The 1st European Games have become a kind of a decisive test for the Azerbaijani authorities. They were preceded by a new wave of criticism from human rights activists – something one could easily predict considering Ilham Aliyev’s refusal to attend the last Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga. But there were some other factors too.
The story of Arif Mammadov, the Head of the Permanent Mission of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to the European Union, coincided with the European Games. As you may know, there are almost no coincidences in politics. So, Mammadov’s displeasure was hardly spontaneous. Though Mammadov has nothing to do with the Azerbaijani authorities, his charges have had an effect and now that the games are over, some Azerbaijani diplomats may be fired.
Until now no single Azerbaijan diplomat has dared to criticize his authorities in public. So, the question is what urged Mammadov to do what he did. Some sources rumor that one of the victims of Mammadov’s criticism, Azerbaijan Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov is going to dismiss a number of diplomats, particularly, those who put likes on Mammadov’s Facebook status. One of them is Spokesman of Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry Hikmet Hajiyev.
Meanwhile, some sources report that Aliyev is going to recall some of his ambassadors in Europe allegedly with a view to refresh his diplomatic corps. This “black list” includes such people as Ambassador to the EU Fuad Iskenderov, Ambassador to NATO Khazar Ibragimov, Ambassador to France Elchin Amirbekov, Ambassador to Germany Parviz Shahbazov. The Aliyev regime hates any dissidence – even from those who have no direct connection to them. External forces are well aware how strong this regime is and will hardly try to shatter it. Even more, they are almost unanimous that for a significant energy source like Azerbaijan political stability is the only alternative. But this does not mean that they do not want to make Azerbaijan dependent.
The West is annoyed that Azerbaijan is not part of any blocs and is free in choosing its foreign policies. In terms of geography, Azerbaijan cannot do without Russia and Iran. But the West has its own geopolitical plans.
Even if there was no “Arif Mammadov” as a generalized critic of the Azerbaijani authorities, he would have to be invented. And he was invented exactly when Azerbaijan was in the spotlight. Even if “Arif Mammadov” is not big enough to be part of the “external project” to show the Azerbaijani authorities how shaky they are, he can well be part of some foreign political plan. It is not a coincidence that some western forces have selected Azerbaijan’s diplomatic corps as its key target. In almost all post-Soviet republics diplomats are mostly pro-Western. People who live abroad for years tend to think critically and to compare what they see in their home country with what there is in the countries they work in.
Mammadov has fallen victim to such critical comparison. It does not matter much who pushed him to criticize the Azerbaijani regime. This “project” may have several authors. The question is what they want.
Arif Mammadov can well be compared with Egyptian diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei. Former IAEA Director, ElBaradei played a big role in the eventful life of his native country. As you may know, the protests in Egypt were triggered by the revolution that took place Tunisia in 2010. ElBaradei confirmed this in an interview in 2011. He also said that President Hosni Mubarak might be toppled as his people was waiting for changes. In feb 2010 ElBaradei resigned as IAEA Director and established an opposition movement called National Association for Change. In Dec 2010 – before the events in Tunisia – he urged the Egyptians to show civil disobedience. A similar transformation – from a diplomat into a politician – may happen to Mammadov too – for he also started his political career with the phase “people is waiting for changes.”
ElBaradei is a kind of a Trojan Horse for any Egyptian regime – be it Muslim Brotherhood or its antipode, the current military government. But Mammadov is not ElBaradei but as a source of internal instability, he is a real catch for foreign players. Mammadov has already put in question the unity of the Azerbaijani regime. Experts have long warned that all of the South Caucasian regimes have groups not only oriented to the West but also ones oriented to Russia, Turkey and Iran. In Azerbaijan such groups have existed throughout the last 25 years.
Azerbaijan’s pro-Western forces are recommended as the most progressive in the territories of “Arab springs” and “color revolutions.” ElBaradei failed to become a flagship of western liberalism – even though he was prepared for such a role. In this light, Arif Mammadov is much more attractive for the West. After all, they in the West do not need guarantees of success, what they need is just an attempt to undermine the pillars of the Azerbaijani bureaucratic system.
Mammadov’s critical statements were followed by his Azerbaijan 2025 project. Mammadov is going to create a team of Azerbaijani and western exerts for considering ways to raise Azerbaijan’s welfare to the Western European level in the coming decade. This ambitious project offers a good geopolitical alternative to Azerbaijan. And this happened exactly when Azerbaijani-Russian relations were at their height.
Though Azerbaijan is yet far from the Eurasian Economic Union, it is becoming closer and closer to Russia. The cost of the Gazprombank-SOCAR SOCAR Polymer project alone is $700mn. Many Russian companies wish to have big investment projects in Azerbaijan’s Apseron region. Among them are upgrading of Baku Oil Refinery and Azerkhimia and building of a new gas-processing factory.
According to Azerbaijani experts, Azerbaijan’s energy sector is entering a new development phase: the country is transiting from extraction of fuel to high-tech chemical production. This may give Azerbaijan a lot of money despite steadily declining oil production – from 51 million tons in 2010 to 23 million tons in 2023. Azerbaijan is turning into a big petrochemical hub. And this is a guarantee of external stability. The only problem is that the West does not want Azerbaijan to continue being well-balanced with its key foreign partners.
In this context, it should be noted that one of the goals of Arif Mammadov’s Azerbaijan 2025 project is to torpedo the Azerbaijani authorities’ efforts to remain Russia’s close partner and to take part in its integration initiatives.