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Baku’s European “affair”: on Ilham Aliyev’s visit to Brussels

Ilham Aliyev and Donald Tusk. Photo: 1news.az

Visit of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev to Brussels (Feb 5-6), the first after a long interval, has been in the focus of attention of the political society not only in Azerbaijan but also in Europe without exaggeration. Moscow closely followed the latest meetings of the Azerbaijani president with some caution, considering among others rapprochement of another South-Caucasus country, Georgia, which has resulted in lifting the travel visas by EU.

Unlike Georgia, Azerbaijan does not strive to European integration and distances itself from other integration projects too. However, the Azerbaijani leadership seeks dynamic development of relations with Brussels after a recent chilldown. This is the reason of Aliyev’s visit –discussion of a new cooperation and partnership document to expand relationships in all fields. Baku has already signed documents of strategic cooperation with nine EU countries.

A new chapter of cooperation

Azerbaijan is opening a new chapter of cooperation with the European Union. This is how Ilham Aliyev described the results of his visit to Brussels. The visit program was rich enough: the Azerbaijani leader met with Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, Maros Shevchovich, Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Energy Union, King Philippe, monarch of the Belgian royal family, and Donald Tusk, President of the European Council.

It was highlighted during the meetings that Azerbaijan and EU are developing fruitful cooperation in various fields, including in the field of energy, security, environment, transport and others. The sides emphasized the importance of the Southern Gas Corridor for gas supplies diversification and energy security of the EU. In this light, Aliyev said enhancement of cooperation with the EU will become a good message for the region.

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was discussed too. In particular, Tusk said the EU supports the mediation efforts and proposals of the OSCE MG on settlement of the conflict. He called the conflict unstable saying it has no military solution. In his words, the conflict must be settled by political methods and in conformity with the international law.

Stumbling block

Despite the major arrangements the Azerbaijani leader made in Brussels, there were evident signs that the old problems in the relations of Azerbaijan and EU are still alive. In particular, the Azerbaijani side canceled the planned meeting of Ilham Aliyev and Antonio Tajani, President of the European Parliament. According to commonspace.eu, it happened because on the same day, the European Parliament was holding debates on human rights violations in Azerbaijan.

Ilham Aliyev had repeatedly blamed the European Parliament for anti-Azerbaijani stance. Last September, at the meeting with the EU-Azerbaijan Committee for Parliamentary Cooperation, he said that the European Parliament’s resolution that was passed in 2015 resulted in serious regress in the relations of the sides and Azerbaijan perceives it as “a hostile step based on misinformation and bias, as an attempt to undermine reputation of Azerbaijan.”

To overcome grievances

The major result of the talks and meetings in Brussels was the willingness of the sides to expand relations, says Azerbaijani political analyst Tofik Abbasov, pointing at the development of a new agreement of partnership and cooperation.

According to him, Baku’s refusal to sign the Association Agreement resulted in certain vacuum in the relations. Now, it is time to overstep barriers and reach a new level of relations.

“Certainly, there are still different views and different approaches related to many issues on the agenda, especially when it comes to such issues as human rights, freedoms etc. Experience shows that such kind of discrepancies do not hinder development of partnership. Some forces in European organizations still speculate using the so-called values of human rights and freedoms to restrict the benefits from our cooperation. They think they caused damage to Azerbaijan. In fact, both the sides suffer losses and the EU even more than Azerbaijan,” Abbasov told EADaily.

“Generally, the Azerbaijani leader held fruitful talks and consultations in Brussels. Now it is time for task groups to develop the new document successfully in order to sign an agreement meeting the requirements of the time and regulating the relations of Azerbaijan and EU amid growing opportunities of the sides and potential challenges of the time,” Abbasov said.

Can the Kremlin sleep with a peaceful mind?

The relations of Brussels and Baku, at least, at the current stage, should not be linked to the current crisis in the relations of Russia and the West, Ilgar Velizade, an Azerbaijani political analyst told EADaily.

“Azerbaijan has always manifested its self-sufficient policy towards the EU and separate European countries, basing on its own interests. It was not for nothing that even during the uneasy period of the Russian-European relations, Baku’s dialogue with separate EU countries developed quite successfully and brought it solid dividends. At least, during the last five-seven years, Azerbaijan made strategic partnership treaties with nine EU countries. And the currently prepared agreement of strategic partnership between Azerbaijan and EU is generally based on the provisions and general commitments of those nine agreements,” the expert said.

According to Velizade, unlike other European Partnership countries, Azerbaijan has never concealed that it does not cherish illusions about prospects of cooperation with Brussels. Neither Brussels did. In such situation, when Azerbaijan does not knock at the door of the EU and the EU is not going to open it, the relations must develop on equal partnership terms. Azerbaijan suggests EU a long-term partnership in trans-regional energy, transport, investment projects, as well as partnership in regional security. “From all appearances, in Brussels they agree with the way the question is put,” the expert said.

Baku will reap profits

Russian political analyst Vitaly Arkov, in turn, directly links Aliyev’s visit to Brussels and the Kremlin’s policy. In this sense, the current Baku-Brussels rapprochement is based on concerned efforts.

“Recall that the relations of Baku and Brussels could not be called friendly yet not so long ago. Azerbaijan waged rather a hard-lined policy recommending the EU ‘mind its own business.’ Frank speaking, Azerbaijan had such right, as European officials and parliamentarians were making statements and passing resolutions on alleged violations of democratic freedoms, though the countries of those critics made such violations pretty often,” Arkov said. He is sure that the real reason behind tense relations of Brussels and Baku was the latter’s close relationships with Ankara and Moscow. “Yerevan’s lobbying with the help of its patron Paris was and still an important factor,” the expert told EADaily.

According to him, Azerbaijan sees no breakthroughs in Karabakh that would meet its interests at least partially. Russia is the key broker in the peace talks on Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan with its rapprochement with the EU responds adequately. “It is hardly possible that Brussels will be able (or will have desire) to settle the Karabakh conflict within the interests of Azerbaijan. This is not because Moscow holds the keys to the issue, but because there is powerful Armenian lobby at leading organizations of EU and U.S. that are still hegemons. However, Baku’s European ‘flirt’ with Brussels may make Moscow resort to actions in Karabakh issues – something the Caspian region has been waiting it to do for a long time,” the expert said.

As for the EU, Arkov thinks that its rapprochement with Azerbaijan, lifting of visa requirements for Georgia and regular, but bold statements by Belarus are part of a big process. “I think, the above steps of the EU and some others are respond actions to the talks Russia and the new team in the White House are making to share the areas of influence in Europe behind its back. A few days ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel slightly mentioned her concerns over the issue. At her meeting with Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, she assured him that she will not let any geopolitical deals to happen behind Kiev’s back. I would like to add that she meant behind Berlin’s back first. As I have recently mentioned in a comment to you, Berlin considers Ukraine and all post-Soviet countries in Europe as its ‘trophy’ and tries not to let Warsaw get stronger – something that is happening now,” the Russian political analyst said.

He is sure that Baku will reap profits playing into the hands of Brussels and Berlin. “As I have already said, Baku can well make Moscow pass a decision on Karabakh in its favor. In addition, it can get investments from the EU, since the energy and other sectors of Azerbaijan’s economy have an acute need in them. I think an association agreement that Baku rejected earlier may be signed now. The quotes Azerbaijan will receive on the EU markets it can easily resell to Turkey for additional investment in the budget and new jobs at Turkish business enterprises opening on its territory.” Arkov said.

At the same time, the expert believes that Baku does not fear any repressive economic measures from Russia, as things will not go beyond “concerns” of the Russian Foreign Ministry. In fact, Moscow is extremely interested in Baku’s friendship and is ready to “close eyes” on much more serious deeds of its strategic partner in the South Caucasus.

Anar Husseynov for EADaily

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