Interview with Alex Vatanka

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The recent trilateral meeting (Azerbaijan-Iran-Russia) in Baku seems to open new prospects for the region. The Politicon interviews Mr. Alex Vatanka, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute and the Jamestown Foundation in Washington D.C, specialist in Iranian and Caucasian policies on the significance of the meeting and discussed projects.

Interviewer: Fuad Shahbazov

Shabazov: As you know on the 9th of August Azerbaijan hosted a new Baku-Tehran-Moscow trilateral meeting. According to mass media, the leaders of the three countries gathered together to discuss pressing issues of international and regional policy. How would you estimate the importance of the high-level meeting?

Vatanka: The meeting in Baku is significant, and could become historic. Azerbaijan, Iran and Russia are neighbors and one cannot choose its own geography. And one has to welcome cooperation that can improve the economic, security and overall development of these three states. As long as there is a mutual interest and no attempt by any state to dominate or dictate the path forward, then we should welcome positive cooperation and even integration around the Caspian Sea.

The press has written that Russian President Vladimir Putin is travelling to Baku to sign new arms deals. How do you think, does it mean that Russia value Azerbaijan as the most reliable strategic partner or not?

Russia has a very mixed history in terms of its attitude toward the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is now using American inaction in the region to appeal to Baku and to some extent it is succeeding. However, Moscow has to do a far more honest job as a broker in the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, something it can do because the Western states have frankly failed to do much. If Moscow can finally do so, the South Caucasus can benefit. However, I am not optimistic on this point and I do not think Moscow is yet ready to push for a final settlement of conflict.

According to official information, the leaders discussed bilateral cooperation issues of “strategic importance”, and the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Do you expect a new escalation of the conflict, after the deadly April skirmishes?

The North-South corridor is potentially extremely important. The data show economic growth on the Subcontinent and Middle East will be significant in years to come and this will open up trade opportunities and economic development across the former Soviet South. This is good news, and should be welcomed and I hope states in the region, from Kyrgyzstan to Turkey adopt a positive stance and reject the notion that this project will come at their expense. There can be multiple trade routes and projects and this competition does not have to be a zero-sum-game. 

The other important issue that “presidential troika” discussed was the North-South Corridor – a large-scale transportation project promoted chiefly by Moscow. Can we say that this project will shift the trilateral relations?

There is still plenty of issues that need to be worked out among these three states. And it is up to them whether they will let any other state have the opportunity to sabotage this new trend of cooperation among them. But Azerbaijan has to be careful to continue to pursue its own foreign policy path. It can have Western and Eastern partners while accepting the reality of its geography and common interests it shares with its neighbors and work for the betterment of the region when possible.

Exclusively for The Politicon