Ilham Goes To Washington

by Nathan Hamm on 6/15/2005 · 6 comments

The Eurasia Daily Monitor reports that Ilham Aliyev appears to have finally gotten an invitation to visit Washington. Why now?

Immediately following the recent invitation, local analysts began speculating on the causes for the changed American attitude. Some believed that it was tied to the recent opening of the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, actively supported by the White House. After all, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman participated in the inauguration of the pipeline in May and brought with himself a congratulatory letter from President Bush. Others argued that the invitation was a reward for the Azerbaijani consent to host mobile American military bases. The rumors about such bases have been in the air for more than a year, and the repeated visits by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to the Azerbaijani capital only further increased them. The ongoing negotiations over the Karabakh conflict and the seemingly growing rapprochement between the Azerbaijani and Armenian positions are cited as another possible reason for the invitation.

Yet, there are also those who believe that the invitation from President Bush is related to the November parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan and the desire of the American policymakers to encourage free-and-fair elections. This interest can be tied to President Bush’s recent drive for freedom and democracy in the world, and his enthusiastic support for democratic reforms in the post-Soviet space and Middle East, shown during his visit to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, last month.

I certainly hope that the latter is the reason.

I have seen it mentioned that Aliyev is much more interested in reform than his father, but is held back by competing interests in his government including powerful conservatives who wish to keep the opposition firmly in check. The author of the article speculates that if the US uses the visit to pressure Aliyev for political reform, he may have a stronger hand to modernize the state.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Katy June 15, 2005 at 10:15 am

I don’t think that the US gives a darn about reform in AZ. Reform isn’t going to happen until the people push the opposition into the “right” direction.


Nathan June 15, 2005 at 10:59 am

Well, I’m convinced we most certainly do. The problem in general though is that there’s little we can do to guarantee that our pressure on the government in Azerbaijan or anywhere else will amount to much. My beef with making a big deal out of our commitment to reform is that it raises expectations unrealistically. On the one hand, we can’t really do much beyond help out the opposition once it has built up serious steam. On the other, if nothing happens, we get labelled as not really caring.

It’s a whole big complicated mess to explain, but I certainly think that we do get how we can be a help–pressuring governments to allow enough breathing space for the opposition to do its thing. We can’t really force anything, and we shouldn’t depend on those in office now in places like Azerbaijan to push through the kind of long-term reforms that are needed.

Katy June 15, 2005 at 11:03 am

But as long as a country isn’t “harboring terrorists” or threatening to take away something we want, I don’t think that the USG really cares how they operate.

Yeah, a more democratic government makes it easier for US businesses to operate in country… in theory at least… but as long as everyone is comfortable with paying bribes, does it really matter?

Sure, USG gives all sorts of aid and all… but, (being as cynical as possible) isn’t that just a bargaining chip for later when the US really needs something?

Nathan June 15, 2005 at 11:17 am

We seemed to care about Ukraine and Georgia without that stuff on the table. Sure the opposition was almost guaranteed to be more pro-American, but I think that’s generally true of democratic opposition groups to varying degrees. It’d be very hard to say that we had a compelling strategic interest in seeing either government change. There was a strategic balance that had been maintained for a while taht everyone seemed fine with, and changing it carried with it all kinds of risks. Not your traditional conservatism by any stretch of the imagination.

If the aid’s a bargaining chip for the future, it’s not very effective. It hasn’t worked worth a damn in Uzbekistan, hasn’t kept us as top dog in Kyrgyzstan, and less important as I see it to securing Azeri strategic cooperation than a whole host of other factors.

Katy June 15, 2005 at 11:22 am

I think that aid plays more of a role that anyone lets on.

I think that with GE specifically, they were our best ally in the region vs. RU. Ukraine, very close to Europe and access to multiple seas.

Good point that the oppositions are generally pro-US, but is that enough for USG to really care? If the US really cared, they’d pour more money into helping fix rigged elections or developing leadership skills in the government, IMHO.

Example: Turkmenistan… if they didn’t have gas/oil, maybe America would be more critical of their political situation.

It isn’t that I’m disagreeing with you, rather that I feel conflicted as an American citizen who cares about this region as to how the USG treats it.

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