The United States is reinforcing its diplomatic standing in Azerbaijan in hopes of making a "spring offensive" in the Caspian Basin.
Over the past several years, the United States has seen its geopolitical influence in the Caspian Basin shrink significantly. The US loss has been primarily Russia's gain, as Moscow has moved aggressively to establish a dominant position in the energy-export sphere.
Despite being bogged down by the Iraq war, Washington shows no intention of ceding the Caspian Basin great game over energy resources to the Kremlin. Signs have emerged in recent months that the United States would like to retake some of the territory it has lost to Russia, in the hopes of breaking Moscow's near-energy monopoly in the region. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In particular, Washington is keen to secure Ashgabat's participation in the long-planned Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP), a route that would circumvent Russia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Turkmen leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has expressed interest in the project, but has yet to make any firm commitment. To help raise the odds of American success, US elected officials have been diplomatically doting on Azerbaijan, Washington's lone reliable ally in the region, as well as the country that stands to be connected to Turkmenistan via the TCP.
Since the start of 2008, three high-profile US delegations have visited the Azerbaijani capital Baku. The most influential visitor was US Senator Richard Lugar, Republican from Indiana and a major force in the US foreign policy establishment. During his January 13-14 stopover in Baku, Lugar met with President Ilham Aliyev, members of parliament, leaders of opposition parties, along with heads of the State Oil Company and the State Oil Fund.
Following the meeting with Aliyev, Lugar called on the Bush administration to appoint a diplomatic troubleshooter for Caspian Basin Energy Issues. "The appointment of special representative will be a signal that U.S. regards this region as a priority," Lugar said.
Baku was the final stop for Lugar on a tour that also took him to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. While in Azerbaijan, Lugar noted that both Kazakh and Turkmen leaders stressed a desire to keep their energy options open. "These countries want to diversify routes of their energy resources' export and this mean they do not want to depend on Russia," Lugar said. Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey have the same position. "Moscow should consider these opinions," Lugar added.
Preceding Lugar in Azerbaijan were two congressional delegations, one led by California Democrat Robert Wexler, head of the House Subcommittee on Europe, and the other comprising four Republican members of the House of Representatives.
Rasim Musabekov, an independent Baku-based political analyst, said the visits indicated that the Bush administration felt a sense of urgency to achieve diplomatic results in the Caspian Basin during the first part of 2008, due to the approach of the US presidential vote in November. In its remaining time in power, the Bush administration wants to fulfill goals not only in the energy sphere, but also in other areas, including thwarting Iran's nuclear program and the stabilization of Iraq.
"They [Bush administration officials] want to do much during the time they have left. It is possible that some plans concerning our region in regards of Iran have changed recently. Therefore, these visits aimed to sound Azerbaijan's position and to see what the United States could count upon here," Musabekov said.
Ilgar Mammadov, another Baku-based expert, believes the US interest in Azerbaijan has something to do with the recent elections in Georgia. "The post-election situation in Georgia is becoming clear. The referendum on Georgia's integration into NATO and the European Union showed clear support of Georgians of this process. It means Georgia will accelerate the pace of its NATO integration now," Mammadov said in an interview with EurasiaNet. [For background see EurasiaNet special feature on the Georgian election].
Mammadov said Azerbaijan always had lagged behind Georgia on the NATO integration issue. But given the Georgian referendum, Baku may come under pressure to accelerate its own integration pace, something that could easily stoke tension with its northern and southern neighbors, Russia and Iran. "These visits pursued two purposes to check Baku's willingness for real NATO integration, and, if yes, to encourage this choice."
NATO integration, according to Mammadov, would facilitate Western efforts to promote the reduction of Europe's present dependency on Russian energy supplies. "Therefore it is clear that energy issues were the focus of the talks in Baku," he said.
Rovshan Ismayilov is a freelance journalist based in Baku.