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Azerbaijan: Broad Consensus on Crimea Worries

With Karabakh in mind, government votes against Moscow's annexation move.
By Nijat Melikov

For once, government officials, opposition politicians and commentators in Azerbaijan have found common cause in voicing concern about Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

When the United Nations General Assembly met on March 27 to discuss a resolution deeming the Crimean referendum illegal, Azerbaijan was one of 100 countries that voted for the motion. Eleven countries, including Russia and just two other former Soviet states – Armenia and Belarus – voted against.

Aside from the UN vote, the Azerbaijani government has refrained from condemning Moscow’s actions too publicly.

Speaking before the March 16 Crimean referendum, deputy foreign minister Araz Azimov reiterated the official position, telling the Azertag news agency that his country believed in “the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and inviolability of borders”.

For Azerbaijan, that means Nagorny Karabakh, which has been run by a separate Armenian administration since the war of the early 1990s. While Karabakh has not won international recognition. Azerbaijanis fear that Crimea could set a precedent for territories wishing to formalise splits of this kind.

Hikmet Hajizade, a leading figure in the opposition Musavat party and a one-time ambassador to Moscow, said he understood and supported the government’s cautious opposition to Russia.

“You need to be very careful with a crazy politician like Putin. There are already people in Russia talking about recognising Nagorny Karabakh,” he said.

Vafa Guluzade, a political analyst who served as an adviser to the late president Heydar Aliyev – the father of current leader Ilham Aliyev – said the Kremlin’s arguments about needing to protect ethnic Russians abroad were “absurd”.

“By that law, Russia could send troops to New York, since there’s a Russian-speaking population concentrated in Brighton Beach,” he told IWPR. “Russia is planning to regain the territories it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Putin isn’t even trying to hide the fact he wants to restore the empire.”

Guluzade described the Crimean referendum as “practically identical to the one Adolf Hitler held for the Austrian Anschluss and [moves] to ‘defend the rights of the Sudeten Germans’”.

Rasim Musabekov, an independent member of parliament and a political analyst, said the government’s measured response was in line with international law.

“We cannot react more strongly than the Ukrainians have done themselves, that is, in a proportionate manner. When Armenia occupied Azerbaijani territory, Ukraine too limited itself to expressing support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity,” he said.

Longer term, Musabekov said, Moscow would need to come to terms with the implications of its policies towards Ukraine.

“Putin is convinced he’s won, but this is going to have a negative effect on his medium-term and long-term prospects. If you believe Russia has won in Crimea, you need to understand that it has lost Ukraine,” he said. “The scars that Russia has inflicted on Ukraine through its actions in Crimea will take a long time to fade from Ukraine’s national consciousness.”

Nijat Melikov is a journalist with the Zerkalo newspaper in Azerbaijan.