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Before the Eastern Partnership (EaP) Brussels Summit (November 2017), there were many polemics associated with competing language of the summit’s declaration on unresolved conflicts and the new EU-Azerbaijan agreement. The European Parliament’s (EP) previous critical resolutions towards Azerbaijan, which is considered by Baku a political provocation carried by some anti-Azerbaijani circles, had earlier postponed the negotiations of the new agreement.

Prior to the Summit, the odd trends were registered such as harsh media attacks against Azerbaijan and Southern Gas Corridor, and the EP’s immediate two anti-Azerbaijan resolutions. These were happening when Azerbaijan sought to advance its relations with the EU; i.e. it’s ultimately aimed to shake up the perspective of new agreement. But, they could not hamper the pragmatic relations between official Baku and the EU.

Azerbaijan currently demonstrates an unprecedented level of political will for timely completion of the negotiation on the new agreement, dubbed as “Strategic Partnership Agreement” (SPA). The SPA will be a comprehensive document covering the range of cooperation areas; it will replace the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (1996) and will be conducted in three blocks: political and security; trade and investment; economic, social, humanitarian issues.

Although the agreement’s separate elements have been already agreed upon, however, the parties could not complete any of concrete chapters. Not-signing of the new agreement in Brussels Summit did not come of surprise at all since it was already anticipated by Azerbaijani government that many things remain to be agreed. For Azerbaijan, the document’s quality is more important than its timing. It is supposed that the negotiations will be completed by the end of 2018. With the new agreement, Azerbaijan aims to open a “new chapter” in the bilateral ties with the EU on equal and strategic basis.

The challenging point stands on finding right formulation for the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict in the agreement. This was one of the main reasons for why Azerbaijan didn’t sign the Association Agreement in 2013 as it failed to contain precise wording concerning the territorial integrity like the agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Previously the EP demonstrated a clear stance in its resolutions on Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and on withdrawal of Armenian military forces from Azerbaijan’s occupied territories, but this position has been gradually weakened.

The EU presents impartial approach to the conflict simultaneously supporting Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and endorsing the “right for self-determination” in case of Armenians. Azerbaijan, who suffers from externally imposed armed conflict and military occupation, does not plan to compromise the issues on the territorial integrity and internationally-recognized borders. Baku neither support the idea of the EU’s engagement with the separatist regime in Nagorno-Karabakh, unlike the cases of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Transnistria; as this can rather serve to the efforts of separatist regime in legitimization of their “international recognition”.

Azerbaijan’s main disillusionment emerged with the EU’s sanctions imposed over Russia because of Ukraine crisis, but not over Armenia for the occupation of Azerbaijan’s territories. While so-called “officials” of Crimea, Donestk, Lugansk, Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions were banned from entering in Europe, so-called “representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh” had no judicial limitations on visiting France, the UK and Belgium. Nationals (MEPs) of member states have been paying illegal visits to the Azerbaijan’s occupied territories without authorization from Baku and are constantly working for promoting the illegal regime therein. After the EU’s harsh reactions to the annexation of Crimea, Azerbaijan expects a unified approach from the EU with respect to the conflict resolution in accordance with the principles of territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, as prescribed in the EU’s Global Strategy. The EU’s official approach, however, based on rhetoric of supporting the “endeavours” of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs.

Finding right terminology was one of the most controversial questions in preparation of the Brussels Summit’s declaration, in terms of the EU’s clear stance on the resolution of NK conflict (based on the international law including the UNSC’s resolutions) equally with other conflicts. In this context, Riga (2015) and Vilnius (2013) Summits had presented differentiated approaches in their declarations, which Baku considered a double-standard.

Therefore, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev’s had refused to attend the Riga Summit, and Azerbaijan had stepped back from signing of the declaration (Azerbaijan later joined the document with special reservations amended). In Brussels summit, the EU and EaP countries achieved a compromised version of the declaration, where Azerbaijan’s position on the territorial integrity, as well as the conflict resolution based on international law principles, were unequivocally supported (despite numerous attempts by Armenia to hamper it). That is why, President Aliyev in his tweet praised the EU’s support for the territorial integrity of partner countries in the final declaration as “Azerbaijan`s diplomatic achievement”.

Whereas, by sticking to common and neutral language, the EU member states avoided naming the specific conflicts in the declaration, as well as the risk of opposition from Azerbaijan or Armenia. But, prior to Summit, the EP had adopted two resolutions where MEPs had put a controversial stance differentiating between the territorial conflicts in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, and in Azerbaijan. The paradoxical “referendum” in Catalonia region of Spain and the EU’s subsequent reactions toward that showed the vulnerability of the member states against the separatism and the illegitimate breach of territorial integrity. According to Novruz Mammadov, foreign policy aide to the President of Azerbaijan, “the EU’s position on separatism is now becoming a boomerang for the European nations“.

Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) remains a cornerstone of strategic partnership with the EU which envisages the transportation of Azerbaijani gas from Shah-Deniz-II field to Europe through Georgia and Turkey before 2020 via the South Caucasus Pipeline’s expansion, Trans-Anatolian and Trans-Adriatic gas pipelines. The SGC can become a larger corridor in the future by hooking with resources of the Central Asian countries, and extending towards the Western Balkans via Ionian Adriatic Pipeline. The $41.5 billion worth project is financed by different international financial institutions, mainly from EBRD and supposedly will be from EIB too.

The project’s various segments have been almost completed with Shah-Deniz-II %96, TANAP %82, and TAP %53. The timely implementation of the SGC, as well as its extension to Central Asia, is important for Europe; though there are problems remaining in Italy’s Puglia region concerning the construction of TAP’s final leg. The SGC is not only about energy supply security, but also about diversification of routes bringing a new source of gas, eventually will change the EU’s energy map. The SGC is an exceptional example of the “project management”.

Moreover, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway together with the Baku International Sea Port and interconnected in perspective with North-South Transport Corridor will offer a great potential to turn Azerbaijan to new transport corridor and logistics centre of transit cargo transportation linking the North with South and the East with West. These interconnectors will be facilitating the customs barriers, as well as trade and uninterrupted railway interconnections between the EU, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Central Asia and China. Although the EU endorsed the BTK railway for its contribution to the transport interconnections, the project received no financial/political backing from the EU in the past. Coupled with future investments and works, the trade logistic/infrastructure opportunities can be increased between relevant countries and regions for better trade connectivity and new business opportunities.

The Common Aviation Area Agreement (CAAA) is one of the key issues negotiated out of new agreement. The agreement was not initialled either in the EaP Summit, though its main principles except few issues had been basically agreed upon. Azerbaijan remains the only country among three South Caucasus states who did not sign this agreement. The CAAA aims to present new opportunities in aviation market by increasing the number of commercial flights to Europe and new directions; simplifying the air-traffic process; present low prices and higher flight standards; harmonizing Azerbaijan’s aviation regulations. The CAAA envisages the diminishing the monopoly and state interference in business decisions that allows operators to provide more efficient services for passengers and cargo traffic. Thus, after some details are agreed, the initialization is expected in January 2018.

To sum up, the EU-Azerbaijan relations are not limited to the conflict only; there are a lot of motivations to develop the relations in many areas of mutual interests. However, the NK conflict constitutes the first foreign policy priority of Azerbaijan, therefore official Baku prefers to have a clear formulation on the conflict resolution in every international document in accordance with the international law principles.

Although the new EU-Azerbaijan agreement will be more tailored in accordance with Azerbaijan’s interests, the extent of partnership depends on how far Baku desires to go beyond the existing framework and how better the EU will map out its communication diplomacy with official Baku on sensitive issues for latter. The EU understands that differentiation and pragmatism grants a higher flexibility to the partner country’s cooperation ability in terms of their commitments to the implementation of partnership agenda.  Azerbaijan should also keep an open eye over delicate external factors not to impede the smooth running of negotiations.

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