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Azerbaijan: A Reset with the EU?

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Azerbaijan is pursuing a new agreement with the European Union focused on security, trade, and investment, and lacking the type of commitments on political reforms that scuttled the last agreement the two sides tried to reach.

Official negotiations on the new deal were launched in February 2017, when Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev visited Brussels. “We want to upgrade our relationship” with Azerbaijan, said Donald Tusk, the European Council president.

Azerbaijan is eager to reach an agreement, seeking to take advantage of the EU’s new willingness to strike a deal without conditions on human rights, Azerbaijani and EU officials say. Negotiators for the two sides have met twice in Baku, once in April and once in June, with another round tentatively planned for Brussels in the coming months. The “political will and desire” from the Azerbaijani side so far has been “surprising,” one EU official told EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity.

“They really want to get this through,” said another EU official, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “They need more trade and investment, and they also care about their image and that’s part of it, too.”

Azerbaijan’s relations with Brussels have been rocky since 2013, when Baku abandoned talks on an EU Association Agreement, which would have been a far more substantial deal than the one currently under discussion. An Association Agreement would have required Baku to make commitments on democratization and human rights. Following the abandonment of Association Agreement talks, EU criticism of Azerbaijan continued unabated, and Baku responded with increasingly anti-Western rhetoric.

Subsequent developments paved the way for the two sides to boost cooperation while setting aside differences on politics. The EU changed its policy in 2015 to allow countries in the European Neighborhood Program, including Azerbaijan, more flexibility in setting the terms of their agreements. Using an EU deal to cajole partners into carrying out political reforms had been ineffective, the EU found in a review of its neighborhood policies: “It has not proven a sufficiently strong incentive to create a commitment to reform, where there is not the political will.”

EU officials are pushing to get the agreement signed by November, when the EU is going to hold an Eastern Partnership summit, and Armenia, Azerbaijan’s regional rival, is expected to sign its own deal then. Authorities in Baku, however, seem skeptical that a deal can be reached by then, given the number of sticking points, especially the status of the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The new agreement would be based on three “blocks” – political and security cooperation, trade and investment, and “sectoral areas” such as education and healthcare. Deputy Foreign Minister Mahmud Mammadguliyev, the chief negotiator for the Azerbaijani side, has said that Baku is most interested in the first block.

Negotiations are currently focused on three specific issues, according to one EU diplomat. Two are relatively simple: first, Azerbaijan wants a special mention of Baku’s key role in energy security, in particular highlighting the importance of the Southern Gas Corridor. Second, it wants the working name of the agreement – Partnership for Modernization – to be called instead a Strategic Partnership for Modernization, which Baku sees as necessary to underscore the equal status of the two sides, and Azerbaijan’s importance for the EU.

A more sticky issue promises to be the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and how it is described in the agreement. Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov has said that the agreement needs to demonstrate “a unified approach to the issue of territorial integrity and sovereignty of countries within their internationally recognized borders.” The EU, however, wants to frame the conflict in a way that emphasizes both the principles of territorial integrity (which favors Azerbaijan’s case) and of national self-determination (which favors Armenia).

Baku is hoping that the Russian annexation of Crimea will bolster its case, given that the EU has repeatedly condemned it as a violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. One European Parliament resolution noted that “the occupation by one country of the Eastern Partnership of the territory of another violates the fundamental principles and objectives of the EaP.”

Azerbaijani negotiators hope that the agreement might mention the Helsinki Accords with a highlight of the territorial integrity principle, as the EU has done in its Association Agreement with Georgia.

Watchdog groups have assailed the negotiations for its lack of focus on human rights and democratization standards. “Deepening engagement with Aliyev’s government, without first securing concrete and sustainable human rights improvements sends a wrong message about the EU’s priorities, and is bad for the EU,” wrote the South Caucasus director of Human Rights Watch, Giorgi Gogia.

One Baku-based analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the EU appears to be following the lead of the United States: “The EU and the US are taking the same approach, with the US leadership setting the level of how hard to push on human rights issues.”

But while this might be the case within the European Council leadership, other European institutions are still keeping human rights on the agenda. In February, during his Brussels visit, Aliyev cancelled a meeting with the president of the European Parliament after it had hosted an event on “continued human rights violations in Azerbaijan.” In June, the parliament condemned Azerbaijan for the kidnapping of a dissident Azerbaijani journalist in Tbilisi.

There could be cause for public disappointment in the deal, as well. Following the high-profile examples of visa-free regimes to Europe for citizens of Ukraine and Georgia, expectations have risen in Azerbaijan for a similar deal. However, a visa-free regime is not part of the negotiations, or even on the agenda.

“What we have is a visa simplification agreement, not a dialogue leading to visa-free regime. These are two different things,” said Denis Daniilidis, the head of the Political, Economic, and Press & Information section of the EU representation in Azerbaijan, in an interview with EurasiaNet.org. “If there is a wish from Azerbaijan to start talks on a visa free regime, there are some steps to follow.”

Zaur Shiriyev

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