Nursultan Nazarbayev and Ilham Aliyev, the presidents of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, respectively, at an April 3 press conference in Baku. (photo: president.az)
Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev traveled across the Caspian on an official visit to Azerbaijan, where the agenda focused on trade. The dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, meanwhile, loomed large, albeit behind the scenes.
Nazarbayev was supposed to visit Baku last October, and on the same trip go to the summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Yerevan. But he canceled, citing illness, though many suspected that he in fact skipped the whole thing in order not to have to go to Yerevan. And it's telling that this time around, he went only to Baku with no visit to Yerevan on the horizon.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev warmly welcomed Nazarbayev on April 3, calling him a "dear friend" of Azerbaijan and praising Kazakhstan as a "brotherly" country. At the same time, Kazakhstan is increasingly seen in Yerevan as hostile to Armenia, which is awkward as Armenia and Kazakhstan are supposed to be treaty allies in the CSTO. And there is an ongoing drama about a change of leadership in the CSTO: the organization has promised that the next secretary general will be an Armenian, but many Armenians have accused Kazakhstan (along with Belarus) of doing Azerbaijan's bidding by blocking that move.
At a joint appearance, Aliyev suggested that Kazakhstan had signed on to its version of the Karabakh conflict -- that it should be resolved on the principle of the inviolability of borders. "These basic points are reflected in the declaration that we signed today," he said. "This is another sign of the principled position of Kazakhstan on the resolution of the conflict." (The declaration was not made public.)
"Kazakhstan unambiguously supports the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and thereby brings a constructive contribution to the process of unblocking the territorial dispute between Baku and Yerevan," said Azerbaijan analyst Tofik Abbasov, in an interview with Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
For his part, Nazarbayev avoided any categorical statements about Karabakh: "In general, Kazakhstan supports warm relations with Azerbaijan as well as with Armenia and Georgia."
The focus of the public comments, though, was on trade: Nazarbayev said that the current volume of trade, $140 million per year, could be increased to $500 million "in the short term." Transcontinental trade was a big point of emphasis: Nazarbayev talked up the Chinese "One Belt, One Road" initiative, and Aliyev touted the allegedly-soon-to-open Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway that will connect the Caspian Sea into the Turkish and European railway systems.
"Recently all of Nazarbayev's foreign policy voyages are connected to a great degree with the necessity of attracting investments to Kazakhstan's economy," Kazakhstan analyst Talgat Mamyraiymov told Sputnik Azerbaijan. "Kazakhstan is already one of the leading operators in this project, and now Kazakhstan is developing the southern direction and plans to send goods through Iran and the Caspian Sea."
Both Azerbaijan's and Kazakhstan's economies are suffering, and for the same reason: they rely heavily on energy, the cost of which has dramatically dropped in recent years. So it's not clear how much investment Kazakhstan can hope for from Azerbaijan.
Still, intercontinental trade represents a real possibility for development in the region, said Luca Anceschi, a lecturer on Central Asian studies at the University of Glasgow.
"Cross-Caspian commerce should be a priority for Kazakh policy-makers, especially as it may open new opportunity beyond the Caucasus," Anceschi said in an email interview with EurasiaNet. "Also, it seems to me that, if Kazakhstan really wants to be a bridge between Europe and Asia, opening up a route through the Caspian may actually change this selective interpretation of Eurasia advanced by Nazarbaev and associates. But this needs to go beyond words, and only time will tell whether these talks are actually relevant."