The Republic of Azerbaijan is a Muslim country located west of the Caspian Sea, at the crossroads of Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. The country possess significant oil and gas reserves, and enjoys a pivotal position, bordering Iran, Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Georgia. While more than 90% of the 9 million people follow Islam (with a Shi’a majority), the religious affiliation in Azerbaijan is largely nominal and the regime observes a strict separation of religion and state. It was briefly independent (1918-1920) following the collapse of the Russian Empire; Azerbaijan was subsequently incorporated into the Soviet Union for the next 71 years, until it won its independence in 1991.
Next week (October 9th), Azerbaijan will hold its sixth presidential elections. Nine candidates will challenge the current President, Ilham Aliyev, after two of the most serious potential opposition candidates have been denied participation. Even though incumbent president Aliyev is widely expected to be re-elected, it seems that his government is tense. According to Human Rights Watch, the Azeri government has intensified its crackdown on civil society in the months preceding the elections in order to curtail the opposition and limit public criticism of the government; arresting and threatening journalists, increasing fines for unauthorized protests, and promoting a new law that criminalizes online defamation that could lead to up to three years in jail.
Who is president Aliyev? Ilham Aliyev is the son of Heydar Aliyev, who rose to power amidst a political turmoil in early 1990s. Due to poor health of his father, Ilham Aliyev was nominated as a candidate of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party for the October 2003 presidential elections. Aliyev won those elections, which were deemed by the observation mission as “a missed opportunity for a credible democratic process”. In October 2008, Aliyev won a landslide 89% of the vote in the fifth presidential elections. A few months after his re-election for a second term, a constitutional referendum removed the two-term limit on the presidency, some say in order to prevent potential challengers from running for president in future elections.
Israel recognized Azerbaijan in 1991 and diplomatic relations between the countries were established in April 1992. Since then, numerous Israeli delegations visited the country, such as: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in 1997 with then-president Heydar Aliyev; in 2009, three Israeli ministers and around 50 businessmen accompanied President Shimon Peres on his visit to current president Ilham Aliyev, with whom Peres is known to be close; and Avigdor Liberman, then-Israeli foreign minister, visited in February 2010 and in April 2012. Six months ago, Liberman’s counterpart, Elmar Mammadyarov, paid a return visit and became the first Azeri foreign minister to conduct an official visit to Israel. Although no agreements were signed during the three day visit, Mammadyarov met with high-level officials; the Israeli President, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.
In terms of bilateral trade, Israel has become in recent years one of Azerbaijan’s biggest trade partners. Baku is Jerusalem’s top oil supplier, providing about 40% of its annual consumption, or around 35 million barrels per year, while Israel is the sixth highest importer of Azeri oil exports. One should bear in mind that this oil arrives through a pipeline via Turkey, which continued to function even when Israeli-Turkey ties suffered serious strains. In the meantime, Baku has emerged as a major consumer of Israeli armaments and military expertise, such as drones, multiple rocket launchers, armored troop carriers, Tavor rifles, and ammunition. In February 2012, for instance, the countries signed an arms-supply agreement valued at $1.6 billion, which included the sale of Israeli drones and Israeli antiaircraft/missile-defense systems.
On the cultural side, for around 2,500 years Jews have been calling Azerbaijan home. Nowadays, the Jewish community resembles in size to those in Turkey and Iran – between 20,000 and 25,000 people. Azeri Jews have warm relations with the Azerbaijani government and enjoy safety and freedom of worship.
Under Ilham Aliyev’s stewardship, Azerbaijan’s foreign policy was trying to avoid one-sided approaches in its multilateral and bilateral relations. On the one hand, Baku’s relations with international players like the United States and with organizations such as NATO and the E.U. have played a considerable role. Azerbaijan participated in the U.S.-led military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is considered to be Europe’s link to the wider Caspian region as well as its connection to the Muslim world and the greater Middle East. On the other hand, Baku understands the importance of the dynamics in its close vicinity; it has developed very close economic, cultural and diplomatic ties with Turkey and is an actively involved member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an association of former soviet republics. Azerbaijan also sustain an active membership in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which only in June 2013 held a meeting in Baku on the establishment of an Islamic Financial Safety Net in Support of Palestine.
In case Aliyev wins the upcoming presidential elections, the Israeli government should:
(a) Congratulate the Azeri people and the elected president – Prime Minister Netanyahu should make 2014 the year Aliyev holds a first state visit to Jerusalem. Furthermore, after visiting Israel in April 2013, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister stated “it is a matter of time” when speaking about opening an embassy in Israel. Since the Israeli embassy in Baku just celebrated 20 years of operation, it is high time to remove obstacles towards the opening of an Azerbaijani embassy in Israel, which would help strengthening and expanding strategic and political ties between the countries. The Jewish state has long sought for a moderate Muslim partner, and it needs to take advantage of the opportunity that lies ahead.
(b) Enhance cooperation in energy sector – Israel have found significant amounts of natural gas in its offshore Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and is predicted to discover even more. In the following years, Jerusalem will have to decide how and to whom it wants to export these gas reserves. Israel can use Azerbaijan’s extensive experience when pondering whether to export the gas to Turkey through a pipeline lying on the seabed of Cyprus’ EEZ which can provide access to the large Turkish domestic market together with transit routes across Turkey into Europe. If Jerusalem decides to convert some of the gas into liquefied natural gas (LNG) and ship it via the Suez Canal to Asian markets, the Azeri State Oil Company can assist in building a gas liquefaction plant.
(c) Increase the security collaboration and intelligence sharing, especially in regard to Iran – in spite of the fact that Iran and Azerbaijan share a common Shiite identity, Tehran has been working to undermine Baku’s security and has sided with Armenia on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, even though predominantly Christian Armenia occupies Muslim lands and had created almost a million Shiite Azerbaijanis into refugees. Iran considers Azerbaijan to be a serious ideological threat and is attempting to export the Islamic revolution to the South Caucasus. According to reports in the last few years, local extremists in Azerbaijan, directed by Iran, planed to bomb the Israeli embassy in Baku. Moreover, it was reported in 2012 that Israel requested to use Azeri airfields in future air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, and that Baku assisted Jerusalem in targeting nuclear scientists. Whether this information is true or not, the cooperation must be tightened if the countries want to confront increasingly radical Islam and deal with the threat that the Islamic Republic of Iran poses to the greater Middle East.