EU’s hopes of using Azerbaijan as a gas station at risk of exploding

EU’s hopes of using Azerbaijan as a gas station at risk of exploding
Опубликовано: Tuesday, 11 April 2023 05:17

A new war between Azerbaijan and Armenia would mean trouble for Brussels and its effort to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels.

Gas and oil from Azerbaijan are crucial to the EU’s effort to replace Russian fossil fuels — but that’s in danger of becoming entangled in the bloc’s bid to become a power player in the war-torn South Caucasus.

The EU has sent a civilian mission to help police the Armenian side of the tense mountainous border between the two countries, which has Azerbaijan warning of foreign interference in its affairs.

At the same time, a European Parliament report condemning Azerbaijan’s human rights record is sparking howls of outrage from the country.

All of that is casting a shadow over the EU’s high-profile deal with Azerbaijan to double its annual gas deliveries to the bloc to 20 billion cubic meters by 2027.

Speaking to POLITICO on condition of anonymity, a senior official in the EU’s diplomatic service bemoaned the fact that the monitoring mission seems to have soured relations. “We were hoping for a different scenario with Baku. We are sharing all relevant information on patrols and so on with Azerbaijan because we don’t want any issues.”

With Russia distracted by its catastrophic war against Ukraine, Brussels hoped to boost its presence in the South Caucasus, building economic ties with Azerbaijan while offering political support to neighboring Armenia in an effort to keep a balance between the two rival states.

But that’s not the way the 100 monitors — announced by Brussels in January after a two-day war last September — are being seen by Baku.

In a speech last month, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev blasted outside interference in his country’s standoff with Armenia over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh. “The mediators involved in the Karabakh conflict [try] not to solve the issue but to freeze it,” he declared, arguing Baku rejected efforts to “tire us out with meaningless negotiations.”

In 2020, Aliyev launched a successful military offensive retaking swathes of Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway region inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders but controled since the fall of the USSR by its ethnic Armenian population. That conflict ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire, but tensions are rising and there’s fear of a return to full-blown fighting.

“Many Armenians believe there’ll be a spring offensive by Azerbaijan,” Markus Ritter, head of the EU mission, told Deutsche Welle. “If this doesn’t happen, our mission is already a success.”

Days before, the country’s state media alleged the EU mission is actually helping “provoke Azerbaijan into a new war,” leaving the “EU to bear the blame” for any new conflict.

“Azerbaijan and Russia are basically saying the same thing — that the EU mission is a military-intelligence operation under the cover of monitoring,” the EU official added. “They’ve been trying to discredit the mission, which is exclusively civilian and unarmed, from the beginning and there’s not much we can do about it.

The EU mission could be seen by Armenians as an attempt to cement the bloc’s presence in the region | Olivier Chassignole/AFP via Getty Images

Vaqif Sadıqov, the head of Azerbaijan’s mission to the EU, told POLITICO that the presence of the monitors near the border with Azerbaijan is worrying Baku.

“This is a bilateral issue between Armenia and the EU, but it is happening a few hundred meters from our own border posts and in a heavily militarized environment where we have Russian border guards, Armenian border guards, Russian regular units, Armenian regular units and, closer to the Iranian border, Iran’s military. Now we also have EU peacekeepers. So we have legitimate security questions," he said.

Sadıqov warned the mission could be seen as an effort by Brussels to bolster its presence in the region.

Parliament gets involved

Baku is also reacting with fury after the European Parliament last month backed a report that “condemns the latest large-scale military aggression by Azerbaijan in September,” accuses the country of undermining the peace process and “underlines the EU’s readiness to be more actively involved in settling the region’s protracted conflicts.”

The resolution, voted through by the Committee on Foreign Affairs, argued Azerbaijan’s “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms is still very negative and needs to be improved before the EU further deepens its political and energy partnership with the country.” Repression of opposition activists, cases of torture and the absence of an independent judiciary were all highlighted in the motion.

The international relations committee in the Azerbaijani parliament fired back, alleging the EU decision bore an “unbearable stench of corruption." It accused MEPs of being swayed by “Armenia and the Armenian diaspora, long since a cancerous tumor of Europe.”

“Concerns about human rights from the EU irritate officials in Baku,” said Ahmad Mammadli, an Azerbaijani democracy activist and chairman of the opposition 1918 Movement. He’s now calling for sanctions on the country, arguing: "Western pressure on authoritarian states is always possible, as long as it is not exchanged for natural resources."

Efforts by Brussels to calm tensions are falling short.

Last month, European Council President Charles Michel held calls with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to discuss the situation on the ground and “stress the EU’s readiness to help advance … peace and stability in the region.” However, just hours later, Azerbaijan confirmed that its troops had again pushed into the ceasefire zone in Nagorno-Karabakh and asserted effective control over a road it alleges is being used by the Armenians to bring in weapons.

Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank, said Brussels is still holding out hope it can broker a solution to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia — one of the world’s most protracted disputes.

“The EU is making approaches to both sides to try and restart the peace process. From the outside it looks menacing, but when you speak to people on the inside there’s still hope that we haven’t run out of road just yet,” he said.

But if that effort collapses, he warned there could be growing calls for sanctions on Azerbaijan from Western countries — which could spell trouble for the EU’s effort to use Azerbaijan as an alternative for Russian fossil fuels.

This story has been updated with comment from Markus Ritter, head of the EU mission.

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