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With Russia-NATO Meeting, is Baku the New Caucasian Geneva?

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NATO’s military chief and his Russian counterpart met in Baku, the first such high-level meeting since the two sides froze relations in 2014.

This follows a similar meeting in February between the Russian officer, Valeriy Gerasimov, and the chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joe Dunford. That meeting also took place in Baku.

Two events may not be enough to suggest a trend or a policy, but it is suggestive of Azerbaijan’s suitability as a geopolitically neutral entrepot in the ongoing Russia-West conflict. Azerbaijan sells oil and gas to Europe, while buying weapons from Russia. But it’s shown no interest in close political cooperation with either, making it non-threatening to either side.

“We are interested in reducing tension on a global scale and we are pleased to hold these important talks for the second time in Baku.” Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said ahead of a meeting he held with Gerasimov while the latter was in town.

Azerbaijan’s media, in any case, has seized on the meeting as proof of the country’s geopolitical centrality, with the meeting — and especially Baku’s role — receiving heavy coverage.

The meeting “demonstrated that Azerbaijan is a geopolitical link between Russia and the United States, having strategic relations with both countries,” wrote news agency Trend in a commentary. “[T]he country has deservedly won the spot as one of the most important geopolitical centers of the region. Azerbaijan is a reliable and long-standing partner of NATO and a strategic partner of Russia, and Moscow trusts it.”

Russian analyst Sergey Markov told Vestnik Kavkaza: “Baku positions itself as a potential peacemaker, very balanced, respectful and respected partner, whom it is pleasant to deal with. In the future, Baku can turn into a kind of Caucasian Geneva in the diplomatic field, and Azerbaijan, respectively, into the Caucasus Switzerland.”

Another Russian military analyst, Viktor Baranets, told news agency APA: “Conducting this kind of meeting in the Azerbaijani capital suggests that first, Baku is turning into the capital of the normalization of Russia-US and Russia-NATO relations. Secondly, Baku is situated in a position of global significance.”

And so on. One can understand Baku’s eagerness to seize on this; it has always sought to rely on its strategic importance as a means of buffering criticism of its political and human rights record. And these have been a bad few days for Azerbaijan in the international eye, mainly due to a blockbuster investigation of the country’s large-scale international corruption. So it’s obviously looking to change the subject of the international conversation.

Most of the invocations of Azerbaijan’s strategic significance were vague and boilerplate, but the Trend commentary did have an intriguing take: Baku is a good meeting spot because it can keep a secret: “The fact that the information about this meeting appeared in the Russian media on the day of holding the meeting, became one of the proofs of the highest professionalism of the host party.” It added: “However, in February, the news of Gerasimov’s meeting with Dunford leaked to the US media, but not to the Azerbaijani one.” So the point is, Washington leaks, but Baku, Brussels, and Moscow don’t? Probably true, as far as it goes. And so it seems there may be more meetings there that we’re not hearing about.
Joshua Kucera

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