Azerbaijan and Armenia are both seeking to strengthen their ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, applying to be formal observers of the organization, the SCO's chief has said.
The China-led economic and security bloc is in expansion mode: in the upcoming summit in Ufa this summer India and Pakistan are expected to become full members. And according to SCO Secretary General Dimitriy Mezentsev, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, and Syria are applying to become observers.
Mezentsev, speaking at a press conference February 10, also put Iran in the same category of applicants as India and Pakistan, and said that there are "no legal obstacles" to them becoming members. So might Iran, too, be slated to join this summer?
Currently the SCO has six members: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. India, Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Afghanistan are observers, while Belarus, Sri Lanka, and Turkey are "dialog partners."
Neither Baku nor Yerevan has confirmed Mezentsev's statement. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan mooted the idea of becoming an SCO observer in 2013, but nothing came of it then.
It does seem like there is some real interest in Azerbaijan in becoming an observer. Independent member of parliament Rasim Musabekov said in an interview that "the SCO is a quite authoritative international forum, located not too far from Azerbaijan. Countries close to Azerbaijan like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyyrgyzstan are in it. So we're interested in being part of this forum." He added, though, that "this will in no way affect the resolution of the Karabakh problem."
Azerbaijani political analyst Asim Aliyev also supported the idea of stronger ties with the SCO:
If you look at the member states of the SCO, you can wonder why Azerbaijan is not already among countries like Turkey, Iran, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, with which our countries has close political and economic ties. This year the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway is being completed, which will be an important regional project, connecting Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the countries of Central Asia and China.
And he said it would open up economic opportunities in Asia:
This is about major financial investments of the state oil fund in Asian markets, in particular acquiring shares and real estate in the region. So it's important for the leadership of Azerbaijan to participate in the SCO, to play a more active part in integration projects.
It's not clear how seriously to take all this. Mezentsev also said that Ukraine, in July 2014, "verbally confirmed" its intention to become an SCO dialogue partner. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his efforts to show that Russia is not internationally isolated as a result of the Ukraine crisis, has seized on the SCO to demonstrate that Russia has friends, just not in the West. At the group's last summit, Putin tried and failed to get a strong consensus for Moscow's position on Ukraine. But who knows -- even the United States, which has been the direct target of some SCO initiatives, floated the possibility of becoming an observer in 2011.