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Three reasons the U.S. won’t break with Azerbaijan over its violations of human rights and democratic freedoms

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN – AUGUST 04: The Sun rise is reflected in The Flame Towers on August 4, 2014 in Baku, Azerbaijan. (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

Should the United States chastise or even break with Azerbaijan? One congressman thinks so, given its troubling authoritarian policies, alleged human rights violations, egregious electoral fraud, jailing of investigative journalists and torture of political prisoners.

In December, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), introduced legislation that would deny U.S. visas to senior Azerbaijani officials. Such a policy would be a break with the past U.S. relationship with the former Soviet republic, bordered by Armenia to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east.

But Smith’s legislation is unlikely to pass. Despite the country’s human rights record, the United States has cooperated closely with Azerbaijan, both economically and on security. The European Stability Initiative argues that the West’s soft stance towards Azerbaijan is the result of President Ilham Aliyev’s “caviar diplomacy.” The ESI reported that Aliyev’s offerings of free travel and lavish gifts entice Western elites into ignoring his government’s repression.

Such patronage might have an impact. But the close U.S.-Azerbaijan partnership can be better explained by three major strategic factors: Azerbaijan’s significance as an energy transit point linking Central Asia to Europe; Aliyev’s resistance to Russian sovereignty violations in Georgia and Ukraine; and Azerbaijan’s solidarity with the United States against both terrorism and Shiite  radicalization.

Azerbaijan is important to the energy trade between central Asia and Europe

Azerbaijan has extensive offshore oil reserves on the Caspian Sea and is an important link in the energy trade between central Asia and Europe. Baku, the nation’s capital, is where the region’s second largest oil pipeline starts, transporting Azerbaijan’s oil through Georgia to Turkey.

U.S. companies have invested substantially in developing the oil and natural gas industry in the Caspian Sea. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have treated the stable and expanded flow of energy from this region as vital to America’s geopolitical interests. That’s because a stable Caspian Sea energy trade dilutes Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and restricts Iranian influence, thereby strengthening U.S. allies relative to its long-standing adversaries.

In 2008, the Republican Senator Richard Lugar, then head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee described Azerbaijan as America’s sole friend on the Caspian basin, a friend valuable as an oil supplier to U.S. allies. Lugar said this during an official trip to Baku to strengthen the burgeoning U.S.-Azerbaijan energy partnership. Lugar also expressed the need for the U.S. to appoint a special representative tasked with preserving long-term American interests in the Caspian Sea.

Azerbaijan would become an even more important player in the global energy trade if Turkmenistan manages to build its proposed Trans-Caspian Gas pipeline. This pipeline would link Turkmenistan, which holds the world’s fourth largest natural gas reserves, to the European Union, placing Baku at the center of the energy transit network.

Azerbaijan has also encouraged the Obama administration to invest in a $45 billion pipeline that bypasses Russia by connecting Azerbaijani gas shipments to Italy.

[Hey, Putin, have you seen how much China is investing in Ukraine?]

In response to increased Western interest in Azerbaijan, Aliyev has since 2004 rhetorically supported Azerbaijan’s increasing integration with Europe. Azerbaijan has been part of negotiations to forge an association agreement with the European Union, a treaty that would expand political, trade, cultural and security cooperation with Azerbaijan, a non-E.U. member state.

The prospect of Azerbaijan supplying more and more of Europe’s oil is more enticing than those gifts and trips. Azerbaijan’s energy supplies could also help erode Russia’s power over western Europe. That’s one reason the EU and U.S. have been cautious about criticizing the country’s poor human rights record.

Azerbaijan opposes Russian military ventures into its neighbors’ territory

For much of the post-Soviet period, Azerbaijan has carefully balanced its foreign policy between Russia and the West. Despite occasional periods of tension — as when Azerbaijan cut off oil exports to Russia over a Gazprom pricing dispute — Azerbaijan and Russia have increased trade under Putin. The Aliyev regime has emphasized protecting ethnic Russians from discrimination in Azerbaijan and expressed solidarity with Russia’s military activities in Chechnya. In 2011, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev declared that the people of Russia and Azerbaijan are tied together with the “closest friendship and trust links.”

But that’s all on the surface. Historically, Azerbaijan has been skeptical of Russia’s neo-imperial ventures. Animosity increased further after the Soviets used military force against Azerbaijani nationalists in January 1990, to prevent the Communist regime from being overthrown by mass protests and to stop violence against ethnic Armenians.

[Three and a half reasons Russia might be planning to withdraw from Ukraine]

In addition, Russia has offered military support to Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an unrecognized land-locked republic on the borders of the two countries. That’s soured relations as well. And while Azerbaijan may be making an effort to protect ethnic Russians, Russian discrimination against its Azerbaijani population remains a significant problem.

All this became prominent during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.When Russia annexed the Georgian-held autonomous territory of South Ossetia, Azerbaijan’s elites were alarmed by Russia’s willingness to violate international law and by the West’s tepid response. Within Azerbaijan, public approval of the country’s diplomatic ties with Russia deteriorated sharply from 80 percent in 2007 to 52 percent after the war.

Azerbaijanis had a similar reaction to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. At first, the Aliyev regime hesitated to support the pro-democracy Maidan revolution in Ukraine, which overthrew Russian-allied president Viktor Yanukovych and led to a pro-EU Ukrainian government. But once Russia moved into Eastern Ukraine, public opinion in Azerbaijan swiftly swung against Putin, seeing the invasion as similar to Armenia’s incursions in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan’s refusal to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in favor of pursuing closer economic ties with the West took its long-standing balancing act between Europe and Russia to a new level.

Azerbaijan refused to impose sanctions against Georgia and Ukraine after Russia annexed their territory, despite Russia’s urgings. For Western countries, that made it more appealing as a strategic partner.

Western countries seeking allies in the post-Soviet region have had few choices. Armenia is a staunch Russian ally. Georgia’s sovereignty has been undermined by Russia’s incursions at its border.  And so the United States and NATO have expanded military cooperation with Azerbaijan, especially in the Special Forces and navy, to maintain a foothold in the Caucasus.

And so here too, Western policymakers worry that humanitarian sanctions could cause Azerbaijan to pivot towards Russia to guarantee its security.

Azerbaijan works with the West against terrorism. The West approves.

Since 9/11, Azerbaijan has cooperated with the United States on counterterrorism efforts. Many U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East opposed the 2003 Iraq War —  but Azerbaijan opened its airspace for U.S. planes working to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. And Azerbaijan was a transit hub for more than one-third of the fuel, food and clothing used by U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan.

Azerbaijan has also helped preempt a major terrorist attack against the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Baku in 2012 by arresting 22 Azerbaijanis for alleged cooperation with Sepah, an Iranian terror group. Azerbaijan is a Shia majority state ruled by a secular regime. Aliyev helps out against terrorism in part because he wants to weaken Islamist movements that could undermine his power.

In particular, the Aliyev regime has targeted pro-Iranian Shiites, who have opposed the Azerbaijan’s increasingly cordial ties with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait- making it a natural partner for the U.S.’s efforts along the same lines.

Azerbaijan is also working against the Islamic State. After hundreds of Azerbaijani jihadists defected to Iraq and Syria to fight for ISIS, Aliyev vigorously repressed Salafist movements, which have criticized the Azerbaijan regime for its secularism and corruption.

Azerbaijan is the U.S.’s only partner against ISIS in the Caspian Sea basin, which due to its close proximity to Iran is a potential hotbed for terrorism. That too, makes the U.S. reluctant to alienate Aliyev.

In short, America’s reluctance to take action against the Aliyev regime can be explained by Azerbaijan’s cooperation with U.S. strategic objectives. Bringing in energy, combating ISIS and other Islamist terrorism and thwarting Russian aggression are urgent concerns for U.S. policymakers. Human rights aren’t.

Smith’s Azerbaijan Democracy Act will have a rough time getting a serious hearing in Congress.

Samuel Ramani is an MPhil Student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy.