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The emergence of a global leader: A new era for Azerbaijani foreign policy

The emergence of a global leader: A new era for Azerbaijani foreign policy

Ever since the First Karabakh War and the occupation of its territories, Azerbaijan has faced the challenge of integrating itself into an international community that was not always swift to reiterate its support for the country’s territorial integrity. Despite the existence of numerous UN Security Council resolutions calling for the withdrawal of occupying forces and the general righteousness of the country’s position in terms of international law, it was unclear whether Western leaders were willing to show unequivocal support for the restoration of sovereignty. After all, the current world order was established with the underlying objective of preventing armed conflicts at a large scale from occurring again. This was prioritised given the unimaginable levels of human suffering experienced in the two World Wars of the 20th century. However, this desire to adhere to international legal norms and especially ensure the refrainment from the use of force for the pursuit of territorial gains, was not adequately applied in Azerbaijan’s case. Moreover, there are serious doubts about the impartiality of the European Union and United States as potential mediators to the Azerbaijani-Armenian confrontation. Several high-profile EU officials and even leaders of the most influential member states have demonstrated a hostile approach to the country, explaining Azerbaijan’s unwillingness to allow an issue as crucial to its sovereignty and long-term prosperity as the peace deal to be managed and influenced by interests considered external to the region. Over the years, this has become an integral reason behind the highly flexible foreign policy approach pursued by President Aliyev. Integration and partnership with Europe were always seen as a positive, especially given the immediate socio-economic benefits that this brings for the country’s development. Nevertheless, it was always made clear that this integration into the Western centric ‘international community’ would not be something pursued at ‘any cost’. As a country that felt let down by the ability of international cooperation mechanisms to punish military violence, Azerbaijan has always been swift to develop a foreign policy that is multi-faceted and based on an unequivocal respect for its own interests and a recognition of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

A multi-faceted foreign policy

Despite a broad and multi-layered policy of economic cooperation with the ‘West’, the personality of Azerbaijani foreign policy possesses a distinct uniqueness to it. This is partly a consequence of the nature of country’s strategic position, described by many as being at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and bordering some of the region’s most influential powers. Crucially, though, the country’s foreign policy apparatus has been directed at maximizing the potential for cooperation within more than just one established ‘framework’ or direction. Increasingly, Azerbaijan is not only becoming more participative in tackling highly pressing issues but also becoming a reference point for countries that are not traditionally considered to be a part of the ‘Western’ system. The country’s chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement between 2019-2023, an organisation that unites 120 countries across four different continents, is the clearest indicator of this. Hence, in the below analysis, we will focus on the different foreign policy directions in which Azerbaijan has worked to solidify its status of an increasingly influential state. Crucially, there is a deliberate emphasis on frameworks that deviate from a Western presence. This way, states can ensure that solutions to often understated problems that they are most affected by can be addressed in a way that suits the immediate and long-term interests of their populations.

This analysis will consider examples from three key issues areas: climate change, the battle against the remaining influence of colonialism and the on-going influence of post-colonialism, and the role played by cultural and historical heritage in encouraging more ‘tight-knit’ cooperation. Finally, further examples will be drawn upon from more recent times to confirm the on-going nature of this foreign policy dynamic.

Climate and the ‘green’ transition

A working assumption exists that states traditionally considered to be major oil and gas exporters are unable to contribute to the green transition pursued by the international community in an attempt to combat climate change. The consecutive hosting of COP28 and COP29 in UAE and Azerbaijan, however, highlights the ignorant and rather divisive nature of this viewpoint. The disproportionate reliance on fossil fuels and the inability to satisfy commonly established pledges is something that concerns the entire global community and not just those states that have strategically benefitted from their possession of natural resources.

The hosting of COP29 in Azerbaijan is undoubtedly a major success for the country and a demonstration of real trust on behalf of the international community. The conference presents Azerbaijan with a unique opportunity to use this platform to not only progress with already established processes and negotiations but also act as a bridge by extending the hand of international cooperation mechanisms such as COP to poorer nations. The President Delegate of COP29 recently pointed out that there must not only be an emphasis on working with states that are traditionally viewed as the largest ‘contributors’ to global warming but also with those that most intensely feel its consequences. Hence, by underlining the measures it has already undertaken and by seeking to engage members of the Global South in the fight against climate change, Azerbaijan is positioning itself at the heart of a truly ‘international’ effort to combat an issue that poses an existential threat to the entire planet.

Azerbaijan’s green agenda, however, began before the awarding of this event to its capital city. This further refutes the suggestion that the hosting of COP29 is simply a political win for an ‘oil-rich country’. Azerbaijan was swift and proactive in acknowledging the threat of climate change and implementing a green transition that is far-reaching and reflective of the urgency of the need to act. Key examples of this transition include offshore wind projects in the Caspian Sea and the development of the largest solar power plant in the Caucasus and Caspian region. It is expected that power stations to be inaugurated this year will be responsible for the production of 1300 megawatts of solar and wind energy. Moreover, Azerbaijan has teamed up with leading renewable energy companies such as Masdar to facilitate the development of renewable projects, expected to be a truly national effort given the designation of 2024 as the year of ‘Green World Solidarity’. The inauguration of the Garadagh solar power plant was a significant moment, as the plant alone is expected to reduce carbon emissions by 200,000 tons a year, provide electricity to 11,000 homes and save 110 million cubic meters of natural gas.

Additionally, Azerbaijan’s track record of participating in global climate initiatives, such as last year’s COP 28, reinforce the country’s serious approach to tackling the issue. At COP28, the Azerbaijani delegation emphasized the desire to create, within the country’s Karabakh region, a carbon-neutral zone that acts as a leading source of foreign direct investment in the region. Moreover, in addition to solar and wind energy, the country is keen on hydropower plants that would further diversify and strengthen the Green Agenda.

Azerbaijan has been an enthusiastic contributor the United Nations green agenda, working with the aim of achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. In 2024, Azerbaijan is expected to submit the fourth Voluntary National Report on the national implementation of SDGs to date. Azerbaijan has also committed to increasing the share of green energy as a proportion of total generating capacity from 17% to 30%, with an underwater electric cable along the bottom of the Black Sea currently under construction to facilitate the delivery of energy generated from Azerbaijan’s renewable sources to European capitals.

A useful example of Azerbaijan’s pro-activeness is the suggestion put forward which calls for the introduction of an additional SDG, focusing exclusively on ‘mine action’. Given the increasingly prevalent nature of armed conflict in the international system, and especially the challenges posed by mines in post-conflict reconstruction, the lack of cohesion in global efforts to tackle this issue is becoming more and more concerning. The SDG consists of five goals and 15 indicators that would guide its implementation and monitor progress achieved. Evidently, this measure is targeted at countries most impacted by war such as Ukraine but also numerous others in the Middle East such as Syria and Yemen. Azerbaijan has always placed special emphasis on cooperation with the United Nations, both on an international level but also domestically where the organisation has a significant and ever-increasing presence. This is an example of one way in which Azerbaijan can act as the leading voice for countries experiencing problems such as mine contamination, one of the several issues that tends to be overlooked.

Chairmanship of Non-Aligned Movement and on-going initiatives

The ability of Azerbaijan to act as a representative for the ‘Global South’ is not restricted to efforts in one specific sphere. As already mentioned, the country was elected as the chair of the Non-Aligned Movement for the period 2019-2023. In fact, the final year was an additional one following the unanimous approval of all member states to extend the chairmanship. As with COP29, this represents a huge demonstration of trust and confidence by the broader international community. Crucially, it represents, once again, the enthusiasm of Azerbaijani foreign policy towards multilateralism and international cooperation in vital areas like international security, global health, youth development and unity against neo-colonialism which threatens to undermine the sovereignty and future development of nation-states.

Azerbaijan’s time as chair of NAM coincided with an unprecedented global pandemic. Upon the country’s initiative, an online NAM summit was held. This event sought to unite the collective effort to vaccinate populations and ensure that access to global distribution was as equitable and effective as possible, despite evident barriers to this being a possibility. Independently, Azerbaijan also provided humanitarian support to more than 80 countries. This included voluntary contributions to the WHO in the form of approximately 10 million USD. The country also directly supplied five countries with vaccines.

Furthermore, it was Azerbaijan’s initiative to establish the NAM Parliamentary Network and the NAM Youth Organization (in 2021 and 2022, respectively). The latter, headquartered in Baku, plays a crucial role in uniting youths of member states and serving as a platform for the exchange of opinions on mutual cooperation as well as ideas on confronting existing challenges facing member states. Since its establishment in 2021, the Youth Organization successfully established ‘national chapters’, more simply known as branches, in 50 member states. Moreover, the Youth organization has pursued an agenda of successful cooperation with other youth platforms around the world. Most recently, it co-organised an event at the ECOSOC Youth Forum in New York, focusing on the increasingly pertinent synergy between mine action, climate change and the role played by the youth globally. The Parliamentary Network has been equally successful, with the Third Conference held in Geneva in March 2024 following the Second Conference in Bahrain (2022), the First Conference in Baku (2022) and the Inaugural Conference in Spain (2021). A further proposal was made on the creation of a ‘women’s platform’, set to be put into practice by the upcoming chair of the Movement, Uganda. This further highlights the desire to deepen institutionalized cooperation via this framework.

Azerbaijan’s legacy as the chair of the movement is undoubtedly valued and serves as an example to future chairs on how to approach the difficult task of chairing an organization with over 100 members. This example does not merely demonstrate an increasingly participative foreign policy. In fact, it is an example of Azerbaijan acting as a leader on the global stage by relying on its increasingly diverse foreign policy apparatus but also its status as a respected and proactive member of the global community. The importance of these efforts must never be underemphasized, especially given how sensitive the issues uniting NAM member states remain to be for their respective populations.

Economic (and other) cooperation based on cultural heritage

In addition to more prominent areas of cooperation, such as climate change and unity among ‘non-aligned’ states discussed so far, Azerbaijan has demonstrated leadership that is based on a more cultural and historical foundation as opposed to current pressing issues. As a ‘Turkic’ state, Azerbaijan is an integral part of the Organization of Turkic States, established in 2009 and a forum which has since gained vital strategic and economic importance. OTS is composed of several ‘sub-bodies’, focusing on facilitating dialogue and interconnectedness in areas such culture, economic growth, science, and education. One of the key underlying aims of this platform was to facilitate the development of the Middle Corridor (also known as the Trans-Caspian Transport Route), designed to connect Europe and China through Central Asia and the South Caucasus. Equally, given Azerbaijan’s increasingly deep ties with Turkey on both the economic and military field, it serves as a platform through which the countries can further institutionalize their relationship by solidifying the influence of the common culture and history that unites the member states. The organization has gone as far as adopting a ‘Turkic World Vision – 2040’, underlining the desire to build a cooperative platform that will allow member states to defend their own interests in an environment that is free from the influence of one or several ‘great powers’. President Aliyev has always emphasized this point, referring to the organization as Azerbaijan’s only ‘family’ and the key to ensuring unity in a highly complex and volatile international system.

Given that Central Asia and the South Caucasus are geographically located in ways that make all of its states, especially ‘developing ones’, vulnerable to the instability that usually follows great power competition, the OTS also promotes economic cooperation. Initiatives such as the Turkish Investment Fund, headquartered in Istanbul, is the first official financial organization uniting all the Turkic states. The underlying aim of the fund is to mirror institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank by providing a similar forum for Turkic states. Its operation consists primarily of facilitating economic cooperation, with an essential pillar being the provision of credits to corporations and SME’s engaging in large-scale infrastructure projects. Azerbaijan is a key contributor of the fund. This is essential in helping Turkic nations such as Kyrgyzstan develop long-term financial stability that provides a degree of protection for the country’s economy and population amidst rising geopolitical instability. Crucially, however, it allows economic cooperation to be conducted by Turkic states independently and in accordance with the outcomes of regional dialogue. The five members benefit from an entirely ‘equal split’ of the Fund’s resources, with each country allocated 20% of the entire fund.

Further examples

There are numerous other examples of instances where Azerbaijan has evidently ‘taken the lead’. A clear pattern can be observed if one is to take a step back and assess the key issue areas that the country’s constantly evolving foreign policy engages with. Crucially, these initiatives stem from issues that appear to have been marginalised by the ‘traditional’ international community. This includes but is not limited to the involving of the ‘Global South’ in the fight against climate change, limiting the negative influence of postcolonialism and the protection of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of less developed states that allows them to act in accordance with their own culture and interests and not ideas imposed on them by powers external to their region.

Further examples from 2024 have served to reinforce this dynamic. The Conference on Inter-Action & Conference Building Measures in Asia (CICA), established in 2002 by the initiative of Kazakhstan, is a similar platform that promotes ‘military confidence-building’ and reinforces the core principle of non-interference by member states into each other’s internal affairs. Recently, it was announced that Azerbaijan has been elected as the next chair of the conference, with the Seventh Meeting of the Ministerial Council occurring in the second half of 2024. Highlighting the country’s increasingly decisive role in the international security landscape, particularly by safeguarding territorial integrity and sovereignty as inherent components of the international legal order, member states (of which 28 are permanent) have once again highlighted the strategically important role of Azerbaijan in acting as a bridge between different countries and region. The fact that the CICA is the only official framework which Iran and Israel share and cooperate through further stresses this point.

Once again, Azerbaijan’s desire to engage in multilateral settings that seek to strengthen the ability of states to act on ‘their own’ behalf, is not limited to just international security and the complex field of defence. This May alone, Baku is hosting the 6th World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue of which cooperation and interconnectivity are key discussion topics. Attended by leading international institutions such as UNESCO and the WTO, the forum first began in 2008 as part of the Baku Process initiative. Attended by thousands of professionals and representatives of different governments and agencies, this framework seeks to encourage intercultural discussion and cooperation, essential given the increasingly divisive and polarized international arena where Islamophobia and other forms of racial discrimination are becoming worryingly more widespread.

Conclusion

The examples discussed in this analysis all have a clear but highly essential common denominator. Azerbaijan, a country that recently freed itself from military occupation, is beginning to firmly position itself at the heart of truly ‘international’ cooperation. As initially proposed, although Western institutions have set an undeniable precedent on fostering international cooperation, the key limitation of their most influential members tends to be the inability to consider the interests and issues facing those communities that are not in their most proximate environment. The rather spontaneous recent visit to all five Central Asian countries by UK Foreign Minister David Cameron, described as an attempt by the UK government to reinforce its vision of becoming more ‘Global’, demonstrates that Western powers do not always have a strong record of using their ‘soft power’ to establish a deep-rooted influence in other regions. Given the return of armed conflict to Europe and other continents as a fixed feature of international relations, marginalization is becoming more dangerous than ever before. It is precisely this factor that has forced countries like Azerbaijan to take responsibility, preserve (or restore, in Baku’s case) the respect for its territoriality and gain a foothold in influencing the evolution of events in its immediate neighbourhood.

For Azerbaijan, this ‘new’ era represents a highly promising and exciting opportunity. The country, despite the evident complexities it faces as a consequence of its geostrategic position and the unpredictable nature of its neighbours, has learnt to stand firm and develop in the direction that it itself deems most necessary and most beneficial. A direct consequence of the uniquely decisive and commanding foreign policy trajectory chosen by President Aliyev, Azerbaijan is as influential and respected on the international community as ever before. Most importantly, this trend is only going to become more apparent and noticeable with time. The sheer breadth of directions in which Azerbaijan’s diplomacy is currently operating is likely to be met with fierce enthusiasm and ambition from the country’s future generations.

Author: Huseyn Sultanli

Analyst - Political Risk, Application of International Law,

Conflictology, European Cooperation and Azerbaijani foreign policy

MSc International Relations Graduate, LSE

London, United Kingdom

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