US should rework Azerbaijan relations carefully, House panel told

The US should pursue relations with Azerbaijan that recognize its strategic importance as an energy supplier to countries farther west but do not ignore human rights questions that have emerged recently, witnesses told a US House Foreign Affairs subcommittee.

The US should pursue relations with Azerbaijan that recognize its strategic importance as an energy supplier to countries farther west but do not ignore human rights questions that have emerged recently, witnesses told a US House Foreign Affairs subcommittee.

“A much stronger engagement in issues pertaining to sovereignty and security will do more than anything else to pave the way for progress in other areas, including human rights,” Svante E. Cornell, who directs the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, told the Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats Subcommittee on Feb. 12.

“The history of the past 20 years shows that whenever the US has been strongly involved in energy and security affairs of the Caucasus, the Azerbaijani government has been responsive to criticism,” Cornell said in his written testimony. “When that has not been the case, as in the past several years, America’s leverage has declined.”

Audrey L. Altstadt, a Kennan Institute fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, said the US should acknowledge Azerbaijan’s strategic and economic importance, but also identify democracy shortcomings and restrictions on civil society, including the media and human rights activists.

“First and foremost, the United States and its representatives must be unapologetic about our commitment to human rights and democracy,” she said in her written testimony.

“The US…has lost respect and credibility among the population by its support for [President Ilham Aliyev’s] regime and its repressive policies,” Altstadt said. “Only by difficult negotiations might the US persuade this regime of the need for reform that would benefit the Azerbaijani people and improve its own standing in the world.”

Richard D. Kauzlarich, co-director of the Center on Energy Science and Policy at George Mason University’s School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs, said the US should establish a limited set of attainable goals instead of trying to construct an abstract strategic partnership.

He said these goals could include serious engagement between Azerbaijan and Armenia by a specific date, leading to a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and resumed unofficial Track-II contacts between the two countries’ citizens; support for stability in Azerbaijan based on Baku’s movement toward democracy and observance of internationally recognized human rights standards; and freedom for more than 90 political prisoners.

“We support, as we have for 2 decades, the independence and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan,” Kauzlarich said in his written testimony. “We are limited in what we can do, however, when the regime in Baku suppresses liberal democratic institutions, arrests those who peacefully oppose the lack of democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan, and creates political and social space for other forces that are more dangerous to real stability [there].”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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