Azerbaijan Doesn't Want To Be Western

The Rhetoric and Reality of Baku's Grand Strategy

Courtesy Reuters

The Ukraine crisis has presented other post-Soviet countries with stark foreign policy choices. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, University College of London’s James Yan makes a provocative argument based on a questionable premise. Yan claims that Azerbaijan faces a choice: “to scale back its support for the Western-led liberal order, thereby cozying up to Iran and Russia; or to fully embrace the West and risk regional backlash.” This analysis proceeds from the assumption that Baku is genuinely interested in embracing the West’s idea of liberal order.

The evidence, however, suggests something different: Azerbaijan, bolstered by energy wealth, now deems itself powerful enough to chart a third way, in which it adopts a Russia-style authoritarian model, while positioning itself as a so-called “strategic partner” with the West on energy issues and security. The bet is that by not having to choose between Russia and the West, Azerbaijan can have it both ways. The country’s elites hope that a transactional relationship with the United States and Europe will allow them to increase their wealth without threatening Azerbaijan’s oligarchic political system.

That plan is now being put to the test. In recent months, Azerbaijan’s leaders have embarked on the biggest human rights crackdown in wider Europe and have taken a more bellicose line on their number-one domestic and foreign policy issue: the protracted conflict with their country’s long-time foe, Armenia. Western policymakers need to pay more attention and ask themselves what this new hard line means for both Azerbaijan and its neighborhood.


Azerbaijan is perhaps the former Soviet Union’s most complex and interesting country, with its Shia, Turkic, and secular traditions, and historic habits of both democracy and authoritarian rule. Two factors have shaped its trajectory since it achieved independence in 1991. The first is the brutal war with Armenia over the disputed highland territory of Nagorno–Karabakh. Both sides suffered terrible losses on the battlefield before Armenia won a military victory in 1994. Azerbaijan paid

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