Lambasting Azerbaijan

In a publication aptly named The American Interest, I was rather surprised to read an article calling for an action so blatantly and obviously contrary to America’s national interest. Writers David Kramer and Richard Kauzlarich (“Time for Sanctions on Baku,”) decided that the United States should sanction its tested regional ally and the most independent nation in the post-Soviet space, the Republic of Azerbaijan. Apparently oblivious to the happenings in the world from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine leading to potential destabilization of the entire region of Eastern Europe and the barbarian war flared up by ISIS radicals in the Middle East, the authors seem enviably engrossed in their own myopic view of the world.

As someone, who stands in opposition to and is frequently critical of my government, I can understand and accept constructive criticism of Azerbaijan’s shortcomings. I engage in criticism and do it often myself. However, what I cannot accept is a coordinated, selective and special agenda-driven campaign of intimidation against Azerbaijan. If anything, such campaigns sharpen divides in the society and do not benefit the much needed process of reforms. Both Kramer and Kauzlarich are well-known critics of Azerbaijan’s government; equally well-known are their personal feelings towards Baku. However, justified they may be in feeling personally upset, this is neither a good basis for a policy, nor does it serve the American interest.

On the contrary, pushing away, antagonizing and disengaging from the most valuable ally in the region serves only the Kremlin’s or Tehran’s interests. Strangely, such an obvious situation doesn’t enter the authors’ narrowly focused calculations. I am far from trying to justify the problems the civil society is facing in Azerbaijan and the region as a whole. In fact, many of the people the authors name, should be out of jail and organizations should be allowed to operate with less restrictions. However, even a cursory look at recent history would show that this is a not a result of America’s high regional profile or active engagement, but rather Washington’s evident disengagement, an approach curiously sought both by Messrs Kramer and Kauzlarich and Russia’s leaders.

Such a narrow view would be similar to seeing U.S. solely through the lens of Gitmo or recent events in Ferguson, a tactic conveniently adopted by Russian and Iranian propagandists. Strangely, while the targets are different, the approach is the same.

For a former Assistant Secretary of State and a former ambassador, both authors show a significant misunderstanding of the threat posed by Russia’s relentless expansion and spreading religious radicalism in the region. It also puzzles me why they chose as their target the most prosperous nation in the former Soviet Union, a widely acknowledged tolerant society, a strategic partner of the West in the countering terror, the most modern Muslim society, and the source of the only supply of piped natural gas to Europe alternative to Russia’s, the Southern Gas Corridor. They seem to ignore the fact that Armenia, which continues to illegally occupy 20 percent of my country, voted against Ukrainian territorial integrity along with nations like Cuba, North Korea, Sudan and Russia, and has just gave up on its sovereignty by joining Putin’s Customs Union. Apparently, for the authors, the American interest varies according to personal feelings.

I believe that greater U.S. engagement is in America’s and Azerbaijan’s interest. It is also helpful in strengthening civil society and promoting reforms. Such engagement cannot, however, ignore strategic issues, such as the need for a peaceful, international law-based solution to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, or the threats posed by Russia to its neighbors. Nor should such engagement apply different standards to countries of the region in pursuit of special interest agenda. Of course, personal agendas are equally unhelpful.

As for the claims that Azerbaijan has no strategic significance, a look at a map showing Azerbaijan being the only nation in the world bordering both Russia and Iran, as well as the attention and amount of time the authors spend trying to prove my country’s lack of importance speak for themselves. Azerbaijan deserves a more comprehensive and strategic view; so does the American national interest.

Mollazade is a member of the Parliament of the Republic of Azerbaijan (Milli Majlis) and the chairman of the Party of Democratic Reforms.