WTO negotiations (a prerequisite for the DCFTA).

By the EaP Vilnius Summit in 2013, Azerbaijan’s European integration aspirations were visibly reduced and Baku expressed an interest in replacing the AA with the Strategic Modernisation Partnership Agreement. The country’s interests changed from European aspirations (inserted in the text of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) Action Plan under public pressure) and a wide agenda of integration into the ENP action plan of 2006 into an interest in cooperating in sectors such as economic development, energy, communications, and migration. With a paralysed civil society, these priorities are limited by the interests of the ruling elite which invests heavily in PR and charitable activities in Europe (eg hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in 2013 and the European Games in 2015). Society’s capacity to influence decision-making was significantly reduced during this period.

The controversial and uneven results of the EaP in Azerbaijan and Baku’s limited aspirations are driven by several factors:

1.      Geopolitical

The EU plays an insignificant role in regional security issues. This is particularly true of the “frozen” conflicts which continue to be a major challenge to stability and security for countries which have chosen a pro-European foreign policy and thus face Russian pressure exercised predominantly through these conflicts. The lack of progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations also affects the EU’s image in the region as it plays a supporting role in the Minsk process. The position of the EU in the Karabakh issue – which is a national priority both for the government and for society – is unbalanced. There has never been the same level of support for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan as there has been for that of Georgia or Ukraine. This decreases the attractiveness of the EaP for all actors. In addition, as the Russia–Ukraine war has shown, the EU cannot serve as a counterbalance to Russian aggressive behaviour in its neighbourhood; this has left the countries concerned to find their own ways of protecting their security.

2.     Domestic

Azerbaijan is the only EaP country which is rich in energy resources and fits the classic description of the political economy of oil-rich states. This contributed to “resource nationalism” or “resource curse” and the resulting lack of integrationist drive and democratic deficit. The legacy of Soviet bureaucracy and certain structural factors created specific obstacles to democracy and reform. These calculations were not included either in the strategies of local actors or in EU strategies and instruments for Azerbaijan. European integration requires reforms which put the elite’s monopoly on oil resources and political power at risk. On the other hand, the elite also lacks incentives as it is already “integrated” into the EU with its assets, business, and property. Non-integration also allows state actors to balance the interests of regional and extra-regional players, using full control over its energy resources both for commercial and political purposes. 

3.     EaP design

The EU’s alternative agenda – its energy interests – led to lowered expectations on its part as regards Azerbaijan’s performance in reforms. The principle of conditionality was not applied in spite of the obvious and consistent worsening human rights record. The fact of there being around 80 political prisoners did not stop the EU from pursuing relations with Azerbaijan. Moreover, negotiations on a new mode of relations more beneficial for Azerbaijan were taking place against an ongoing, unprecedented crackdown on civil society. On the other hand, the weakness of another EaP instrument – the “more for more” principle – was obvious for a country whose daily income from oil revenues during the heyday of the oil boom often exceeded the annual reward for the successful implementation of reforms. This was not taken into account when designing the EaP for partner states. In such a situation, it would make more sense to shift the funding and the application of this principle to non-state actors.

4.     EaP differentiated approach

Non-state actors see the EaP as a missed opportunity for the EU to empower civil society and democratic institutions in Azerbaijan. This empowerment would be possible if a differentiated approach were implemented not “according to the country’s specific needs and ambitions”, as expressed by the ruling elite, but to address individual obstacles to reform. The pragmatic nature of EU–Azerbaijan relations risks further undermining democracy in the country, unless the EU stands firm in protection of its values and principles and integrates this into its new strategy and instruments. Any inconsistency in the promotion of its values weakens the EU’s position vis-à-vis the government and discourages society from continuing to play an active role in the process of reform.

Opportunities for the EU and Azerbaijan

The decline of world oil prices may lead to a greater acceptance in Baku of the need for sectoral and economic reform, stimulating progress both in regards to WTO accession and then the DCFTA. According to President Ilham Aliev, there is an understanding that gas revenues cannot replace the income from oil sales, thus there might be greater interest in reforms and a diversification of the economy. Future cooperation with Azerbaijan should dramatically increase the legal status and involvement of non-state actors in all stages of cooperation, programming, monitoring, and reporting on the progress of EU–Azerbaijan relations.

In turn, progress in political reform can be achieved through full and consistent EU support for all non-state actors who promote democratic reform and through the building of democratic institutions – elections, political pluralism, and an independent judiciary. So far, Azerbaijani civil society – political parties, journalists, human rights activists, think tanks – has been the most active and consistent partner of the EU. Azerbaijani NGOs have been the most active participants of the Civil Society Forum. While their influence on decision-making through the multilateral framework of the Civil Society Forum increased, in the absence of staunch political support from the EU, pro-European activists were vulnerable to state pressure and many ended up in prison or in exile. The EU should try to be more consistent in following through on European Parliament resolutions and trying to get activists released. Even in the most pragmatic of relationships, the EU’s inaction when facing violations of basic values and principles will lead to greater insecurity on its borders. The EU must learn from the results of the first years of the EaP. In this regard, the Riga Summit should build its meeting around real issues and be as bold and direct as possible to demonstrate the added value of the EU in the region.

Leila Alieva is an Academic Visitor at St Antony's College, University of Oxford. She was previously a political analyst based in Baku, Azerbaijan.

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