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Spotlight Article

Old New Faces: What Does Secretary of State John Kerry Mean for Azerbaijan?

Anar Valiyev
February 12, 2013

The nomination and approval of John Kerry as the next head of the US Department of State did not come as a particular shock for observers inside Azerbaijan. The predictions and rumors prepared both the Azerbaijani establishment and the public for such a scenario. Still, in Baku, Senator Kerry was hardly considered the best choice for Azerbaijan. During his previous career in the United States Congress, Kerry actively supported the interests of Armenia. For example, in the early 1990s, Kerry was one of the initiators and backers of the Section 907 amendment to the Freedom Support Act, which forbid all official US aid to Azerbaijan. Moreover, as a federal legislator, Kerry was an active supporter of recognizing the tragic 1915 events in Turkey against Armenians as “genocide.” The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) welcomed the appointment of Kerry as President Barack Obama’s next Secretary of State, calling him a “long-standing supporter of the Armenian question.” The ANCA hoped that Kerry would help in advancing the recognition of the 1915 events, initiating a provision of security for Karabakh as well as strengthening US-Armenian relations (Regnum, January 30). 

Nevertheless, the majority of Azerbaijani experts and political analysts do not believe that Kerry will radically change the situation from that under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It is true that many people in Azerbaijan were shocked by Kerry’s remarks that “Azerbaijan should be thrown under the bus,” referring to the recent extradition and pardoning of Ramil Safarov—an Azerbaijani officer convicted in Hungary for murdering an Armenian officer during a North Atlantic Treaty Organization–sponsored training course in Budapest. Nevertheless, sober analysis coming out of Baku argues that Kerry will actually need to actively seek Azerbaijan’s diplomatic support in the Caucasus. Experts believe the deterioration in bilateral relations between Moscow and Washington will continue, and this may force the new Secretary of State to search for stable allies in the post-Soviet space. Azerbaijan, with its important role as a growing energy supplier to Europe, would be an obvious choice to the US administration for closer partnership in the region, according to Baku-based experts. Therefore, they argue, staunchly maintaining his previous pro-Armenian position could become a diplomatic headache for Kerry (Ekho, January 31).

Political analyst Rizvan Huseynov believes that Kerry’s tenure following Clinton’s is unlikely to result in any new developments to the Karabakh conflict resolution process. “There has been no success or advancement on this issue for the last 20 years, and Kerry is unlikely to damage or advance the process,” he stated. However, he does not exclude that Secretary Kerry may yield certain concessions to the Russians in the Caucasus in order to achieve some level of bilateral cooperation on Iran or Syria. Thus, Kerry’s activity could strengthen Russia’s position on the Karabakh issue (Ekho, January 31). Another analyst, Elkhan Shahinoglu, argued that Kerry will disappoint the Armenian diaspora, which expects him to tilt US policy more in Yerevan’s favor (Vesti.az, November 14, 2012). Vafa Guluzade, the former advisor to the Azerbaijani president and a political analyst, also believes that Kerry will be incapable of bringing about any significant changes to Washington’s relations with countries in the region. “Kerry will not define the foreign policy of the United States. [President] Obama will continue his policy toward Azerbaijan as he did during his first term,” he stressed (Ekho, January 31).

Azerbaijani officials were also skeptical about upcoming changes of US policy toward the region. Parliamentarian Asim Mollazade stated that no significant changes are expected since Kerry would not represent his home state of Massachusetts, but rather US foreign policy. Meanwhile, the appointment of former Senator Chuck Hagel as US Defense Secretary is a positive factor for Baku since he has friendly relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan, and thus military cooperation between the US and Azerbaijan could grow (Vesti.az, January 10). 

“The new Secretary of State will not depend [on political support] from the Armenian lobby as he did in his capacity as [a US] senator,” noted Rasim Musabekob, a political analyst and Azerbaijani Member of Parliament. “He would not directly lobby for Armenian interests or push the Karabakh settlement in favor of Armenians since doing so could spoil relations with Azerbaijan. However, he will not totally distance himself from the Armenian lobby,” Musabekob contented. He further mused that, unlike previously, the State Department under John Kerry’s leadership may be less inclined to decrease foreign aid allocated by the US Congress to Armenia and the breakaway region of Karabakh. Therefore, according to Musabekob, under Kerry, “aid to these two entities may be increased” (Day.az, January 30). 

Late last year, former US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Kauzlarich acknowledged that there are certain facets in the biography of the 69-year-old old senator that could worry Azerbaijan. “However, time will reveal how [Secretary of State Kerry] will work in his new capacity. Moreover, Kerry has a distinguished career of public service and he understands international relations. As many politicians, he did what was necessary. But once he is the Secretary of State, he will hardly represent one specific group of US citizens,” he concluded reassuringly (Contact.az, December 22, 2012). 

The sober reaction from the Azerbaijani establishment and absence of vociferous criticism lead experts to believe that Baku will not hold a grudge against Secretary Kerry for his past actions. Rather, the Azerbaijani government will likely work to further deepen its relations with the United States. A lot will depend, however, on the Secretary of State’s initial policies and the diplomatic language he uses to talk to Baku. Consequently, Kerry’s failure to maintain a balanced tone in the region could significantly damage bilateral US-Azerbaijani ties—an outcome that will certainly be exploited by Washington’s rivals in the Caucasus.

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