Azerbaijan - a stable partner for Europe?
Relations between the EU and Azerbaijan are not just about oil and gas pipelines, argues Emil Agazade
This October, Azerbaijan celebrates the 20th anniversary of regaining its independence from the Soviet Union. In just two decades, this small country on the fringes of Europe has come to rank among the most stable – politically and economically – not just in the region, but in the entire former Eastern Bloc.
But the emergence of the newly independent states in the wake of the Soviet collapse is not the first time that Europe learned about Azerbaijan. Indeed, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was created in 1918, and recognised by the leading powers of the world for being the first ever attempt at modern state-building in the history of the Muslim Orient. The constitution of the republic was based on the fundamental principles of democracy and the rule of law.
For the first time in that part of the world, people were given freedom of speech and all citizens, regardless of ethnicity or creed, enjoyed equal rights and received the same treatment by the authorities. The values of tolerance and non-discrimination became a cornerstone of political and social life. Women received voting rights for the first time in the Orient, preceding their counterparts in the UK and US. It is plain to see that the leaders of that short-lived republic were following the European model of statehood.
One of that government's first steps was to send scores of young people to Europe to benefit from higher education in the leading universities of Germany and France, for example. Unfortunately, this first promising democratic experience was soon to be crushed by the invading Bolshevik forces in 1920 – therefore, ending the aspirations of the Azerbaijani people for some 70 years. But, the roots of the modern state were planted and laid the foundations of contemporary Azerbaijan.
As was the case nearly a century ago, Azerbaijan today strives to implement an independent foreign policy. In fact, only last week the country officially joined the Non-Aligned Movement - demonstrating again its stance against all forms of foreign aggression, domination, occupation and racism. Azerbaijan's goal is to foster good relations with its neighbours and partners based on the fundamental principles of international law and mutual respect.
The simultaneous development of closer ties and integration with European and Euro-Atlantic institutions has dominated Azerbaijani foreign policy since the regaining of independence. After all, Azerbaijan views the European Union as a good role model for policies in the political, economic, social and humanitarian fields.
The formal foundations for Europe–Azerbaijan co-operation were laid in Luxembourg in 1996, when high-level EU officials and then President Heydar Aliyev signed the partnership and co-operation agreement. This was aimed at supporting Azerbaijani efforts to consolidate its democracy and to develop its economy by completing the transition into a market economy. Following the EU enlargement round in 2004, Azerbaijan and the union signed additional agreements to extend the original agreement with the 10 new member-states. It was further extended, in 2008, to include Romania and Bulgaria.
The EU and Azerbaijan subsequently established the co-operation council that meets annually in Brussels. The members comprise the Azerbaijani Foreign Affairs Minister and senior officials representing the current EU presidency and high-level commission officials. This council supervises the implementation of signed agreements and determines major fields of co-operation.
During its Brussels summit in June 2004, the EU launched its European Neighbourhood Policy and extended a membership invitation to Azerbaijan. Four years later, the country became involved in the EU's eastern partnership initiative, comprising six former Soviet republics. The recent enlargement brought the countries of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus closer to the EU, leading to increased political ties.
In 2005, the current Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev issued a decree establishing the state body in charge of European integration, chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister. The fully-fledged permanent representation of the commission to Azerbaijan was opened in Baku, in 2009.
Most recently, Azerbaijan participated in the EU's inaugural Euronest Parliamentary Assembly meeting in May this year. This Assembly brings together parliamentarians from Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and will hopefully soon include Belarus - which is currently excluded. This forum should serve as another useful vehicle, facilitating enhancement of the parliamentary dimension of the political partnership between the European Parliament and those countries involved in the eastern subgroup of the neighbourhood policy.
Azerbaijan's biggest political and humanitarian challenge is the unresolved conflict with neighbouring Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a territory inside Azerbaijan previously containing an Armenian minority. Armenian forces have been illegally occupying this area, together with seven other surrounding regions, since the early 1990s. This has led 870,000 people to flee their homes, and they remain in camps across the country.
Although the EU is not directly involved in the conflict settlement process, it has frequently declared support for Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and the restoration of the rights of internally displaced persons driven from the conflict zone. In 2002, the EU presidency issued a declaration on the illegal elections held in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, deeming them illegitimate. In general, the EU has never recognised any election illegally held on Azerbaijan's occupied territories.
For more than a decade, Azerbaijan has been and remains a prime mover in significant projects of regional and international co-operation. Such projects as the construction of the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan oil pipeline and Baku–Tbilisi–Erzerum gas pipeline are contributing towards the diversification of European energy supplies. This issue has become of paramount importance since the recent Russo–Ukrainian gas rows. Indeed, since the creation of the western-led consortium to develop Azerbaijani hydrocarbon reserves, the country has played an increasing role as Europe's reliable partner in energy security. The EU recognised and reaffirmed Azerbaijan's importance in November 2006 in Brussels, when EC President JosÚ Manuel Barroso and Azerbaijani President Aliyev signed a memorandum of strategic partnership regarding the energy sector. This formalised the nature of this partnership between the parties.
Finally, the geographical and geopolitical position of Azerbaijan predetermined its specific role in the region, due to its location on the crossroads between the transport corridor Europe–Caucasus–Asia and north–south corridor. The development of these transit links will have long-term economic benefits for the country, region and for European partners.
Emil Agazade is head of media at the European Azerbaijan Society
This is all great, but when it comes to fact if Azerbaijan signed and ratified the European Social Charter 1961 - the UK, for example, says Azerbaijan has not signed and ratified it. They say Azerijan signed and ratified the European Social Charter 1996 (revised), which is actually ESC 1961 and much more.
Besides I sent several emails to Commity Of Europe and no one can confirm it. As a result, the UK Home Office is charging Azerbaijani applicants as non members.
Although, back in 2006 the Home Office agreed that Azerbaijan signed and ratified ESC 1961- and made applications free. Now they say it was a mistake.
Ilkin Jamalli - Reading, UK
An interesting article and points well made. It is good to read something real and positive, with real information and not hearsay. Too often, the real and unquestionable progress that is being made is lost behind the west's desire to only read bad stories about the region.
SD - London, England