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CAUCASUS UPDATE

In this section, we publish the weekly analysis of the major events taking place in the Caucasus and beyond. The Caucasus Update is written by our Senior Editor Alexander Jackson. Click here to subscribe.

Israel’s January war with the Palestinian militant organisation Hamas created a dilemma for governments around the world – how to reconcile public opinion, which by and large opposed Israel’s actions, with their own distaste for Hamas and their ties with the Jewish state. Nowhere was this dilemma sharper than in those Muslim states which have a relatively good relationship with Israel. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vented his anger at the Davos summit by storming out of a heated debate with the Israeli president Shimon Peres. Commentators are divided over whether the row will have any lasting impact on Turkish-Israeli ties, which are generally very good, but the incident certainly won him support at home.

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has avoided similar drama, but is faced with the same problem. Azerbaijan is almost unique in the Muslim world (with the exception of Turkey) for the strength and depth of its cooperation with Israel. The long-standing Jewish minority in Azerbaijan, the fundamentally secular nature of Azerbaijani society and the Azerbaijani state, and shared strategic interests provide a basis for a remarkably warm relationship.

‘Shared strategic interests’ essentially means the containment of Iran, and to a lesser extent Russia. Neither Tel Aviv nor Baku has any interest in seeing the spread of Tehran’s particular brand of Islamic theocracy, no matter how faded the ‘revolutionary’ aspect of it has become in the 30 years since the fall of the Shah. The extent of Israel’s antagonistic relationship with Iran is well documented, and it is keen to see Azerbaijan from following a similar course to its southern neighbour for both military and geopolitical reasons. Militarily, Tel Aviv has (along with Washington) repeatedly pressured Baku for basing rights in the event of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, although Azerbaijan has diplomatically refused. According to a 2005 report by a US think-tank, Israel might have also set up listening posts on the Azerbaijani-Iranian border, and trains Azerbaijani intelligence agencies and security forces. Geopolitically, Israel has a vested interest in maintaining the pro-Western Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan axis in Eurasia, all of which are stridently opposed to Islamist movements in their respective neighbourhoods and all of which constitute the East-West energy corridor to Europe which Israel may one day attempt to join. In economic terms, Israel is Azerbaijan’s sixth-largest trading partner and has allegedly been heavily involved in Azerbaijan’s oil and gas sectors.

Israel’s support for Azerbaijan was evident as early as 1992, when it became one of the first to recognise the new state. Bilateral political and economic relations developed steadily since then. There is an intensive military cooperation between the two countries. An interesting struggle has also emerged in Washington between the Armenian lobby, attempting to persuade the US Congress to recognise the alleged genocide in 1915 by the Ottoman Turks, and the Jewish lobby, which continues to influence the considerations of US policymakers. As part of their strategic alliance with Turkey and Azerbaijan, Israel and the Jewish lobby have refused to support the genocide resolution and have assisted Turkish efforts to block it. This careful quid pro quo appears to be unravelling in the wake of Ankara’s criticism of the Gaza war. In this context, Azerbaijan may have a critical role to play as a peacemaker between its two allies.

Alongside excellent relations with Israel, Azerbaijan has also been trying to maintain warm relations with the Arab world. And it is mainly due to this fact that Azerbaijan is refusing to open an embassy in Jerusalem in spite of constant Israeli calls.

Nevertheless, Baku’s support of Israel (and the West) has come at a cost, mainly at home. Although the level of radical Islam in Azerbaijan is hotly disputed, the government acknowledges that there are militant organisations operating there, including Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Hezbollah, who make no secret of their loathing of Israel or the West. Indeed, the Times of London recently reported that in 2008 Azerbaijani Intelligence foiled a Hezbollah plot to blow up the Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan, in revenge for the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, the organisation’s military chief. Late last year rumours surfaced that the North Caucasian Islamic resistance was attempting to establish a branch in Azerbaijan, and was responsible for a mysterious bomb attack on a Baku mosque in August 2008. And in 2007 the Azerbaijani security services had foiled a major attack on Western embassies and oil companies by army deserters.

During  the Gaza war attempts were made to protest outside the Israeli embassy in Baku, although the demonstrations were blocked by the authorities. Of far more concern were the series of angry protests held in the religiously conservative village of Nardaran near Baku, during which death threats were made against an MP, Sabir Rustamkhanli, who suggested during an interview with an Iranian TV station that Hamas was partly to blame for the conflict. The protesters also demanded that the Azerbaijani government cut all ties with Israel. This is not the first time that Nardaran, which is supposed to have strong connections to Iran, has been a source of concern for the authorities: in 2002 and again in 2006 there were angry demonstrations against perceived corruption and a lack of services. Although it would be exaggerating to portray Nardaran as a hotbed of radical Islam, the village is inevitably the focal point of religious protests and could become a significant anti-government location if relations between the authorities and the Islamic community deteriorate.

The Azerbaijani government must therefore tread carefully. Its close relationship with Israel and America will be viewed with great hostility by supporters of the Palestinian cause and those who feel that the government is already ‘selling out’ to the West by allowing Western companies to invest so heavily in the country’s energy riches. Deepening ties with Israel, or further Israeli actions against Muslim states, will provoke religious anger on the streets and increase the appeal of parties such as the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, which demands an Iranian-style Islamic state as the only answer to Azerbaijan’s problems. But giving up such a productive and lucrative relationship with Tel Aviv is not an option, for economic as well as strategic reasons. For now this painful dilemma can be avoided or fudged. But there is no doubt that what Baku fears most is an Israeli attack on Iran. This would be a serious test on the country’s balancing act, and would raise the spectre of further radicalism inside Azerbaijan.



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PREVIOUS ISSUES

  Caspian Compromise Backfires for Russia and Iran, CU Issue 83, November 24, 2010
  Turkey in a Tight Spot on Missile Defense, CU Issue 82, November 11, 2010
  The OSCE and Kyrgyzstan’s Election, CU Issue 81, October 30, 2010
  Unblocking the US-Azerbaijan Relationship, CU Issue 80, October 07, 2010
  Nabucco Pipeline: Quo Vadis?, CU Issue 79, September 30, 2010
  Russia tightens its grip in the South Caucasus, CU Issue 78, August 23, 2010
  Armenian Politics: Rigidity Versus Flexibility, CU Issue 77, August 10, 2010
  Russia and Georgia: Ready To Talk?, CU Issue 76, July 21, 2010
  Can the US walk and chew gum at the same time?, CU Issue 75, July 9, 2010
  The Kyrgyzstan Crisis – A Qualified Success for Turkish Diplomacy?, CU Issue 74, June 24, 2010
  Brussels downgrades the Caucasus, CU Issue 73, June 07, 2010
  NATO’s New Strategic Concept and the Caspian Region, CU Issue 72, June 01, 2010
  Joe Biden and European Security, CU Issue 71, May 13, 2010
  Behind the US-Azerbaijan row, CU Issue 70, May 6, 2010
  Turkey and Iran: The risks of failure, CU Issue 69, April 30, 2010
  Kazakhstan, the OSCE, and the crisis in Kyrgyzstan, CU Issue 68, April 19, 2010
  The Implications of the Moscow Bombings, CU Issue 67, April 12, 2010
  Iran Manoeuvres for a role in Karabakh, CU Issue 66, April 5, 2010
  The EU and Abkhazia: Between a rock and a hard place, CU Issue 65, March 16, 2010
  Fallout from the US ‘Genocide’ vote, CU Issue 64, March 9, 2010
  Ukraine's elections and future of GUAM, CU Issue 63, February 10, 2010
  Less Democracy, More Security: Kazakhstan and the OSCE, CU Issue 62, January 18, 2010
  Tackling the North Caucasus Insurgency: Development or Rhetoric?, CU Issue 61, January 11, 2010
  The Caspian Region in 2010, CU Issue 60, January 4, 2010
  The Caspian Region in 2010, CU Issue 59, December 31, 2009
  The Turkmenistan-China Pipeline Changes the Energy Balance, CU Issue 58, December 21, 2009
  Russia’s European Security Treaty, CU Issue 57, December 7, 2009
  The ‘Kidnapping War’ in Georgia and its Implications, CU Issue 56, December 3, 2009
  Azerbaijan Shifts its Energy Priorities, CU Issue 55, November 23, 2009
  The South Caucasian States and Afghanistan, CU Issue 54, November 11, 2009
  Is Turkey turning East?, CU Issue 53, November 2, 2009
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  Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan: Where Next?, CU Issue 51, October 19, 2009
  The Armenians of Georgia: A New Flashpoint in the Caucasus?, CU Issue 50, October 12, 2009
  Turkey’s EU Membership: Will The ‘Armenian Opening’ Help?, CU Issue 49, October 5, 2009
  The Missile Defence Shift: Implications for the Caucasus, CU Issue 48, September 22, 2009
  Rising Tensions in the Black Sea , CU Issue 47, September 14, 2009
  Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan: The Clock Is Ticking, CU Issue 46, September 7, 2009
  The Battle of the Bases in Central Asia, CU Issue 45, August 31, 2009
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  The Implications of the Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan Dispute, CU Issue 42, August 10, 2009
  What has changed since the August war?, CU Issue 41, August 3, 2009
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  Ingushetia: The New Chechnya?, CU Issue 38, June 29, 2009
  Georgias Economy - A Matter for Diplomats, CU Issue 37, June 22, 2009
  ‘Progress’ In The Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Process, CU Issue 36, June 08, 2009
  Iran's Azerbaijanis and the presidential election, CU Issue 35, June 01, 2009
  Nabucco and South Stream - The Race Heats Up, CU Issue 34, May 25, 2009
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  The Obama Administration’s Emerging Caucasus Policy, CU Issue 31, April 27, 2009
  Integration and Division in the Caspian Sea, CU Issue 30, April 20, 2009
  The Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement - Implications for the South Caucasus, CU Issue 29, April 13, 2009
  Turkey's local elections and Armenian issue, CU Issue 28, April 6, 2009
  Is There Life Left In The Nabucco Project?, CU Issue 27, March 30, 2009
  Problems and Prospects for Russian Military Reform, CU Issue 26, March 23, 2009
  Russia and Georgia: Not back to war, CU Issue 25, March 16, 2009
  Armenia: Heading towards crisis?, CU Issue 24, March 9, 2009
  Drug trafficking in the Caucasus, CU Issue 23, February 23, 2009
  Russian-led military block: A real counterweight to NATO?, CU Issue 22, February 16, 2009
  Are the International Missions in Georgia still relevant?, CU Issue 21, February 9, 2009
  Israel and Azerbaijan: Baku’s Balancing Act, CU Issue 20, February 2, 2009
  The North Caucasus in 2009: A Bleak Forecast, CU Issue 19, January 26, 2009
  The Military Balance in Nagorno-Karabakh, CU Issue 18, January 19, 2009
  Russia, Iran, and Barack Obama in 2009, Part II, CU Issue 17, January 12, 2009
  Looking forward to 2009 in the Caucasus and beyond, Part I, CU Issue 16, January 5, 2009
  The opportunities and the risks of NATO’s new supply routes, CU Issue 15, December 22, 2008
  The Black Sea Ambitions of Armenia, CU Issue 14, December 15, 2008
  Another Small Step for Nabucco, CU Issue 13, December 8, 2008
  Will Saakashvili survive politically?, CU Issue 12, December 1, 2008
  The latest fashion: conflict mediation, CU Issue 11, November 24, 2008
  The Baku Energy Summit, CU Issue 10, November 17, 2008
  Obama and the Caucasus, CU Issue 9, November 10, 2008
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  Is the Minsk Group being sidelined?, CU Issue 7, October 27, 2008
  Gas and oil developments in the Caspian region, CU Issue 6, October 20, 2008
  Where next for the Georgian peace process?, CU Issue 5, October 8, 2008
  Unrest in the North Caucasus, CU Issue 4, September 29, 2008
  Saakashvili's future, CU Issue 3, September 22, 2008
  Iran after the Georgian War, CU Issue 2, September 15, 2008
  Football diplomacy, CU Issue 1, September 8, 2008
       
 
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