Is Azerbaijan a “middle power”?

16 May 2020

“Middle powers” have been on the forefront of many international initiatives that demand coordination of resources and promotion of values. Traditionally, middle powers are named so because they are neither great, nor small. Scholars in the field, however, see “middle powers” beyond their mere geographic meaning and rightly so portray their importance not only in terms of their physical criteria. In an attempt to classify, some scholars like Marijke Breuning divide states into great/superpowers, middle powers, regional powers and small powers, with “middle powers” defined as the “states that can wield a measure of influence, albeit not through the projection of military might”.

It is stated that “middle powers” are usually affluent states that employ their resources to foster peace and lessen global economic inequality” and are norm entrepreneurs that “advocate for the adoption of certain international standards and work diplomatically to persuade the representatives of other states to also adopt these norms”.Carsten Holbrad in his identical work defined “middle powers” as “… moderating and pacifying influences in the society of states, reducing tension and limiting conflict among the great powers; or as principal supporters of international organizations, evincing a particularly high sense of responsibility.

Such countries play a role in the area of international development cooperation and the decision-makers of such countries advocate for more developmental aid and sustainable development. As examples to such states are said to be Canada, the member of the G8 and who has self-proclaimed itself as a middle power, to portray its role in international environment; Norway, who for instance facilitated negotiations between the representatives of Israel and Palestine in the run up to Oslo Accords in 1993. Netherlands and Sweden also claim to as norm entrepreneurs, for the work they do that fall into this category, especially in the field of mediation and good offices, and environmental issues. There is no consensus on the eligibility criteria, however, and often advanced countries of the world with purposeful activism on international affairs make their names to the list.

Another interesting element in this categorization is the distinction that some authors drive between the concepts of “middle power” and small states. It is underscored that the latter is not so easily defined, covers diverse group of states and is not solely confined to geographic size,as it is a “relative concept”. In this context, small states are described “as those that have a rather limited capacity to exert influence on other states” and rarely resort to force in international relations.

In this work I would like to argue that despite its relatively small geographic size, Azerbaijan, a country in the South Caucasus, is also assertively making its name as a “middle power”.  The country has come a long way to become a regional leader with all the energy and infrastructure projects that it is implementing together with its international partners, such as Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum oil and gas pipelines and Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) megaproject, expected to be completed in 2020.

However, those projects are not merely profit-oriented, they also aim to contribute to energy security and stability of wider neighborhood and regions, including in Europe. Security means stability. Stability and profits facilitate sustainable development. However, merely energy and infrastructure projects aside, Azerbaijan’s rising international profile in the recent years and its role as norm entrepreneur should be closely examined as the country, I would like to argue, has earned the title of “middle power” by virtue of its initiatives and emphasis on certain values that unite societies, alongside serving as a bridge between often competing geopolitical spaces.

The country has long made the promotion of tolerance and multiculturalism as one of its central slogans in international affairs and there is a specifically established International Center on Multiculturalism in Azerbaijan that implements initiatives and state’s vision in this area. Azerbaijan declared 2016 as the year of multiculturalism. It is multiethnic and multi-confessional state where national minorities and freedom of religious belief is respected. Tolerance is therefore idiosyncratic to Azerbaijani society.

On another note, Azerbaijan’s emphasis on multilateralism is no less important. Its belief in the power of international institutions and increasing weight in international affairs has elevated it to the non-permanent member status of the UN Security Council in 2012-2013. One of the hallmark initiatives promoted by Azerbaijan was the conduct of the high-level open debate on “Strengthening partnership synergy between the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)”, during its second-term presidency over the Council in October 2013, which was the first ever high-level debate in the Council on this very topic. 

Besides, Azerbaijan’s faith in multilateralism is also manifested in the very recent initiatives it took to bring together countries of diverse as well as similar faith, identities and interests. In fact, it was also Azerbaijan, who initiated the creation of what now became the driving force behind the international efforts to stabilize the global oil market, – the OPEC+.  As a matter of fact, the establishment of the united format of OPEC and non-OPEC countries amid the fluctuating oil prices in order to tackle the challenges in the global oil market stems from the idea by President Ilham Aliyev, which he proposed during World Economic Forum held in Davos, in January, 2016. He said that “it would be nice if the main OPEC and non-OPEC countries could come together and agree with each other”. Azerbaijan’s appeal to the concerned oil producing countries found a widespread support among the relevant oil producing states, and so it happened. The OPEC+ format has since been acting on the forefront of all the developments associated with the global oil market. Azerbaijan’s emphasis on international cooperation, and importance it attaches to the role of international organizations paid well in this case for the common objectives of the oil-producing states as well as attaining a balance in the global oil market.

Its above initiatives testify to the fact that Azerbaijan has acted as a “middle power”, norm entrepreneur that both “advocated for the adoption of certain international standards and work diplomatically to persuade the representatives of other states to also adopt these norms”, as well as worked towards “… moderating and pacifying influences in the society of states,…; or as principal supporters of international organizations, showcasing a particularly high sense of responsibility.

Moreover, the country has acquired a valuable chance to assert itself as a “middle power” and norm entrepreneur also through the chairmanship in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) – the second largest entity after the UN with 120 members – for the period of 2019-2022, as well as of the Turkic Council, GUAM and TRACECA in 2020. The 7th Summit of the Turkic-Speaking States and the first summit of the 18th Summit of the NAM under Azerbaijani chairmanship were held in October, 2019, while the 2nd Summit of World Religious Leaders was held in Baku in November, 2019. Possession of the central role in these organizations and once again focusing on the issues of religious tolerance and inter-faith dialogue gave Azerbaijan another opportunity to act as a norm entrepreneur and as a “middle power” that once again stand for multiculturalism, tolerance, inter-faith dialogue, multilateralism and global partnership by making its voice heard through such versatile institutions.  

Azerbaijan’s initiatives with Turkic Council and NAM also continued in the COVID-19 induced realities. The online special meetings of the two organizations were convened in April and May, 2020, respectively, that focused specifically on the global efforts to deal with the consequences of pandemics and sought to unite with more specific actions in order to alleviate the negative effects of the COVID-19 on the member states of the two organizations. Focus on unity, multilateralism, international cooperation and commitment to common objectives was the crux of those meetings. It was repeatedly underscored that it is only through the effective multilateralism and consistent adherence to the common values that unite all affected states, will they be able to overcome these challenges. Azerbaijan also acted as a norm entrepreneur and “middle power” because it repeatedly stood for sustainable development, having allocated about 10 million US dollars to the World Health Organization (WHO) to support its efforts in the midst of the COVID-19, especially with the idea to help needy population in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Moreover, as noted above, the large-scale energy projects that Azerbaijan implements together with its international partners contribute to the energy security and sustainable development of its immediate neighborhood, as well as larger European continent.

Another distinctive feature of the “middle power” as defined in Holbrad’s above work is “…reducing tension and limiting conflict among the great powers…”. Azerbaijan has hosted meetings between Russia and its western partners several times in a row. The first such a meeting took place in April, 2018 between Valery Gerasimov, the head of Russia’s General Staff, and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Curtis Scaparrotti, who met in Azerbaijan to discuss the situation in Syria, while the second one happened in December of the same year.

This practice continued in 2019 as well with a meeting between the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation Army General Valery Gerasimov and NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe General Tod Wolters that took place in July in Baku, where the parties discussed issues on “European and global security, ways to prevent incidents between Russia and NATO and the prospects for resuming dialogue between military experts”. They also discussed topics related to the fight against terrorism and maritime piracy, alongside also focusing on situations in Afghanistan and Syria. In November, 2019, a meeting was held in Baku between Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov with Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach. In February, 2020, another meeting of Valery Gerasimov and NATO’s Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe Tod Wolters took place in Baku.

The choice of Baku for such meetings between Russia and NATO officials is not coincidental as Baku is increasingly proving itself as a geographic venue capable of accommodating diverse and often competing interests between different geopolitical spaces, thus once again hewing to the very definitions attested above to the concept of the “middle power”.

In conclusion, there might be different outlooks in the scholarly literature as to what actually constitutes “middle power”. The ones that are chosen for this work have given some description of the concept, sufficient to be utilized as analytical frameworks. In an attempt to argue whether Azerbaijan fits into the very concept of the “middle power”, the work highlighted many initiatives and policies implemented by the country during the recent years, that have encapsulated on the values of cooperation, multilateralism, multiculturalism, inter-faith dialogue, sustainable development and a bridge for dialogue.

Objectively, our world would have been a better place had all the above values and initiatives been instilled into the very fabric of our societies and foreign policy choices. Widespread acceptance of these values and norms could in fact bring in more dialogue, understanding and peace to the anarchic nature of international system. Norm entrepreneurs – “middle powers” are therefore valuable for the premium they place on those or other types of value systems that build, unite, improve and consolidate our collective home. Seems like Azerbaijan is on the right track, and its ambition to qualify for norm entrepreneur and “middle power” should be taken at face value.

https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2020/05/16/is-azerbaijan-a-middle-power/

 Dr. Esmira Jafarova

Dr. Esmira Jafarova

Board member of the AIR Center

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