Peace is Within Reach in the South Caucasus
The upcoming election in Azerbaijan presents a facade of predictability that may lead some to dismiss its significance. However, it is incumbent upon Western observers to view President Ilham Aliyev’s anticipated continuance in power through a pragmatic lens. Despite occasional brusqueness in his dealings with Western counterparts, President Aliyev’s administration has consistently emerged as a stabilizing force within a tumultuous region. Azerbaijan, strategically positioned at the crossroads of Russian and Iranian spheres of influence, serves not merely as a geopolitical buffer but also as an active participant in fostering regional security. This dynamic underscores the necessity for the West to maintain a constructive relationship with Baku, embracing the complexities and acknowledging the stabilizing role Azerbaijan plays at Europe’s boundary.
In the wake of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, Azerbaijan has emerged as a critical contributor to European energy security, expeditiously augmenting its gas exports to the continent. Amidst the South Caucasus region, Azerbaijan stands out for its tangible support to Ukraine, extending assistance that encompasses vital fuel supplies for emergency services, agricultural aid during a jeopardized planting season, and expertise in demining operations. Contrastingly, some of Azerbaijan’s neighbors have tilted towards Moscow, with Armenia notably circumventing sanctions by importing and then re-exporting dual-use technologies from the West. This maneuver not only underscores the complex geopolitics of the region but also highlights Azerbaijan’s role as a pivotal ally in Europe’s efforts to navigate the energy crisis precipitated by the conflict.
Meanwhile, Georgia, traditionally the West’s strongest ally in the region, has drifted toward Moscow under Irakli Garibashvili, its pro-Kremlin prime minister – even jailing a former president who led the 2003 revolution against the Soviet Union’s enduring influence in the country.
It is in the nuanced ballet of diplomacy that President Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart, Nikol Pashinyan, have a unique opportunity to orchestrate lasting peace in the South Caucasus. The potential accord over the contentious Nagorno-Karabakh region, internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but occupied by Armenia since the 1990s, is on the cusp of realization. The West has a vested interest in the continuation of Aliyev’s tenure, should it facilitate this historic resolution. A relapse into conflict over Karabakh carries the grim prospect of entangling regional powers — Russia, Iran, and Turkey — in a geopolitical snarl, exacerbating tensions at a time when the Israel-Hamas conflict already simmers with potential for broader turmoil. The stabilization of this volatile crossroads is paramount, as it bears implications far beyond its immediate geography.
President Ilham Aliyev’s move to initiate an early election, ahead of the 2025 schedule, has piqued the curiosity of some analysts. While Western perspectives may critique the competitive landscape of Azerbaijani elections, such a view might underestimate the complexities of domestic politics. Even a unified and robust opposition is likely to face an uphill battle, as President Aliyev currently benefits from a surge of national approval following the reclamation of Nagorno-Karabakh. This issue has galvanized public sentiment and fortified his political standing, suggesting that the incumbent’s strategy may be firmly rooted in leveraging this wave of patriotic fervor to consolidate his governance.
In the latter months of 2020, Azerbaijan secured a significant military triumph, altering the dynamics of a long-stalemated conflict with Armenia—a conflict whose status quo since 1994 had generally been to Armenia’s advantage. The cessation of hostilities was precipitated by Azerbaijani forces reclaiming expansive tracts of territory. A strategic culmination occurred last September when a meticulously executed 24-hour operation resulted in the recapture of the final segments of land under Armenian control. For Azerbaijan, which has been sovereign since it seceded from the Soviet Union, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue has been the fulcrum of both domestic discontent and foreign policy challenges. The reintegration of this territory has transcended political divisions, garnering universal acclaim across the nation’s political spectrum as a rectification of a historic grievance.
The recent clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia may seem to be an unlikely catalyst for peace, yet they have opened a door to potential reconciliation. Azerbaijan, bolstered by the principles of international law, has steadfastly refused to negotiate its sovereign territory for the sake of a peace agreement. On the other side, Armenia has, for the first time in decades, a leader open to the idea of relinquishing claims to Karabakh in exchange for a lasting accord. This marks a significant departure from previous Armenian administrations, which regarded the control over Karabakh as an uncompromising national imperative.
The recent geopolitical shift in the South Caucasus augurs well for Western interests, particularly in terms of Europe’s energy security. The region is pivotal, not only as a supplier of energy but also as a strategic land bridge for overland freight from Asia to Europe—a route that is both more economical and swifter than maritime alternatives. Currently, it remains the most viable overland passage to Europe, with the other routes traversing through Iran and Russia. The potential normalization of Azerbaijan-Armenia relations could pave the way for new freight lines traversing from Azerbaijan, through Armenia, into NATO territories, thus enhancing the trade corridor’s capacity and transforming the region into an essential artery for transcontinental commerce.
The continuity of leadership in both countries is crucial to maintaining momentum toward peace and reaping the ensuing economic benefits. With Nikol Pashinyan securing his position following the 2021 elections, despite facing nationalist dissent over the Nagorno-Karabakh concession, and the possibility of Ilham Aliyev’s re-election, a parallel stability is foreseeable. Such bilateral steadiness bodes well for the expeditious resolution of the treaty post-election.
However, the true measure of success will be the sustained normalization of relations and tangible economic progress. For this, the enduring strategic stability of both administrations is indispensable, transcending beyond immediate diplomatic triumphs to the fostering of long-term prosperity and regional cooperation.