One of the countries that gained independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 is the Republic Azerbaijan. The country is located in the Caucasus and bounded by the Caspian Sea, Russia, Iran, Georgia and Armenia. It’s president Ilham Aliyev rules the country with a firm hand and his party has a big majority in parliament and is almost unopposed. Economically, Azerbaijan is doing really good due to it’s oil and natural gas resources. Also, Azerbaijan is one of the most successful ex-Soviet states in regards to literacy, human and economic development and has a low unemployment rate. Furthermore Azerbaijan is gaining power in the region and there are some reasons why it is important to keep an eye on what is going on regarding Azerbaijan.
1. There is no peace with Armenia
The Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) War between Azerbaijan and Armenia stopped with a cease fire which lasts for almost 20 years now. But there was never a peace treaty signed and the conflict is still going on, be it (almost) without bloodshed. Armenia successfully gained control over Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other Azeri provinces which it still occupies. The ‘liberation’ of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenia and it’s independence were never recognized by the international community and therefore the region is de jure part of Azerbaijan. Both sides still keep their trenches guarded and sometimes shots are exchanged that once in a while cause casualties.
The two countries both followed a different path after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At first they started likewise, but Azerbaijan prospered, thanks to it’s economic advantages, and Armenia stood still in the decade that followed. The fighting in the NK War came to an end with Armenia having the upper hand, but since that moment a lot has changed. Because of it’s prosperous economy, Azerbaijan was able to strengthen it’s army while the Armenian army remained in the same condition. Armenia’s military budget for 2012 was 312 million USD, while the budget for Azerbaijan’s armed forces was 4,4 billion USD for that same year. Azerbaijan has invested millions in the upgrade of it’s armies equipment.
Recently, things got heated up when Hungary released an Azeri officer who hacked an Armenian officer to death with an axe during a NATO training in Hungary. The Azeri officer received a hero’s welcome when he returned in his home country. Incidents at the Armenia-Azerbaijan border also contribute to the deterrence of the situation as well as strong words from Aliyev regarding a possible re-taking of the occupied seven provinces and NK.
Armenia and Azerbaijan are allied with different regional powers which could cause for a major instability in the region when the two countries clash. Armenia has strong connections with Russia, while Azerbaijan is supported by Turkey and cooperates with Israel. A renewed AR-AZ conflict could put, notably, Russia and Turkey against each other causing tensions in the region.
In conclusion: the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is very lively today, the latter has build up it’s army in recent years and it’s president is determined to take back what was lost. Regional alliances could turn this conflict into a serious clash of powers and might turn into a proxy war between, for instance, Turkey and Russia.
2. Caspian Sea troubles with Turkmenistan and Iran
Azerbaijan has a conflict with Turkmenistan and Iran about it’s borders in the Caspian Sea. There are oil field located there and all three countries claim that the oil fields lie within their nautical borders. Informal reports say that the Turkmenistan navy fired shots at an Azerbaijani oil rig. Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have clashed over this before and it is likely to happen again. Turkmenistan is less developed than Azerbaijan and relatively weak compared to Azerbaijan’s military power. Iran on the other hand is stronger than Azerbaijan and they have some other disputes as well (see below). If the Caspian energy dispute isn’t dealt with, this could lead to conflict in the future.
3. A blast from the past: The Turkemenchay Treaty
Last week Iranian law-makers introduced a bill to re-annex (parts of) Azerbaijan. The Treaty of Turkmenchay was signed in 1828 as a result of the Russo-Persian War (1826-1828). With this treaty Persia renounced it’s claims over several territories on the Persian-Russian border, including (parts of) nowadays Azerbaijan. Iranian law-makers claim what in their eyes is legally theirs, but strangely enough, on the other side of the border the same thing is going on as well. Azerbaijani law-makers suggest that some parts of Iran belong to Azerbaijan and they have even stated that Azerbaijan should be called “Northern Azerbaijan“, suggesting that there is a “Southern-Azerbaijan” which lies within Iranian territory. The friction between Iran and Azerbaijan is striking since both countries have a Shia Muslim majority and have shared linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Both claim territory of each other and from Iranian side this is fuelled by the connection Azerbaijan has with Israel. If Iran and Israel clash, Azerbaijan could assist Israel by attacking Iran from the north. It seems that Azerbaijan is already helping Israeli intelligence, so a scenario in which Azerbaijan is providing ground assault assistance to Israel in case of a war with Iran isn’t unthinkable. This could be a chance for Azerbaijan to annex the Iranian provinces that they claim.
4. A Shia – Sunni clash
Parts of the Muslim world are currently shaken by historical conflicts fuelled by division of religion. Shia populations are under attack by Salafists, an extremist branch of the Sunni Muslims, in Syria and Iraq. In Bahrain the Sunni government is being attacked by the Shia majority people, Al-Qaeda front man Al Zawahiri has called upon “all true Muslims to take up arms and fight” by which he means that the Sunni Muslims should attack the “heretic” Shi’ites. Geopolitically the Sunni / Shia division becomes apparent as well. There are only a few countries in the world that have a Shia majority: Iran, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon. Syria has a dominantly Sunni population but is ruled by Shia (Assad). The conflict there is being fought among religious lines since Turkey, Qatar and Saudi-Arabia, all Sunni countries, actively support the opposition in Syria. All of those countries are also unfriendly towards Iran, the major Shia country in the world. There have been claims that a “Shi’te holocaust” is going on and in that case Azerbaijan is a logical target as well. When “Syrian” opposition fighting groups like Al-Nusra have their hands free when Assad falls, one may only guess where they will turn next. Lebanon is an easy and nearby victim. Iraq is being torn apart by internal religious conflict, incited by Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, an Al-Qaeda branch) which is trying to fuel a civil war and probably Al-Nusra will go there as well. Azerbaijan could also become a target because of it’s Shia majority. Mujahideen fighters from Chechenya and Afghanistan supported Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh War against Orthodox Christian Armenia in name of Jihad, but they can turn against Azerbaijan as well. Also in the name of Jihad. This scenario is very speculative and leans upon conspiracy theories, but it is undeniable that there is a trend in which Islamist extermists specifically target Shia communities and in that light Azerbaijan is a real target.