Issues surrounding the preparation of a new cooperation document between the European Union and Azerbaijan have recently provoked lively debates. Different opinions are voiced, with some contradicting each other. Official Baku remains patient and committed to its realistic attitude, saying negotiations on the partnership agreement continue successfully. In this regard, experts should focus on one critical point. Azerbaijan prefers equal relations based on mutual respect with countries and international organizations. Protecting sovereignty and national interests is number one priority. As Azerbaijan was dissatisfied with some terms featured in the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program, the country put forward its own cooperation model. And fruitful talks are now being held in this regard. This article will highlight several aspects of EU-Azerbaijan relationship.
History of cooperation: stages of transformation
The issue of establishment of relations with the European Union gained momentum after Azerbaijan regained its independence. It’s not a coincidence that national leader Heydar Aliyev set relations with the European Union as a key priority of the country’s foreign policy in the early years of independence. In 1999, Azerbaijan signed an agreement on partnership and cooperation with the EU, which laid a legal framework for mutual relations between the country and the organization. The beginning of the 21st century marked considerable changes within the European Union, as well as in global geopolitics and regional situation. In 2004, the European Union saw large enlargement as 10 countries were admitted, shaping the organization’s internal and external policy.
The same year the European Union adopted the European Neighbourhood Policy, which aimed at bringing Europe and its neighbours closer. This policy had to be realized in two directions – Mediterranean Sea region and East. It should be emphasized that the Balkans was a separate priority for the European Union because Balkan countries were expected to be admitted.
In the eastward direction, the South Caucasus was a crucial element of the neighbourhood policy. But the 2008 Russia-Georgia war and Ukraine gas crisis of 2008-2009 changed the situation dramatically. This encouraged the European Union to prioritize the issues of the creation of a free trade zone, energy security, human rights, and membership of the World Trade Organization.
It was obvious that the EU treated new neighbours through the prism of its own geopolitical, economic, energy and financial interests. Its programs, including TRACECA, TASIS and INOGATE, which were implemented until 2007, indirectly pursued those very goals. In 2007, with the changes in the geopolitical situation the EU initiated new programs. For example, TASIS program was replaced with the European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI). Aimed at bringing Europe and its neighbours closer, this program encompasses improvement of democracy and human rights, facilitation of transition to market economy, promotion of sustainable development, and development of cooperation in areas of mutual interest. ENPI features Twinning, Technical Assistance and Information Exchange Instrument, Budget Support, Tempus, and Erasmus Mundus programs.
It should be noted that in 2007 Brussels prepared a strategic document, under ENPI, on cooperation with Azerbaijan for 2007-2013. That document affirmed support for the development of the market economy in Azerbaijan, and highlighted security issues and the EU-Azerbaijan Joint Action Plan. In 2008, the European Union put forward the Eastern Partnership initiative covering six post-Soviet countries. In 2009, Prague hosted a constituent summit of the Eastern Partnership program. In fact, the EU’s neighbourhood policy in the direction of Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia underwent transformation in terms of essence and goals.
For certain reasons some experts do not look at EU-Azerbaijan relations through the prism of new changes caused by transformation, which makes it difficult for them to realize the true dynamics of relations between the organization and the country. In particular, they do not accept real facts that encouraged Azerbaijan to review its relations with the EU in 2007. The point is that starting from the agreement on partnership and cooperation, the EU tried to adjust its relations with Azerbaijan to its own geopolitical, economic, security and energy security interests. It was evidenced by the issues of associate membership and membership of the WTO. This kind of approach is probably acceptable for any post-Soviet republic. But there are two crucial factors for Azerbaijan`s sovereignty and independence. Firstly, it is restoration of territorial integrity through fair settlement of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in accordance with international law. Secondly, it is maintenance of the independent policy in all areas, and the advancement of national interests.
Independence and sovereignty: two crucial terms
And the relations with the European Union must necessarily take these two factors into account. It is why official Baku refused to accept the associate membership model, proposing a mutually beneficial brand new comprehensive agreement on strategic partnership instead. At the Riga summit in 2015, the leadership of Azerbaijan affirmed this openly and unambiguously. Slightly confused, Brussels finally accepted Azerbaijan-proposed cooperation model and the negotiations on the agreement started in 2017. In 2018, the organization and the country approved Partnership Priorities.
It’s clear that by preserving its economic, political, geopolitical and energy independence, Azerbaijan is ready to be a strategic partner of the European Union. On this basis, the EU accepted a new document emphasizing Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and inviolability of its borders. Work is now ongoing on the strategic partnership document. Of course, it’s not an easy task because for the first time the EU is working on a cooperation agreement that was proposed by a partner country as part of the Eastern Partnership initiative. Other Eastern Partnership countries cannot normally go beyond Brussels’ terms, becoming a direct object of the EU foreign policy.
And as an equal partner, Azerbaijan put forward a cooperation model with the EU and is strongly committed to realizing it. Naturally, Brussels would like to impose its own terms to make official Baku dependent, while Azerbaijan is trying to preserve the principle of equality. There still may be divergence of opinion, for example regarding the membership of the WTO, which suggests that Azerbaijan undertake some restricting commitments. And experience shows that even large powers do not agree with several WTO terms and complain of different approaches to different countries. Then what is the meaning of joining the WTO unconditionally? Won’t the EU use this factor to impose other terms on Azerbaijan?
Such questions still need to be answered. In addition, Armenia is a member of the World Trade Organization. This country is pursuing a policy of occupation against Azerbaijan. So how can Azerbaijan be a partner with Armenia in the WTO? And many other uncertain factors are also emerging.
What should be stressed is that although the EU recognizes Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, it is striving for close ties with the aggressor Armenia. It even gives this satellite country big promises, including democratization of the government, fight against corruption, etc. As if Nagorno-Karabakh was never occupied, as if Armenia never occupied territories of the neighbouring state. The EU unfortunately has not made any serious demand from Armenia as part of the Eastern Partnership initiative.
All these factors naturally have an impact on Azerbaijan-EU relationship. But completing work on the document is possible. There are no doubts that the sides will reach consensus. The EU should just understand and realize that as independent state Azerbaijan will never betray national interests for anything else, in particular when territorial integrity and energy security are at stake.
Being an independent state is not an easy task nowadays. You should defend your national interests on all issues. Experience shows that some countries fail to show determination in this regard. But Azerbaijan is demonstrating a strong will and resolution, which is fully reflected in the new document on strategic cooperation with the European Union.