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Azeri expert predicts tough presidential poll for government in 2008 9 novembre 2007

Posted by Acturca in Caucasus / Caucase, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Russia / Russie, USA / Etats-Unis.
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BBC Monitoring International Reports, November 5, 2007 Monday

Elxan Sukurlu, Azadliq, Baku

The 2008 Azerbaijani presidential election will be the most difficult and strained not only for the traditional opposition but also for the current authorities, Elxan Sukurlu’s article carried by opposition daily Azadliq predicts. The expert believes that the Azerbaijani poll will also be influenced by external factors, i.e. the rivalry between the USA, Russia and Iran to get control over oil and gas reserves and main transport corridors in the region. Azerbaijan, sandwiched between the states competing over the regional influence, the expert believes, is given a special role for the US plans to militarily consolidate in the region and is take heed of Pentagon’s plans about Iran. Moreover, Azerbaijan, the author thinks, is also to pay attention to Russia’s impact on regional « frozen conflicts », like the Nagornyy Karabakh one. Iran also wants Azerbaijan to remain neutral and refuse to the USA in its alleged bid to use its air space and territories to strike Iran. The following is the text of Elxan Sukurlu report by the Azerbaijani newspaper of Azadliq headlined « 2008 difficult year of the authorities » and subheaded « The USA, Russia and Iran have specific expectations of Azerbaijan for the nearest future »; subheadings as published:

With the forthcoming presidential election [in October 2008] debates are winding up as to what direction the processes will develop in the country and what will be the outcome of the poll. So far most political experts and the media outlets, referring to the outcome of the 2003 presidential and 2005 parliamentary elections, in which the opposition weakened immensely and the authorities strengthened their positions considerably, predict that the 2008 presidential election will not at all be difficult for the authorities.

However, the issue of power shift in Azerbaijan does not only depend on domestic factors. The will of external centres of force – the leading states and the transnational companies – are also of great importance. Bearing in mind the bitter clash of interests of these centres of force in their latest regional policies, in particular, taking into account the possibility of the rivalry to become even sharper in the 2008 presidential election, one can anticipate that the forthcoming presidential election will not be that easy for the current authorities, on the contrary, the processes are expected to become further complicated.

We should recall that Azerbaijan, apart from possessing rich energy resources in the Caspian basin, is also the most important chain in the East-West and the North-South transport corridor. The traditional behind-the-scene struggle between the USA, Russia and Iran to take control over this strategic area is now transferring to an open space and the relations are becoming gradually strained now.

Taking account of these, we have first to look into the interests of the three states the USA, Russia and Iran in Azerbaijan for a shorter term, which are able to influence power changes in our country, including their specific expectations of Ilham Aliyev’s government and possible levers of influence before attempting to reply a question of « What does expect Azerbaijan ahead of the election and what will the outcome of the election be? ».

1. The USA imagines Azerbaijan as a « packed zone »

The key priority direction in the US foreign policy is to acquire control over rich in oil and gas reserves as well as the main transport corridors. The Caspian region is the second to the Persian Gulf for energy resources. The US considers strengthening its positions in this region, especially in Azerbaijan, which plays a role of a bridge along the Caspian-Black Seas route, its strategic target in the near future.

The USA has become enough strong economically in Azerbaijan over the last 14 years; a final say and key owner of the shares in Azerbaijan’s offshore and onshore oil and gas deposits belong to companies owned by the USA and Britain. The most important issue for the US-British tandem now is to deliver energy resources from the Central Asian states in the east of Azerbaijan and Caspian Sea to world markets via the pipelines passing through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

Therefore, in order to be insured against any possible threats to the energy routes by its rivals and be able to timely prevent the possibility of undermining the stability, official Washington wants to bring own military forces to the region and intensify the integration of the said countries into NATO.

At the same time, the USA wants to fully strengthen both militarily and politically in Azerbaijan to get effective leverage of influence on Iran and prevent its nuclear programme and create a « packed zone » or a barrier between the two anti-American states Russia and Iran.

Although the USA now has a considerable amount of military forces in countries bordering Iran in the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan – Azerbaijan is featured a special place in the US policy against Iran.

2. Russia can unfreeze « frozen conflicts »

Russia, which has become enough stronger under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, is against NATO’s rapid expansion towards its southern borders and tries to prevent the construction of energy pipelines towards Europe bypassing it. Therefore, Russia does not want the USA to strengthen its positions in Central Asia and the South Caucasus and makes attempts to blow the West’s economic interests. As Azerbaijan and Georgia are the co-authors of the US-backed key projects in this region, Russia keeps these two Southern Caucasus republics under constant pressure and threat. Once the US military forces are allowed to come to the region, Russia is threatening to launch an open military intervention, i.e. to reignite the « frozen conflict hotbeds » and turn the region into a « war zone ».

Naturally, the government of Azerbaijan has to pay heed to Russia’s capacity to influence the resolution of the Nagornyy Karabakh conflict as well as the whole region, and consequently it has to reckon with Russia.

3. Iran demands Azerbaijan’s neutrality

Iran, which has made up its mind to become a nuclear power and a half of the population is ethnic Azerbaijanis, once possesses this weapon, will lay a claim to become a « new master » of the Middle East and is able to do this.

At present the Caspian Sea is the key transport corridor in the Russian-Iran relations, especially in the weapons sale and the delivery of the necessary equipment and fuel to Iran for the establishment of its nuclear industry. Official Tehran is against Pentagon’s wishes to bring this corridor under its control. For the time being and in the near future Iran’s main wish from official Baku is that Azerbaijan avoid allowing the use of its air space and territory by the USA and refuse Pentagon’s military presence in the region.

Does the USA want neutral Azerbaijan?

So either official Baku is to unequivocally agree to the USA’s regional plans or back the Russia-Iran tandem in their common attitude towards the West. True, the Azerbaijani authorities have been so far trying to keep balance in all the three areas by advancing its security interests to the forefront and highlighting the importance of settling the Nagornyy Karabakh conflict.

However, although the neutrality of the Azerbaijani government and its desire to remain neutral in the struggle of « giants » meet fully the interests of Russia and Iran in the current situation, it does not absolutely satisfy the USA which is losing time in carrying out its plans against Iran and for this reason, it is expected that unlike Moscow and Tehran, Washington will resort to more pressure on Ilham Aliyev’s government.

If it becomes inevitable to strike Iran, and Azerbaijan tries to again dodge from meeting the US demands, it is not ruled out that the US put pressure openly in the form of making attempts to change the regime.

What tactics might the USA, which lost in 2005, resort to this time?

A number of recent events the intensification of the visits by high-ranking officials from the US military and political circles and the meetings with representatives of the political parties and public organizations at the US embassy in Baku, calls from international organizations over securing democratization of the elections, political amnesty initiative and against this, initiatives to bring closer pro-Western parties, especially the Musavat and the People’s Front of Azerbaijan Party, actually might be assessed as official Washington’s policy to put in motion the « pressure through democratic means » on Aliyev’s government.

So far one of the engaging options is that considering the strong regionalism tradition in Azerbaijan and the fact that the policy pursued in the country over the recent years created a solid base for the confrontation on the basis of regionalism, the USA will this time give preference to the tactic of working with regional groups in power circles, in particular, with the conflicting persons inside the ruling Family.

From this point of view, the idea of setting up a new pro-government party, which is expected to be consist mainly of those who come from the [central Azerbaijani region of] Sirvan, as an alternative to the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, where natives of Naxcivan and ethnic Azerbaijanis from Armenia are in a majority, is quickly publicized. Apart from this the further deepening and blowing out of proportion of the known the Pasayevs-Aliyevs confrontation, the unexpected visit of the former president’s daughter, Sevil Aliyeva, which stimulated wide-ranging political speculations, rumours and information in political circles could actually be assessed as a key pressure mechanism of the US-British tandem to put in motion in the near future.

True, the authorities may come up with certain alternatives to neutralize the West’s pressure. However, against expectations and opinions of many people, the forthcoming year of 2008 will be the most difficult and strained not only for the traditional opposition but also for the current authorities.

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