21.04.2023 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Heydar Aliyev and Zbigniew Brzezinski – what did they agree on?..

Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev and Zbigniew Brzezinski

The modern Republic of Azerbaijan occupies an important geographic location in the South Caucasus, being the western shore of the Caspian Sea and a “gateway” to the resource-rich region of Central Asia (historical Turkestan). Geography, as a rule, largely determines the policy of the state. And it is this geographical feature of Azerbaijan that has determined the role and place of the republic in the region, as well as in the system of geopolitical contradictions of the leading world actors. However, geography itself, being an objective factor, does not solve political and economic issues, if there is no effective subjective side (i.e. a large-scale personality of the state leader, capable of adequately assessing the advantages and showing the will to make political decisions).

This year on May 10 Azerbaijan will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the outstanding national and state political figure Heydar Aliyev whose whole conscious life was infinitely related to the history of Soviet and independent Azerbaijan. There is no need to describe the political biography and life path of the national leader of modern Azerbaijan. It can only be noted that Heydar Aliyev, thanks to his personal talent, years of experience in state activity and political charisma, made an invaluable contribution to both the history of Soviet Azerbaijan and the establishment of independence of the modern Azerbaijan Republic. Of course, there were achievements and losses along the way, but Aliyev was able to set a goal and go to it regardless of circumstances.

Heydar Alirza Aliyev’s second “ascension to power” was associated with a difficult period in the life of the Azerbaijani state, when its army suffered devastating defeats in Nagorno-Karabakh and was losing territories. Aliyev’s predecessor, President Abulfaz Elchibey (Aliyev), found himself in such a critical situation largely due to his straightforward pro-Turkish policy.

When he came to power in the summer of 1992, Elchibey was initially successful in his offensive in the north and south of the Karabakh front. The latter was in no small part due to Turkish military advisors and mercenaries from the former Soviet military. However, Elchibey did not have much experience in public service, did not have a professional government, and most importantly, in the matter of Azerbaijani oil and gas exports he took an unambiguously pro-Turkish and anti-Russian position. Perhaps it was the lack of diplomatic flexibility that caused the failure and subsequent forced resignation of President Elchibey under Turkish guarantees. In the summer of 1993, the leader of the Popular Front was forced to swap places with the experienced Heydar Aliyev (in terms of both status and place of residence). Elchibey returned to his ancestral village of Kelekçi in Nakhichevan, while Aliyev moved from Nakhichevan to Baku and took over the leadership of Azerbaijan.

The Karabakh conflict after the collapse of the USSR was not only the result of the Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation for the right to possess this Armenian province, but also a place of confrontation of interests of ambitious world actors far removed from Karabakh itself.

Russia, according to its national interests and the history of its presence in the region for the last 200 years, has been objectively trying to keep its influence in the post-Soviet area in general and in the South Caucasus particularly. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the secession of the former Soviet republics, the South Caucasus became an object of increased foreign interest on the part of new players (traditionally the closest geographical neighbors, Turkey and Iran, as well as influential world actors – including the United States, Britain, France, Israel, China and India).

Heydar Aliyev sensed very subtly the attention and interests of external players to the region and Azerbaijan in particular, its strategic resources (oil and gas), geographical proximity to Russia and Iran, and access to the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. The unsuccessful course of military operations for Azerbaijan in 1993-1994 demanded that the leader act to rule out a tragic outcome and the collapse of its statehood, seek new opportunities for a peaceful respite, and concentrate on breakthrough development.

That is why Heydar Aliyev did not agree to sign the Bishkek ceasefire protocol until he received the necessary guarantees from the West to stop the Armenian army offensive as well. In April 1994, Aliyev urgently set course for Ankara and after consultations with President Suleiman Demirel went to London with the necessary recommendations for a meeting with Margaret Thatcher, political adviser to Britain’s leading energy company BP. In those days, London was determining the fate of Azerbaijan’s future, its foreign and energy policy, because Heydar Aliyev had given his consent for the leading Western (first of all, British and American) and Turkish companies to enter the Azerbaijani oil and gas sector of the Caspian Sea, and that was the subject of the meeting with Prime Minister John Major at Thatcher’s recommendation. The issue of determining a route for exporting Azerbaijani raw materials from the coast of Absheron to the European market via Turkey and bypassing Russia remained.

Heydar Aliyev was able, in alliance with Turkey, Great Britain and the United States, to solve this problem by finding an alternative route for the transit of Caspian oil and gas without involving Russia. Unlike his predecessor, he initially promised Russian companies (including Vagit Alekperov’s LUKOIL) a small stake in the “contracts of the century” which were signed 4.5 months after the ceasefire in the Karabakh conflict zone on September 20, 1994 in the Gulistan Palace in Baku.

During those years (actually until October 27, 1999) Azerbaijan together with the USA offered Armenia to become the alternative route for the transit of the Caspian oil and gas through the corridor of Meghri in Zangezur with the exit to Nakhichevan enclave and further to Turkey and Europe. Such perspective would have allowed Baku, Ankara and London: first, to find compromise solution of Karabakh conflict under their control; second, to exclude Russian military presence in Armenia; third, to form Azerbaijani-Armenian-Turkish economic union (similar to what happened with Georgia after 1999); fourth, to provide “Caucasian bridge” for Turkey and NATO in general to Turkistan.

However, Armenia then refused such a solution to the Karabakh issue and refused to transit Azerbaijani resources to Turkey and Europe, which corresponded to Russia’s interests. Heydar Aliyev and his foreign partners then placed their bets on Tbilisi and “Georgian transit.” In many ways, the West and Turkey supported the Chechen conflict in 1994-1996 and 1999-2002, in order to block the major Russian oil transit route from Baku through Grozny and Novorossiysk to foreign markets. After “Georgian transit” became a political reality following the famous OSCE summit in Istanbul in October 1999, the Chechen confrontation weakened, but Russia lost its monopoly over the South Caucasus and its influence over Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Therefore, when Russian orientalist Stanislav Tarasov argues on Nver Mnatsakanyan’s show today that all Transcaucasian republics have allegedly become collaborators with the West and that regional neighbors such as Turkey and Iran have become Moscow’s partners, the history of this issue knows different periods and assessments. Another thing is that the balance of power and interests of Russia, Turkey and Iran will largely determine the contours of the Caucasus geopolitics in the future.

The political events of 1998 in Georgia show that that year was a turning point in the fate of Eduard Shevardnadze’s government away from Moscow in favor of Washington, which had a special impact on the fate of the South Caucasus. It is not by chance that I focus readers’ attention on 1998, because at that time in another continent, in the USA, the book The Grand Chessboard by the famous American geopolitician Zbigniew Brzezinski was published, which became a kind of political anthology of Anglo-Saxon diplomacy in the early 21st century.

Recently a conceptual article by Eldar Azizov, Mayor of Baku, devoted to the 100th anniversary of Heydar Aliyev, appeared in the Azerbaijani media. In general, the timing of such publication of the head of the capital of sunny Azerbaijan, for which Heydar Aliyev did much, is quite reasonable and understandable. The author presents an analysis of the ideological and political origins of the “Aliyev phenomenon”. We will not argue with Azizov about the ideological origins of President Aliyev, because there were different periods in his political biography (including the opposite ideological and political attitudes and slogans – communism and anti-communism, internationalism and nationalism, forever together with Russia, and then one people – two states with Turkey).

We probably would not have mentioned Eldar Azizov had it not been for the conclusion reached by the mayor of Baku. In particular, Azizov believes that “Zbigniew Brzezinski, often called “the Herodotus of twentieth-century political science,” formulated Heydar Aliyev’s foreign policy concept in concise form.” Indeed, in his book, Brzezinski describes Azerbaijan’s role in the US regional geopolitics as a “cork of a large bottle” with rich resources of the Central Asian countries.

In other words, the American grandmaster of geopolitics saw the advantages of Azerbaijan’s physical and political geography in the USA’s plans to penetrate into the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. This method is not new and is called “divide and rule”. It is no coincidence Brzezinski called his book The Grand Chessboard, because in his view, “The world is a grand chessboard, and the nations are just pieces on it. And the location of these pieces is determined by the United States.” However, today, the world and that same “chessboard” have changed considerably from the time when Brzezinski wrote his book. The US is no longer strong enough to determine the fate of the world on its own.

“If Azerbaijan comes under Moscow’s control,” Brzezinski suggested, “important sources of oil resources could also come under Russian control. Independent Azerbaijan is a major highway through which energy resources will also flow from Central Asia, bypassing Russia.”

Naturally, the books are not always written in the year of publication, for the author, before concentrating his thoughts and translating them into the pages of the manuscript, conducts considerable analytical work on collecting materials and categorizing them. Nevertheless, comparing 1994 and 1998 I can disagree with the opinion of Eldar Azizov that Zbigniew Brzezinski formulated the external policy concept of Heydar Aliyev. While Brzezinski was thinking and writing his famous work, Aliyev was already creating his own policy and laying the foundations for the future revival of Azerbaijan. True, the wise Heydar Aliyev most probably discussed the same questions more than once with Suleiman Demirel, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Bill Clinton. Heydar Aliyev and Zbigniew Brzezinski simply agreed in their assessments of geopolitical processes at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries for the same reasons, while each represented the interests of his country.

Today, his son Ilham has become the successor of Aliyev Sr. As we can see, after the success in the second Karabakh war, thanks in no small part to Turkey, President Aliyev, Jr. of Azerbaijan began, along with Ankara, to develop an active regional policy in Central Asia, which receives high support from the United States (particularly, Secretary of State Antony Blinken).

Azerbaijan, after the implementation of the bypass route for the transit of Caspian oil and gas exports to Turkey and EU countries, began to attract the attention of regional and global players. The latter is largely due, as noted now by President Tokayev of Kazakhstan, to the increased role of Azerbaijan as an energy and transport and logistics (transit) center, which has an impact on economic and political processes.

The above mentioned Kazakhstan already considers as its priority the increase of cooperation with Azerbaijan in the field of energy and oil transit through Baku and the established pipelines alternative to Russia to foreign markets. The next step could be the formation of the TANAP-2 project with the participation of gas-rich Azerbaijan and Central Asian republics (Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan).

Thus, Heydar Aliyev laid the foundation for the policy of strengthening the independence and successful development of Azerbaijan in the first half of the twenty-first century. Thanks to Azerbaijan’s physical geography and resources, he was able to draw the republic into the orbit of geopolitical and geoeconomic interests of the world’s leading actors, turn his country into a regional leader, and take revenge in Karabakh. Why do we speak of Heydar Aliyev as a living politician (the success in Karabakh took place after his death during Ilham Aliyev’s rule)? Simply because Heydar Aliyev’s political course remains strong even under his son’s rule.

Of course, Azerbaijan has someone and something to be proud of. It is important to preserve what has been achieved in the context of the rapidly changing scenery of the outside world.

Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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