HomeU.S. Foreign Policy Toward Azerbaijan
U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Azerbaijan
Currently, the United States and its oil companies, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Moncrief Oil and others are widely and rather actively involved in the extraction of oil and gas resources from the Caspian Sea, which is one of the major alternatives to its oil import sources, such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf region countries. For instance, ExxonMobil and Moncrief Oil signed multi-billion oil contracts (valued in a range of $ 2-5 bln for three decades) with the Azerbaijan’s State Oil Company (SOCAR) on exploration and development-sharing of several offshore oil-fields[1].
The recently ongoing Arab Spring turns the Caspian Sea region into more vital alternative energy source to explore in case oil shipment from the Middle East shrinks. The increasing dependency on oil and potential instability hitting the Middle East region urges the US to strengthen its ties with the oil rich country Azerbaijan on the Caspian Basin. The Caspian Sea on the Western shores of which Azerbaijan is located, has huge energy-oil and gas reserves: the estimated amount of oil in this area is about 50-200 billion barrels, which makes this region the third one among similar regions of the world rich in oil (Nadim et al, 2006).
Recently, the newly found reserves by French Total energy company is estimated to be 350 billion cubic meters of gas and 45 million cubic meters of condensate which raised the proven gas reserves to 2.55 billion cubic meters in Azerbaijan[2]. This amount of oil and gas are quite enough to attract Western countries like the U.S. and its oil companies hungry for such resources.
Jeyhun Valiyev received his BA in International Relations & Political Science from Qafqaz University, Azerbaijan. He also studied as an exchange student in the same field at James Madison University, VA. He currently pursues MA degree in Global Political Economy at University of Kassel, Germany. His areas of research interest include US Foreign Policy, International Security, Political Economy, Conflict Studies and Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies.
Furthermore, the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. and the war against international terrorism have greatly increased the U.S. attention towards the region due to the latter’s geostrategic location, and Azerbaijan has become a major ally in the region on combating terrorism. Azerbaijan has a contingent in Afghanistan and had 150 peacekeeping forces in Iraq till 2008 and her civilian airport is used by US for refueling (Nichol, 2009).
In addition, since Azerbaijan is rich in energy resources, the US perceives her as an alternative energy source to Russian oil and gas for European allies as well as transit route to carry the crude from Central Asia instead of across Russia. The United States gives its political and financial support on diversifying energy routes lining from Central Asia as a measure of reducing the influence of Russia in the region. The Central Asian energy rich countries are also interested in diversifying the energy export routes to reduce dependence on pipelines cutting across Russia.
Therefore, in 2008, Kazakhstan signed an agreement with Azerbaijan to transport the former’s oil across Caspian Sea to Baku for delivery to world markets through Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline (Guliyev and Akhrarkhodjayeva, 2008). The US Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy, Richard Morningstar stated that the Obama Administration supported the “Southern Corridor” program and considered “Eurasian energy issues to be of the highest importance[3]. Thus, the American involvement in the region causes academic debates among scholars and experts about the ultimate goals that the U.S. pursues: its national interests and democracy promotion. Some argue that the U.S. is interested in the democracy evolvement within the region countries with its primary and ultimate goal being to help democratize the region countries, such as Azerbaijan.
According to Croissant, the major component of the States’ foreign policy towards Post-Soviet states presupposes the promotion of the development of democratic and peaceful states (Croissant, 1997). On the other hand, others claim that the U.S. follows its national interests in the region and its main goal is to get energy and increase its influence in the region. Lala Shovkat Hajiyeva, the opposition representative argues: “the West sees Azerbaijan as a petrol station with only one goal, to function properly. Here, the West keeps its interests higher than its values” (Nichol, 2008, p. 6).
For this, the U.S. even sometimes sacrifices its values of the national interests, playing in its turn double standard policy. The elections observed by international institutions are notified as fraudulent and uncompetitive in Azerbaijan. However, the US Department of State still eagerly cooperates with the non-democratically elected government of Azerbaijan despite its rhetorical critique about the elections and “advice” on certain matters to improve. These contradictions and paradoxes will be further analyzed in the second sub-part of this study. Thus, the question is to what extent US involvement in the region is motivated by national interest and democracy promotion.
The US Foreign Policy: geopolitical and geostrategic interests in the Caspian Basin
The U.S. needs for energy resources grow very fast and despite of 50 years government sponsored programs on reducing oil dependence, US consumption and importation of oil from foreign countries have increased steadily (Momayezi, 2011, p. 4). Oil rich Caspian Sea region has tremendous potential to provide its demands for oil to some extent and play a role of alternative source. Azerbaijan possesses huge oil and gas resources. Proven and estimated oil resources of Azerbaijan are equal to 11 and 38 billion barrels respectively (Ozkan, 2006). Marashian gives another yet still a big number on proven oil reserves as 7 billion barrels and estimates up to 14 billion if intensive drilling is applied (Pipeline Routes and Pipeline Politics, 1998, p. 28). Here, the provided numbers on estimated and proven reserves can somehow differ from each other, but in overall Azerbaijan possesses 0.6 % of world proven oil reserves according to BP Statistics of World Energy[4].
Besides, Azerbaijan has a very important strategic location as a transit country between Central Asia and Europe. “Situated at the strategic crossroads of Europe and Asia, the Caspian is an area of intrinsic geopolitical importance” (Croissant, 1997, p-353). Thus, for the United States it is important to get into this region for both reasons above mentioned. To go deeper on these perspectives Croissant argues that the U.S highly depends on Gulf Oil which makes it vulnerable (Croissant, 1997). The recent uprisings in Middle East countries demonstrate the further vulnerability of US economy’s dependence on imported oil (Momayezi, 2011).
It means the U.S. would surely be interested in diversifying its energy sources and one of the potentials is the Caspian Basin. The other major reason that the U.S. as the only superpower in the world became interested in the region was the appearing power vacuum in the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Sulaiman, 2001). According to Breslauer, Caucasus has become a focus of a US Foreign Policy, in part to prevent the revival of Russia in the region (Geopolitics of Oil, Gas and Ecology in the Caucasus and Caspian Basin, 1998, p.2). The next cause for the active U.S. involvement in the region was due to tries to deter a new influence of Russia upon the region countries which would impede the easy transport of oil from the region to the world markets.
Ebel explains the position of the US as following: “American Policy has been designed to build multiple pipelines and ensure the diversification of oil supply sources (The Geopolitics of Oil in the Caucasus, 1998, p. 19). Actually, during the 1990s Russia has had monopoly over the oil routes passing the region, since all the pipelines were going to Europe through Russia (all the routes were passing through Russia during the Soviet times) which gave it advantage after the Cold war. In other words, Russia has been very active in its efforts to control the export of Caspian oil to the world markets.
Until 1999 when Baku-Supsa oil pipeline was built, the Baku-Novorossisk route carried the crude oil from Azerbaijan to the European and world markets across Russia (Croissant, 1997). According to Blank, the U.S. involvement across the Transcaspian has accelerated since 1994-95, when it has conclusively rejected Russia’s claims for energy monopoly (Blank, 2000). “Beyond supporting American oil companies’ commercial interests, the principal policy interests of the United States in the route-selection process are geostrategic, argues Ebel (Pipeline Routes and Pipeline Politics, 1998, p.19).
Since 1994 when the “Deal of Century” treaty was signed between Azerbaijan and several Western oil companies, the investments were being increased year by year. The president of Azerbaijan signed this treaty with ten oil companies including BP, Pennzoil with the value of 7.4$ billion. Furthermore, the contracts were signed with other huge American oil companies, Chevron and ExxonMobil (Case, 2004). So, all of these contracts attracted further investments of the U.S. oil companies.
However, during the early 1990s as Bremmer told, there was a ban resolved by the Congress called Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act (1992) that prohibited any humanitarian aid for Azerbaijan from the U.S., which was supported by strong Armenian lobbying to the Congress. Actually, this was initiated as the Freedom for Russia and Emerging Eurasian Countries and Open Markets Support Act adopted by Congress in October 1992 to support free market and democratic reforms undertaken in Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and other post-Soviet countries (Baban & Shiriyev, 2010). The reason for the adoption of this Act was economic blockade of Armenia by Azerbaijan (Bremmer, 1998). Due to the terms of this Act, the ban had to be continued until Azerbaijan lifted economic blockade of Armenia (Rasizade, 1999).  “The maintenance of Section 907 of The Freedom Support Act is the strongest evidence of Armenian lobbying success” (Gregg, 2002, p.33). This shows how foreign policy priorities affect the preferences of the states.
But later developments showed increased interests and involvement of the U.S. in Azerbaijan and generally in the region, which has greatly influenced the bilateral relations between these states. The 9/11 attacks on the U.S., war against terrorism, security and increasing attention to the region, as well as the potential role of Azerbaijan as of an ally of the U.S. resulted in the cancel of Action 907 in 2002. “The Clinton and later the Bush administrations had argued on a number of occasions that Section 907 hindered American influence on the post-Soviet transition of Azerbaijan and their economic interests there” (Ozkan, 2006, p-22). As a result of negotiations and talks between the region countries – Azerbaijan, Turkey, Georgia and a foreign country, the U.S., two major oil and gas pipelines have been built and put into use since 1999.
The first of these was the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline that carries Azerbaijani oil to the Georgian port city on the Black sea shore (Ozkan, 2006). It was the first route that bypassed Russia. The other pipeline which is a very huge project, again bypassing Russia, takes Azerbaijani oil (including some amount of Kazakhstani oil) through Georgia to Turkish port city of Ceyhan on Mediterranean shores. This pipeline started its activity in 2005 (Eurasia, 2005). The gas pipeline takes its head from Baku all the way through Georgia’s capital (as BTC) and runs until Erzurum, another city in Eastern Anatolia.
Thus, we saw above the true reasons (energy sources, strategic role of Azerbaijan, Russian factor, 9/11 attacks) that make the Caspian region and Azerbaijan important for the U.S. and how the situation developed from zero to the very positive level. When we look at the issue from the realist point of view, it becomes obvious as to why the U.S. tries to increase its power, influence and position within the Caspian region (power politics, foreign policy based on national interests). Recently, there are ongoing discussions to realize “Nabucco” project which would carry gas from Azerbaijan as well as Central Asian countries to Central and Eastern Europe and if realized, will be a potential alternative to Russian gas heating Europe.
Geopolitical Interests vs Democracy Promotion
Since gaining its independence, Azerbaijan is in the transition period and there are very critical opinions about the existence of democratic environment in this oil rich country. Contrary to the expectations, almost every time since independence, the elections have been falsified occurs human rights’ violations, political oppression of the opposition, and there is high level of corruption, personality and cult rule in Azerbaijan. Moreover, even some scholars argue that Azerbaijan has been going towards semi-authoritarian regime for almost two decades, rather than forwarding itself to the democratic achievements (Guliyev, 2005). Azerbaijan can also be classified as a stable and competitive authoritarian country if we refer to the evaluation of Levitsky and Way about types of hybrid regimes in the post-cold war era.
To explain, according to Levitsky and Way, in competitive authoritarian regimes institutions exist, but these are systematically violated in favor of incumbent and opposition is legal and able to compete, but disadvantaged by incumbent abuse and harassment (Levitsky and Way, 2010, p. 81). In Azerbaijan, the political and democratic situation isn’t in a better way than this classification given above and the government, when decisive, uses its coercive capacity to oppress the opposition. Cornell argues about another interesting idea that Azerbaijani president (Haydar Aliyev) pursued stability at the expense of democracy (Cornell, 2001). The last two years can be remembered with massive imprisonment of youth political activists that criticize the current policies of the government[5].
Furthermore, the parliamentary election in 2005 was totally in contrast with expectations of the public. Besides, constant human rights violations occurred in Azerbaijan before and after the elections (Alieva, 2006). Thus, we see that although Azerbaijan has been an independent country for more than 15 years, there were no steps towards democracy rather than clan politics and elite rule over the people, which is basically the main characteristic feature of authoritarian regimes. What is the U.S. opinion on Azerbaijan and democracy in this country? In her last interview, her Excellency Enn Derse, who was an ambassador of the U.S. to Azerbaijan, told that the U.S. promotes democratization in Azerbaijan and supports all the activities of the current government in this way. She also added that Azerbaijan is positively perceived as moving in the democratic path (Yergin, 2007).
The presidential elections held in 2003 can serve as one of the primary samples showing what the U.S. government supports in Azerbaijan. Even though the elections were not democratic and the meetings of oppositions have been brutally suppressed by the government security forces, the U.S. president Bush and his administration officials sent congratulation telegrams to the newly elected president Ilham Aliyev (son of Haydar Aliyev) (Case, 2004). Although the U.S. administration was supportive of having free and fair elections, at last point it sacrificed its national interests to the democratic values (Case, 2004).
After that issue the trust of people to the U.S. as of a democracy promoter has greatly decreased (Case, 2004). Rasizade argues that America’s compromise on democratic principles for the sake of its prioritized national interests developed an anti-American backlash among people, as it had happened before in Iran and Cuba (Rasizade, 2003).  The US Embassy in Azerbaijan made a statement after elections urging the government to investigate the irregularities, but at the same time pointed on the elections as a sign of democratization (Nichol, 2009). This is the dilemma that US government’s critical approach on paper isn’t reflected on its practical behavior towards Azerbaijan.
In addition, the presidential election of 2008 was also critiqued by international observers being not free and fair despite some progress was noticed (Nichol, 2008). It has been considered as the least competitive of elections since 1993 (Abbasov, 2009). According to election monitors from OSCE/ODIHR, European Parliament and other international observing institutions, the election was peaceful, well organized and efficient, but there was lack of robust competitions and vibrant discourse facilitated by media (Nichol, 2009). The US State Department’s report on Human Rights Practices for 2008 notes that there are human rights abuses by government in Azerbaijan and violations got worse in some areas in 2008[6].
However, the US Government yet kept and still keeps cooperating in certain areas of interest with Azerbaijan by having blind eyes on human rights violations that leads to the loss of trust to US Government within opposition in Azerbaijan. We can refer to the great idea of Machiavelli and several other realist scholars, according to which in international relations there is no morality. So, the U.S. did not care about ethics and morality because the pursuit of national interests was neither compatible with these idealist views nor with national interests prevailing over those ideas.
Actually, the stability and peace within Azerbaijan and among the region countries is more preferred rather than passing to democracy through experiencing some instability and wars. We know that any country passing to democracy experiences more instability than the country that stands on its place or goes towards authoritarian regime as I classified Azerbaijan stable and competitive authoritarian regime by referring to Levitsky and Way’s study. According to Mansfield and Snyder, the transitional phase of democratization is rich in conflicts and instabilities (Betts, 2005).
The United States is not interested in instability within the region which can escalate internal or external war (new war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh). This does not work for the U.S., since the pipeline routes could be damaged, which halted the run of oil through BTC and Baku-Supsa in summer of 2008 during Russian-Georgian war. The war factually suspended the shipment of oil through pipelines though resumed soon after operations stopped (Tsereteli, 2009, p.13). So, the security and stability become another issue in case of formulating policy in the Caspian region. The United States has got experience in dealing with the strongmen of some regimes like in Iran, and currently Azerbaijan is also in the same process (Rasizade, 2003).
Bremmer argues that in order to get oil and other geostrategic interests, the U.S. closes its eyes to the abuse of power under the dictatorships of Caspian region countries (Bremmer, 1998). According to Croissant, it is the geopolitical interests of the United States that shape its policy towards the Caspian region (Croissant, 1997). We see from the above analyses of the political situation that the U.S. prioritize its national interest and even compromise with the current regime in Azerbaijan in order not to lose its ties with it and feed itself from the oil and gas resources of Azerbaijan.
It is the national interests that define the foreign policy of the states and even the United States is willing to help any country with democratization, which is also done due to national interests. Enn Derse has also noted that promoting democracy is among our national interests (Yergin, 2007). However, this is the fact from the political life of Azerbaijan that the U.S. sacrificed its democratic values to its national interests. It is the double standard policy that the U.S. pursues its relations with Azerbaijan.
As it was told above, the U.S. prefers stability and it doesn’t necessarily play a significant role who rules in Azerbaijan unless the relationship gets strained. It would be quite reasonable to mention as an example in this case other authoritarian Central Asian and Arabic countries that receive the U.S. support in bilateral relations. It is the prestige politics that Morgenthau argues in his book, “Politics among Nations” (Morgenthau, 1954).
So, although the officials of both sides always claim that Azerbaijan is on the democratic path, there are no significant signs of it, but contrary, the political situation, human rights conditions, oppression, use of force by the government and other issues have become fundamental problems in the political system of the country. It is the major fact that makes it possible for me to claim the idea which was discussed above that the United States is only interested in its national interests and the idea of democracy promotion stays in the margins of reason for its involvement into the regional political and economic cooperation.
Moreover, the U.S. is highly active in the Caspian region because of its geopolitical and strategic importance for its interests. Blank argues that energy and security interests are the dominant ones on the agenda of the U.S. foreign policy, and it is less interested in the democratization of the local governments such as in Azerbaijan (Blank, 2000). The official statement and rhetoric of US Department of State and its representatives don’t correspond with the actual political maneuvers that US takes towards Azerbaijan. According to Zevelev, the rhetoric of the US government officials don’t correspond the real steps that it takes, so the authoritarian regimes in Azerbaijan and other Central Asian countries receive grand receptions in the White House (Russian Foreign Policy and Strategic Interests in the Caspian Region, 1998, p.72). It is worth to highlight that the provision of commercial and business interests of US oil companies in the Caspian Basin is one of the top priorities in US Foreign Policy. In addition, as a nation-state US benefits expand when its companies enrich their income and spread their influence throughout the world. Better governmental relations with oil-rich authoritarian countries, including Azerbaijan guarantee easier access for the oil companies to explore the energy sources. The empirical facts of elections either presidential or parliamentary, oppression on freedom of assembly and jailing young political activists signal not very democratic situation existing in Azerbaijan, but the reaction of US official on these issues are critical only in speeches, but not in actual moves to pressure the government. The United States before the last parliamentary elections as the Council of Europe pressured up on Azerbaijan to carry out some election reforms, such as allowing NGOs monitor the election process and granting more television time for opposition candidates[7]. Despite this formal pressure, the falsification and manipulations still took place and consequently, the Freedom House Report 2011 called Azerbaijan as a not-free state and stated the last parliamentary election in November 2010 as flawed and non-transparent[8]. The US Department of State released an issue that the parliamentary election in Azerbaijan was peaceful, but didn’t quiet meet international standards[9]. This statement sounds very bold, but the US isn’t interested in instability in the region and she is aware that any provocative statements by US officials in regard with the election processes and outcomes would mobilize mass protests and challenge the stability that Western interests pursue to achieve. The US State Department would never put its bilateral relations with Azerbaijan into jeopardy and risk her stakes in regional cooperation because of the problems in democratization and elections.
In this research, I evaluated the US Foreign Policy towards Azerbaijan in terms of its geopolitical and energy interests. To conclude, the empirical facts above also confirm this argument, which derives its theoretical underpinnings from the Realist Paradigm that national interests are superb and decisive in defining the shape and framework of US Foreign Policy towards Azerbaijan.
The US government wouldn’t wish to lose the support within opposition parties which mainly represent the people’s will in Azerbaijan, nor would she be willing to endanger its economic and political ties with the current regime which builds up the double-standard politics. Thus, approaching the question analyzed above both, from the theoretical and practical (findings) points of view show in reality that every country pursues its foreign policy based on national interests and this or that state can do whatever is possible to reach its own ultimate goals. Our case is not the only one within international relations, and we see that power politics, national interests and other issues related to the best possible survival and development of the states continue to be the main goals of this state-centric world.
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