The leaders of Azerbaijan believed that hosting the Eurovision song contest last year would transform their international image — only to become the focus of unwelcome attention from human rights organisations and critical coverage by the Western media.
The government of Ilham Aliyev was disappointed by European demands to release dissident journalists and stop its violent suppression of pro-democracy protests. It felt that Azerbaijan had already made enough of an effort in aligning its policies with those of the West.
Despite the criticism, the enthusiasm of Western governments and companies to do business with the oil and natural-gas rich country has never been greater. One Western diplomat based in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, admitted this week that there had been no democratisation processes implemented in the country over the past year, but added in the country’s defence that “you have to remember that they are the only country which borders both Russia and Iran”. This unique geopolitical location is one main reason for Azerbaijan’s strong strategic relationship with Israel. That — and the reliable oil supply.
On the surface, an alliance between Israel and Azerbaijan, a Muslim republic and sister-nation of Turkey — hardly a friend of Israel in recent years — seems highly unlikely.
Not only does the central Asian country share a border with Iran, Israel’s mortal enemy, but a huge number of Iranian citizens are ethnic Azeris. This close proximity to Iran is one of the reasons why Azerbaijan is eager to demonstrate its independent foreign policy — Azerbaijani politicians accuse Tehran of trying to subvert their government, radicalise its small Islamic fundamentalist groups and support its worst enemy, Armenia, which controls a sixth of Azerbaijani territory. “Iran doesn’t like our good co-operation with Israel,” said a senior member of government with a smile. “But it is very easy for us to co-operate with Israel while the problem is with Iran.”
Trade between Israel and Azerbaijan has grown exponentially over the past few years, although it is hard to come by accurate figures. In recent years, Azerbaijan has become Israel’s largest supplier of oil — last year it supplied over 40 per cent of Israel’s oil imports. For Israel, which cannot tap into the Arab oil market and has been forced to ship oil in the past from as far away as Mexico, the relatively close Azerbaijani source is a strategic asset. The oil is pumped through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline to Turkey’s Mediterranean shore.
Israel is also a major exporter to Azerbaijan. That includes a huge arms deal, reported to be worth over £1 billion, signed a year ago for the supply of radars, anti-aircraft systems and drones. Neither side has officially commented on the deal, but Dr Asim Mollazade, a former diplomat and opposition member of parliament said: “Our trade with Israel is twice the size of our trade with Russia, which doesn’t have any hi-tech to sell us.”
Neither will senior officials in either country comment on the reports that Azerbaijan is prepared to allow Israel to use its air bases to hit Iran’s nuclear installations and that Israel operates surveillance stations in Azerbaijani territory. “We have made it clear that we will never allow another country to threaten our neighbours from our territory,” said one senior politician, who added that the policy could change in the case of an emergency.
Israeli companies are also very active in supplying Azerbaijan with telecommunication equipment and advising farmers on growing organic vegetables. Israel is not alone in pursuing markets in this country which was made rich, virtually overnight, when it began to tap into its vast oil and natural gas assets. Britain is a major trading partner — BP’s largest foreign investment is in the Caspian Sea gas field off the Azerbaijani coast, while the British government is eager to convince Baku to invest part of its bulging sovereign wealth fund in British infrastructure projects.
For Azerbaijan, this not just about money, however. The country is eager to convert its newfound prominence on the energy markets into a diplomatic front against attempts by Russia — a former occupier and today a fierce competitor for natural gas sales — and Iran to intervene in its internal politics. It also hopes to gain support for its claims to Nagorno-Karabakh and, thanks to its warm ties with Israel, the backing of US Jews against the influential Armenian lobby in Washington. Azerbaijani officials are quick to point to the glowing reports the country has received over the years from organisations monitoring antisemitism around the world. In 2012, according to the Co-ordination Forum for Countering Antisemitism, not one incident was recorded against Azerbaijan’s 6,000 Jews and, when there were instances in the past, they were speedily dealt with by the government.
Elshad Iskandarov, chairman of the State Committee on Religious Associations, characterised Azerbaijan’s attitude towards religion as “positive secularism”. He played down the influence of fundamental Islamists who, he said, make up about 12 per cent of the population, and extolled the traditional respect for Judaism, which existed in this land before Christianity and Islam.
After rural Jewish communities emigrated to Israel, their Muslim neighbours kept the empty synagogues in good repair. But the philo-semitism is not reflected in Azerbaijan’s wider human rights record.
The country, ruled for the past two decades by the Aliyev family — Heydar, former KGB chief and politburo member, was succeeded upon his death by Ilham. The dismal record includes imprisonment of opposition activists and journalists, prison torture, police brutality towards protesters and the channelling of much of the country’s oil income into the pockets of the Aliyev family and its hangers-on.
Government officials point to the countries around them, none of them shining democracies, and accuse Russia of cynically financing human rights groups in order to drive a wedge between Azerbaijan and its Western allies. However, even the tame “official” opposition MP, Dr Mollazade, said: “There are too many communists in top positions and you still have to pay bribes for good health and education. There is no rule of law and independent courts. Journalists can publish whatever they want, but they could get beaten up afterwards. We have been poisoned by the communist system and need systematic reform.”