The West exchanges Tbilisi for Baku

By Ilona Raskolnikova

Azerbaijan differs from its neighbors in the South Caucasus very much. Despite Mikhail Saakashvili's statement about Sakartvelo's amazing development, Baku is the leader for economic growth among the former Soviet republics. While the financial crisis has walked throughout the planet, the share of the Azerbaijani economy in the region exceeded 80 percent. Its GDP became higher than in Georgia and Armenia together. Will the oil sector help to strengthen the political position of Mr. Aliyev on the international stage?

"The development is observed in all spheres of the economy, and evidence of this is that Azerbaijan, according to assess of the business environment, took first place among CIS countries in the next rating of "Forbes". The country experiences growth in the oil sector in such areas as industry, weaving, wood, paper and cardboard, chemical products and electrical equipment. So, if today Azerbaijan's GDP is $ 28 billion, the GDP of Georgia is $ 3.5 billion and Armenia's - $ 2.2 billion", said Minister of Economic Development Shahin Mustafayev at the meeting with the producers.

The share of hydrocarbons that come from Azerbaijan amounts 88.2 per cent of total country's exports. Not surprisingly that the Caspian oil attracts Western capitalists by its low price, easy production and compliancy of the government. The project Nabucco, which is being lobbied by the United States with help of European institutions of government, won't be viable without the aid of the countries of Central Asia. But while the former Soviet republics are speculating about who is their favorable ally - the U.S. or Russia - you can always play on the leadership's ambitions in the region.

> Caucasus Map
Europe considers Baku, Ashgabat and Astana as alternative energy suppliers, so the prosperity of Azerbaijan pleases American administration. Georgia, as an important site of transport and gas lines, had not justified the confidence of American overlord. Construction of Nord Stream and South Stream pipelines, bypassing the transiters of Russian natural gas, doesn't allow Tbilisi to become a serious geopolitical player in the South Caucasus.

In addition, a huge foreign debt which Georgian government is unable to serve, together with the president, whose conduct embarrasses the leaders of many countries, are forcing the White House to seek other, more reliable partners. Despite the conflict of Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, Aliyev seems more acceptable figure for building new U.S. policy in the Caucasus, since Washington's failure in connection with a restart of the Russian-American relations has become increasingly clear. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are linked to Moscow by the Organization of Collective Security Treaty and they are unlikely dare on confrontation with the Kremlin, even economic. And there is no sin to use the potential of official Baku.

Thus, Azerbaijan's GDP is higher than indicators in Armenia and Georgia for a few times. Its population size (since it is a serious consumer market) also exceeds the number of inhabitants of the other two Caucasian republics - 9 million people. For ten years, the economy has added an average of 13.6 percent annually, while GDP per capita at purchasing power parity amounts almost $ 7 thousand - almost twice more than in Georgia.

In this case, if we talk about the benefits of transit, Baku is using advantage of four export pipelines to the maximum: Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline, Kazi-Magomed-Gardabani, Kazi-Magomed-Mozdok and Kazi-Magomed-Astara-Binand. Azerbaijan's transit opportunities have been increased after the commissioning of new railway lines as part of the North-South, which will increase the flow of cargo through Azerbaijan from India, South Asia and Persian Gulf and the Middle East, Eastern and Central Europe and Russia.

But the most important thing President Ilham Aliyev has - is good relations with Moscow. If the U.S. and Europe are cautiously looking at friendship with the Islamic Republic and therefore they do not hurry to accept Turkey into the EU, Russia is quite kindly adjusted in relation to Muslim states. Destabilization of the Middle East and North Africa by the efforts of NATO has spoiled a lot of blood to the Kremlin - arms and oil deals were at stake. Therefore, stability in the Caucasus is, oddly enough, not only in the list of priorities of Russia, but also of the West. Otherwise, Russian leadership's distrust towards the European partners will continue to grow - hence, they will use this leverage more often.

So, its a mystery, what Mikhail Saakashvili will do in the case if the U.S. will reorient to Azerbaijan. But Washington and Brussels should be remembered that the political system of Azerbaijan is far from democracy, despite the fact that the presidency of Ilham Aliyev is accompanied by stabilization of the domestic political life and economic recovery. International human rights organization Freedom House, has put Caucasian republic on the list of authoritarian post-Soviet countries, along with Belarus. Therefore, an obvious connection with Baku can swipe at America's reputation which invariably brings its lopsided banner of freedom even to those who don't need it. On the other hand, changing inert and closed form of government in Azerbaijan can question the continued cooperation with this country. Not the fact that the current government's economic success in the future will be possible after leadership changes under the strict auspices of the United States.
The Georgia Times