EYES ON ME

Azerbaijan 2012 | DIPLOMACY | REVIEW: DIPLOMACY & POLITICS

In a year defined by an increased foreign relations presence and growing regional economic power, 2012 marks Azerbaijan's coming of age.

Azerbaijan has emerged as a strong and stable republic, optimizing its vast oil and gas wealth to become a regional economic and political power. The country is stepping up efforts to increase its promising role within the international diplomatic arena, while aiming at embedding the democratic process internally.

Azerbaijan forged its political infrastructure in the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and adopted a new constitution in 1995, the basis of the country's political system. As a presidential republic, the President of Azerbaijan is the head of the state, and is elected for five-year terms by direct popular election. The Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Ministers are directly appointed by the president. In line with the constitution, 38 ministers and the deputies of the prime minster form a subordinate body.

Presently, Ilham Aliyev is serving his second five-year term after reelection in 2008, with the next elections set for 2013. The President comes from a long political tradition; he is the son of Azerbaijan's much-admired national leader Heydar Aliyev, who was President from 1993 until 2003. Previously, Ilham Aliyev was the Vice-President of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) and had been elected twice to Azerbaijan's National Assembly, or Milli Majlis. Currently, the president also functions as Chairman of the New Azerbaijan Party (NAP) as well as head being of the National Olympic Committee.

Legislative power is vested in both the government and the parliament, a unicameral National Assembly with 125 members elected from single-member constituencies since 2005. Before 2005, 100 members of the National Assembly were elected for five-year terms in single-seat constituencies and 25 members were elected by proportional representation. National Assembly elections take place every five years, on the first Sunday in November. The most recent parliamentary elections were held in November 2010, in which the ruling NAP won 73 of the 125 seats, and independent candidates made important inroads by winning 38 seats. The remaining 14 seats were divided among 10 opposition parties. Civic Solidarity occupies three seats, and the Motherland Party holds two. The other opposition members are the Democratic Reform Party, Great Creation Party, the Movement for National Rebirth, Party of Hope, Civic Unity, Civic Welfare, Justice Party, and the United Azerbaijan Popular Front, which each hold one seat in the National Assembly. Ogtay Asadov has been the Chairman of the National Assembly since 2005. The next parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in November 2015.

PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEES

The National Assembly contains 11 parliamentary committees, and these are seen as the real workhorses behind the shaping of the legislative framework. Currently, the Azerbaijani parliament has committees focused on legal policies, state structuring, defense and security, economic policies, natural resources, energy and ecology, agrarian policies, social policies, regional issues, science and education, cultural issues, inter-parliamentary relations, and human rights. In addition to the parliamentary committees, the National Assembly also directs the Accounting and Toponyms Commission.

These groups play a significant role in the legislative process by formulating draft laws and recommendations for the implementation of new codes, bills, action plans, state programs, and other key national projects. The committees contribute considerably to the regulatory framework in their respective fields, providing expertise, conducting in-depth analysis, and providing guidelines for future policy development. Each committee must file biannual progress reports, as well as hold meetings that are open to the public and press to ensure transparency.

The Constitutional Court, Supreme Court, and Economic Court exercise the judicial power in the country, which is realized in civil and criminal court proceedings. The Constitutional Court of the Republic of Azerbaijan is composed of nine judges appointed by the National Assembly. The judges are appointed for 15-year periods and cannot be elected for a second term, and the constitution provides for limits on their activities. The President appoints the chair and the deputy of the Constitutional Court.

Locally, Azerbaijan is divided into 78 rayons, or provinces, including 59 regional rayons and 11 municipal areas in the contiguous area of the country. The Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, a landlocked area of 5,300 square kilometers, borders Turkey, Iran, and Armenia. Nakhchivan is subdivided into eight administrative divisions, seven rural rayons, and one municipality, the capital Nakhchivan City.

POLITICAL HISTORY

The Nagorno-Karabakh war erupted in 1991 in the wake of civil unrest caused by Armenia's declared intention to occupy the area. Outraged Azerbaijanis called for independence from the Soviet Union, and Mikhail Gorbachev's disinterest marked the creation of an independent Azerbaijan. These events culminated with the death of over 100 protestors in what is called “Black Sunday," a date commemorated by a national holiday on January 20. Despite independence, the Nagorno-Karabakh war continued until a ceasefire was reached on May 12, 1994 with the help of Russian mediation. In the aftermath of the conflict, more than 30,000 people had died in the fighting, and over 600,000 Azerbaijanis from Armenia and Karabakh were forced to flee as refugees.

In this context, Heydar Aliyev replaced President Abulfaz Elchibey in 1993. President Aliyev, re-elected in 1998, brought political and economic stability by establishing the basic structure of the new state, and boosting the country's oil and gas potential. Heydar Aliyev stepped down in 2003 and was replaced by his son, then prime minister, who was elected with 77% of the vote in a national election.

POST-SOVIET DIPLOMACY

With independence came the challenge of reorganizing Azerbaijan's nascent foreign policy segment. This process involved upgrading various functional and geographical departments within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recruiting and training diplomats, as well as establishing and staffing embassies abroad. Full diplomatic relations, including mutual exchanges of missions, were first established with Turkey and the US.

Currently, Azerbaijan has diplomatic relations with 160 countries and holds membership in 38 international institutions such as the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), NATO's Partnership for Peace, the WHO, the IMF, the World Bank, and the Council of Europe. In addition, the country participated in the G-20 for the first time in 2012. However, the most important achievement in foreign policy for Azerbaijan occurred on October 24, 2011, when the country won a non-permanent member seat on the UN Security Council for 2012-2013. It is hoped that Azerbaijan's seat on the UN Security Council will contribute to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, which has seen little progress despite annual discussions mediated by the OSCE and Russia. Restoring Azerbaijan's political and territorial integrity remains the government's first priority, according to President Aliyev.

Azerbaijan is also eager to use the seat to express its voice on other global issues, in order to increase its international recognition and become a stronger global player. Until the appointment, the country had been exercising a cautious foreign policy that sought to engage with both Russia and the West, owing to the geopolitics of energy, which have heavily impacted regional relations. Increasing interest in Azerbaijan's energy resources is reflected by plans to secure a reliable transit route for the gas of the Shah Deniz Phase II project, which is expected to come onstream in 2016.

Azerbaijan's long-standing alliance with Turkey was strengthened by the signing of several energy agreements in 2011 that envisage the construction of the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP). The TANAP project, anticipated to become part of the Southern Corridor, would help realize Turkey's aim of becoming a transit country for Azerbaijani gas. Simultaneously, Azerbaijan would assume the position of a major gas supplier to the EU, which has actively sought diplomatic and energy-related engagement with Azerbaijan. In 2011, a joint declaration on gas delivery was signed by both parties during a visit to Baku by the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso.

Another of Azerbaijan's main foreign partners is Italy, with which it has an overall trade turnover of $9.5 billion, a relationship that was enhanced in 2008 with the signing of more than 20 agreements. France ($4.6 billion) and Russia ($2.8 billion) are among Azerbaijan's other main trading partners. Azerbaijan has expanded its energy and diplomatic ties with Russia, as demonstrated by the ratification of the agreement on border limitation between both countries in 2011. Azerbaijan still leverages the promise of closer energy ties to Russia, and, in 2010, Azerbaijan started selling gas to Russia. One year later, the South Caucasus country raised exports to 2 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year.

PUBLIC DIPLOMACY

Having successfully expanded its diplomatic representation around the world with 70 embassies, Azerbaijan is now actively targeting public diplomacy efforts in order to promote its culture and history abroad. The Heydar Aliyev Foundation, created in 2004 and headed by First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, is one of the institutions leading these efforts.

The country has been enhancing its activities with its diaspora community, and in July 2011 Baku hosted the Third Congress of World Azerbaijanis. During the congress, 579 delegates from 42 countries and 211 guests from 30 countries participated in the proceedings. By increasing the role of public advocacy in arguing for Azerbaijan's place in the world, the government is hoping to counteract the negative information spread internationally by overseas groups opposed to the restoration of Nagorno-Karabakh and the return of the more than 600,000 internally displaced people within the country.

For Azerbaijan, 2012 will be a critical year in its foreign policy drive. While its non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council will give it a new edge in diplomacy, it will be the Eurovision Song Contest 2012 that will be at the core of raising its image on the international stage. And for Azerbaijan, the combination of economic, diplomatic, and international renown will be critical elements in guiding its future foreign policy settings.