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May 01, 2012, Tuesday

A new dawn for US-Azerbaijan relations?

Since Matthew Bryza's appointment ended in December 2011, the US Embassy in Baku has been without an ambassador. But last week President Obama nominated a special envoy for Eurasian energy, Richard Morningstar, as the ambassador to Azerbaijan.

The decision came in advance of the 20th anniversary of US-Azerbaijan diplomatic relations, and many were surprised that Obama had made the move ahead of the elections in November, especially given the controversy that surrounded Bryza's appointment, which bypassed Senate confirmation and became a recess appointment on Dec. 29, 2010. The Bryza appointment's problems in the Senate were widely known to be the direct result of opposition by Armenian-American lobbying groups and several senators who accused Bryza of having a pro-Azerbaijani bias. In contrast to that contentious and long-running debate, the new nomination was little discussed.

Michael McFaul, US ambassador to Russia, hailed Morningstar as "a great choice" via Twitter. This is not to say that Bryza's appointment a year ago was anything else; on the contrary it was an acknowledgment that the US government would continue to pursue its strategic interests in Azerbaijan, as well as across the South Caucasus. Bryza's background -- notably his experience as US co-chair in the OSCE Minsk Group -- was applauded, especially in light of a general feeling that the US was reluctant to invest in the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and had abandoned the matter to Russian mediation. As it turned out, Ambassador Bryza seemed to view his first year as his opportunity to prove to his opponents that he did not have a pro-Azerbaijan bias, leading some decision makers to ask, “Is this the ambassador for whose appointment we struggled so hard?”

It's no secret that Obama's presidency has marked a new approach to the Caucasus, and that this has damaged US-Azerbaijan relations. In a key instance, Washington voiced support for the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations without making reference to the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, an omission condemned by a number of high-ranking Azerbaijani officials. The government in Baku has on several occasions criticized the US policy of pushing Turkey to reopen the border with Armenia, despite the Armenian occupation of seven Azerbaijani districts around Nagorno-Karabakh. Furthermore, before Bryza's appointment, actions by the US seen as counter to Azerbaijani interests as well as divergent from traditional American policy in the region surprised and angered Azerbaijan. Baku saw Washington as looking the other way as Russian influence strengthened in the region, and Azerbaijan found it increasingly difficult to hold its position in the “dance between the West and Russia.” The only real choice seemed to be a dance with Moscow, which from the outset met resistance in Baku.

Visits by several senior US officials to Azerbaijan prior to Bryza's appointment reduced tensions in Baku by signaling that the US was acknowledging the importance of its ties with Azerbaijan, which acts as a key transit route for supplies to Afghanistan. Since tensions in Iran have increased, and Tehran has starting supporting terrorist activities in Azerbaijan and funding extremist groups, Azerbaijan's strategic importance for the US has shifted in focus from the Caspian Basin to the Middle East. For this reason, despite Bryza leaving his post, Azerbaijani officials were less anxious about maintaining ties than they might otherwise have been: as in the current climate, it is undeniable that both countries need each other.

The Morningstar appointment is a good thing for Azerbaijan. Morningstar is one of the builders of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, who publicly marshaled support for a specific route from Baku to Ceyhan. When the US recognized the need for a high-level official who could establish and implement an energy strategy in the Caspian Basin, President Clinton appointed Richard Morningstar to the newly created position of special advisor to the president and the secretary of state for Caspian Basin energy diplomacy in July 1998. Morningstar subsequently assumed chairmanship of the interagency coordination group. With this resume, he can support the EU in the realization of energy projects and other initiatives, as well as reminding Azerbaijan of the 1990s, when US interests in the region were much more visible.

At this point, a crucial question remains. Will the powerful Armenian diaspora block the appointment? Armenian media coverage suggests that the feeling in Yerevan is that Morningstar's appointment means that US will strength its relationship with Azerbaijan within the scope of energy, but that Morningstar is not suspected of pro-Azerbaijan bias. Asbed Kotchikian, a professor at Bentley University in Massachusetts, assesses Armenia's media coverage of the appointment as “passive” and says that unlike Bryza, Morningstar has not been visibly involved in the Armenia-Azerbaijan-Turkey triangle. Morningstar has a better chance of a smoother appointment for several reasons. For one, he has a good relationship with Republicans as well as Democrats. Besides being targeted by the Armenian lobby, Bryza, as a Republican, was distrusted by some Democrats; in contrast, Morningstar is a non-partisan figure. Another factor is that the Armenian diaspora may have used up its political ammunition on Bryza, and will lose traction in the Senate if they now protest against this appointment.

The US is making political investments in future Trans-Caspian pipelines, but Morningstar's nomination represents more than this -- for the other question is who will replace him as special envoy for Eurasian energy. It is also true that the position of US ambassador to Azerbaijan may have lost its shine: the Obama administration has a number of unfilled ambassadorships around the world, and the word of the times seems to be “delay.” It is worth remembering that Bryza's appointment seemed to mark a new stage in US policy towards Azerbaijan and the region, and so it will be interesting to see what comes next, and, crucially, whether the “great choice” will be enough to salvage US-Azerbaijan relations.

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