The West and Azerbaijan: Politico-Economic Strategy vs. Human Rights
Azerbaijan is a small republic in the South Caucasus, bordered by Georgia and Armenia to the west; Russia and Iran also provide borders to the north and south respectively. Formerly a member state of the USSR, Azerbaijan formally declared its independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Soon after declaring independence, Azerbaijan largely turned to the West for military and economic support of the newly formed republic. Although the government of Azerbaijan maintains decent relations with Iran and Russia, including the current establishment of embassies in Tehran and Moscow, the post-Soviet country had developed high expectations that required more than reliance on these two countries alone; both of which had significantly numerous adversaries.
Strategizing that the West was more apt to invest in them if they were not formally allegiant to any countries that were – formerly or currently – enemies of the West, Azerbaijan began their reformation to become one of the most geopolitically and economically important countries in the world.
Touting vast oil fields and their secular government to their advantage, Azerbaijan began marketing themselves to Western countries as a West-friendly gateway between the contentious Middle East and Caucasus regions. Such efforts included fashioning themselves as a moderator of political Islam, which led to Azerbaijan becoming “one of the most important geopolitical centers of the region.”
Secularism Strengthening Azerbaijan Like most other states ruled by the Soviets and their doctrine of state atheism, Azerbaijan remained secular post-dissolution. Although the country is overwhelmingly Shi’a Muslim, Azerbaijan is not ruled by Islamic law like fellow Shi’a-majority Iran or hardline conservative northern neighbor and Sunni-majority Chechnya.
Azerbaijan’s secular government became highly favored by Western countries seeking to monitor political and civil unrest, as well as terrorism threats and anti-West sentiment that proliferated in the region. Unlike most of the Western countries with which Azerbaijan is close to, the Azeri government is not one that allows common civil rights, such as freedom of assembly and press.
The government is “elected” by the citizens, although the elections are rife with corruption. Rather, the government is dynastic and kleptocratic, with embezzlement common amongst high-ranking officials. Furthermore, human rights are consistently under threat and the Azeri government, headed by current President Ilham Aliyev, has routinely cracked down on dissenting activists, journalists, and political parties that oppose his rule; targeting them with arrests and torture.
Follow the Oil After declaring independence from the USSR, and still financially distressed after the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh War with neighbor Armenia in May 1994, the government of Azerbaijan, which was then headed by Ilham Aliyev’s father Heydar Aliyev, opened its numerous oil fields in an agreement with several transnational oil corporations in a contract known as the “Contract of the Century.”
This contract, passed only seven months after the end of the war, required the agreeing oil corporations to invest heavily in developing and modernizing the Azeri oil industry. Azerbaijan’s role as an oil producer was thus critical to these Western countries, helping them reduce their reliance on Russian and Middle Eastern oil production.
Azerbaijan, still warm with Iran, contemplated letting the corporations become part of the consortium. However, during the midst of contract negotiations, the oil corporations from the United States put pressure on Azerbaijan to prevent Iran’s involvement in the pact; threatening to withdraw completely if Azerbaijan let Iran become part of it. With a show of allegiance to the U.S., Azerbaijan informed Iran that they were not to be part of the contract.
Fully aware of their geopolitical importance, Azerbaijan banked on the massive wealth of American corporations and the undeniable political strength and hegemony of the country to bolster Azeri power.
With this, the country made clear that they intended to become one of the most strategically valuable political and economic states in the world. The U.S. was likewise just as eager to partake in relationships with Azerbaijan – including relationships that extended beyond only the economic.
As stated in Visions, an Azeri culture and politics magazine, “Thus the Western countries with investments and other economic advantages in the operation of Azerbaijani oil were developing fertile conditions for advancing their strategic interests in the region.” These “strategic interests” include surveillance of American enemy Iran, and ever-contentious Russia. Azerbaijan’s location allows the U.S. to keep an eye on several countries it feels most threatened by; and the oil profits only make the deal better.
Azerbaijan Reaping the Benefits In order to develop the Azeri oil industry, the “Contract of the Century” required 80% of the investments to come from Western countries; the remaining 20% was required of Azerbaijan. In all, four U.S. oil companies were part of the consortium, including Amoco, Unocal, McDermott (which eventually sold its shares; the fourth American corporate spot is now held by ExxonMobil), and Pennzoil.
The State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) initially held the greatest percentage of shares at 20%, although the government eventually sold off 10%; this gave SOCAR roughly the same shares as American oil corporation Unocal. The corporations that were part of the consortium become known as the Azerbaijan International Operating Committee (AIOC).
Even with less shares than it originally intended to have, Azerbaijan enjoyed moderate economic success as part of AIOC. The economy saw a moderate amount of growth between 1994-2005. However, Azerbaijan struggled to deliver the oil that was produced. As a result, the construction of the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline was announced. After the pipeline officially opened in 2006, the Azeri economy grew at a rate unparalleled with all other economies; growing nearly 30% in 2006 and 2007.
Human Rights Versus Oil Rights SOCAR’s profits also grew exponentially. As a state-run oil company, those who were closely involved in the creation of AIOC and the BTC Pipeline became enormously wealthy. The Aliyev family, aided by immense wealth from oil production, became unchallengeable in their political rule.
When Ilham Aliyev, a former vice-president of SOCAR, ascended to Azeri presidency following his father’s retirement in 2003, the election process was riddled with corruption allegations. Arbitrary arrests and severe crackdowns on those who challenged and campaigned against Aliyev became commonplace; the government made no effort to appear impartial.
Although it was clear that the government of Azerbaijan was autocratic, repressive, and actively denied civil rights to its own citizens, the response from the United States and other Western countries was one of absolute silence.
Too invested in Azeri oil to gamble with sanctions, and too motivated by a desire to police the Caucasus and Iran, the West refused to take action, which signified that the rights of Azeri citizens were second to the rights of oil and surveillance.
It was not until 2015 that sanctions were proposed against Azerbaijan. Introduced by Representative Christopher Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, the “Azerbaijan Democracy Act of 2015” sought to punish the autocratic country for “appalling human rights violations.” In a statement from the Helsinki Commission, of which Smith is co-chair, he wrote "the United States can no longer remain blind to the appalling human rights violations that are taking place in Azerbaijan."
The bill “would deny entry to -- and revoke current U.S visas held by – individuals ‘in the senior leadership of the government of Azerbaijan,’ as well as members of their ‘immediate family.’" However, Azeri lobbyists had been fighting for years to reaffirm their status as a solid ally of the West and as a major oil producer. Clearly, the lobbyists had found enough success in their past efforts that they were able to keep sanctions at bay. The bill ended up stalling and, other than another similar bill introduced by Smith earlier this year, Azerbaijan’s human rights abuses have been almost completely ignored by the U.S. Congress.
Pay-For-Play Relationships The European Stability Initiative (ESI), a European think tank, investigated the West’s apathy toward Azerbaijan’s human rights abuses and found that Aliyev’s “caviar diplomacy” played a part in ensuring Western officials would have no interest in punishing the country. In return for their apathy, Aliyev offered “free travel and lavish gifts [to] entice Western elites into ignoring his government’s repression.”
This same Washington Post article, which highlights the ESI’s study, states that it is Azeri oil and Azerbaijan’s strategic location that keeps sanctions at bay. The government of Azerbaijan proudly touts their economic importance, reminding the U.S. and other Western countries to be careful with their decisions regarding sanctions; to avoid the risk of the West losing its strongest ally in a geographical area plagued by turbulent politics and anti-Western sentiment.
It is clear that the U.S. and much of the West is, and has been since 1994, beholden to a country whose geopolitical and economic power had minuscule global impact until two decades ago.
However, propelled to the world stage by Western investment, Azerbaijan has become undeniably integral to the politics and economics of many Western countries. With its resource-rich lands and secular government that appeals the West’s distrust for Islamic governments in the region, Azerbaijan enjoys virtually free reign to act as it wants while facing very few consequences. Indeed, it seems that not even severe human rights abuses can rally the West against a country in which they have become cripplingly reliant.
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