Experts in Baku are welcoming US President Barack Obama’s decision to appoint longtime Caucasus hand Matthew Bryza as ambassador to Azerbaijan. But many are cautioning that Bryza’s arrival is unlikely to break existing diplomatic logjams.
Bryza, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs under former President George W. Bush, was nominated as the US ambassador to Baku in May 2010, but saw his confirmation stall amid opposition in the US Senate. The post had been vacant since 2009.
With Baku’s mood steadily souring over the delay, President Obama on December 29 used a constitutional provision that allows him to send Bryza to Baku without Senate confirmation when the Senate is not in session. The Senate, however, must confirm Bryza’s nomination -- a so-called recess appointment -- by the end of 2011 for him to remain in the post.
In Baku, local political analysts hope that Bryza can bring positive change on two major issues – bilateral relations with Washington and the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks with Armenia.
Eldar Namazov, a former political aide to the late president Heydar Aliyev, underlined the timing of Bryza’s arrival in Baku. “It is a time when US-Azerbaijani bilateral relations need a serious reset, while the Karabakh peace talks urgently need new, positive stimuli,” Namazov said.
Ties between Washington and Baku, already on edge over the ongoing absence of a US ambassador and other issues, suffered further with the publication of a US Embassy cable by the WikiLeaks website that compared President Ilham Aliyev to mafia dons from The Godfather. [The State Department told reporters that Aliyev had “indicated” to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in a December 15 phone conversation that the WikiLeaks reports would not “affect our long-term relationship.”]
Nor is it the best of times for the Karabakh peace talks. Amid an uptick in military tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the December 2010 summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe left a question mark over the fate of the Minsk Group, comprising American, Russian and French mediators who oversee negotiations between Baku and Yerevan.
Namazov noted that Bryza’s experience in the South Caucasus means that the new American ambassador does not need to time to get up to speed on regional developments. Bryza already enjoys something akin to an informal fan club in both Azerbaijan and neighboring Georgia for what is seen as his personable communication style.
Another expert, Elhan Shahinoglu, the head of the Baku-based Atlas research center, cautions that the Azerbaijani government should not expect too much from Bryza. As ambassador to Baku, Bryza will like exert limited influence over the course of the Karabakh peace talks, Shahinoglu predicted.
“The process of Bryza’s confirmation as ambassador was difficult,” Shahinoglu noted. “It is clear that Armenian lobbying groups in the United States will continue to closely monitor his activity on the Karabakh problem. And I think that Bryza will be very careful in any statement or step concerning this issue, so as not to harm his career.”
More broadly, the Obama administration has focused on “improving relations with Russia and, thus, the South Caucasus region has stayed in the shadow of this policy,” Shahinoglu continued. “I am not sure that Matthew Bryza or any other US ambassador could change this trend.”
Vafa Guluzade, another former aide to the late president Heydar Aliyev, also sought to restrain expectations, saying that “it would be naïve to expect a real breakthrough in the major issues – resolution of the Karabakh conflict and US-Azerbaijani relations.”
Azerbaijani officials could not be reached for comment because of the ongoing New Year’s holiday.
While also cautious about Bryza’s ability to promote diplomatic breakthroughs, Baku-based political analyst Leyla Aliyeva said the new envoy’s arrival in Baku will nevertheless send a “positive message to Baku” that Washington wants a fresh start in bilateral relations in the coming year.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute Assistance Foundation -- Azerbaijan.