US Vice President Dick Cheney, a polarizing political figure at home, is traveling in the Caucasus, aiming to rally local support for the US energy and strategic agenda in the region. Cheney's first stop September 3 was Azerbaijan, where he announced Washington's intention to ensure a "free stream" of oil and natural gas from the Caspian Basin to the West. For Azerbaijan, the Cheney visit signals the rapid approach of a moment when it will have to choose geopolitical sides between the United States and Russia, local experts say.
Cheney's tour of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine is a response to Russia's incursion into Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The lingering presence of Russian troops on Georgian soil is seen as a threatening development for US-backed energy supply routes traversing the Caucasus. All of these routes have experienced disruptions due to the Russian-Georgian conflict.
In Baku, Cheney sought to ease the jitters of local officials, who have been unnerved by the evident vulnerability of export routes that are not under Russian influence, especially the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas route. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Cheney conveyed a message that the Russian incursion had redoubled Washington's determination to diversify the means of exporting energy from the Caspian Basin.
"The United States has deep and strong interests in your [Azerbaijan's] welfare and security," Cheney said in a written statement distributed after he met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. "The United States is convinced that together with European countries and Turkey we have to work with Azerbaijan and other Caucasus and Central Asian countries to offer additional routes for energy [exports that] will guarantee a free stream."
In addition to meeting with Azerbaijani officials, Cheney was briefed on the latest developments in the Caucasus by US Embassy officials and by top executives of British Petroleum, a major energy developer and exporter in Azerbaijan. Local reporters were barred from having access to the US vice president.
Prior to Cheney's arrival, Anne Derse, the US envoy to Azerbaijan, said the visit would reinforce Washington's support for the "Euro-Atlantic integration aspirations" of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. "Many in the region are afraid now that these [Russia's recent] actions are directed not only against Georgia, but against all of those who have democratic aspirations," Derse said.
Experts in Baku believe Cheney's visit is coming at a pivotal moment for Azerbaijan. Citing the rapid spike in tension between Russia and the West over Georgia, some observers say that Baku's policy of trying to stay on good terms with both Washington and Moscow is no longer viable. The day is fast approaching when the Aliyev administration will have to confront a painful dilemma head-on.
"Azerbaijan will have to make a difficult geopolitical choice," Rauf Mirgadirov, a political columnist for the Zerkalo newspaper, told EurasiaNet in an interview on September 1.
Another expert, Elkhan Shahingolu, who heads the Atlas research center in Baku, also believes that the Caucasus crisis has left Azerbaijan no room for maneuver between Washington and Moscow. "Both Russian President [Dmitry] Medvedev and Western leaders have already signaled to regional countries that they should make a choice," Shahinoglu said.
To date, Azerbaijan has clearly sided with the West in the competition over Caspian Basin energy development and exports. But moving forward, Azerbaijan cannot be considered a sure bet to stick with the United States and European Union. Russia, in an attempt to lure Baku over to its side, has been dangling a lucrative offer to purchase large amounts of Azerbaijani gas at market prices. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Azerbaijani officials have thus far not shown an eagerness to accept the offer.
But experts believe the Russian incursion into Georgia may have altered the regional energy equation enough that it might prompt Baku to seriously contemplate going with Gazprom. The Azerbaijani government has been conspicuously neutral in its public pronouncements concerning the Georgian-Russian war. "It is not clear what Aliyev's choice will be," said Mirgadirov. "Most likely he will try to take his time."
Doubts in Baku may well have increased with the September 2 announcement that Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have agreed to construct a new gas pipeline that will feed into Russia. Such a route would seem to preclude the construction of the so-called Nabucco pipeline. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. However, the Uzbek announcement does not mean the pipeline will ever get built. Previous Russian-brokered pipeline deals with Central Asian states, in particular Prikaspiisky project, remain stalled due to various disagreements.
Shahinoglu expressed the belief that Cheney probably prodded Aliyev to pick a side. "Cheney most likely warned [Aliyev] that time for [fence sitting] is over and that Baku should be in the same group with Tbilisi in Kyiv," he said.
Mirgadirov suggested that Cheney may have renewed US efforts to secure a military presence in Azerbaijan, a proposition that American officials could now cast as a security guarantee against Russian pressure. In the past, Baku has resisted US overtures about basing American troops in the Caucasus country, not wanting to get directly involved in the long-running disputes between the United States and Iran, Azerbaijan's southern neighbor. Cheney's statement on September 3 made no mention of a possible US military presence in Azerbaijan.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku.