Azerbaijan's Pivot to Central Asia

Optimal choice: Central Asia has emerged as a geopolitical structure that offers relative stability and opportunity for Azerbaijan. Image: UPI / Alamy

While continuing its equidistance policy regarding Russia and the West, Azerbaijan is looking towards Central Asia and identifying its position in the new Great Game.

Against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has reshaped perceptions of influence, Central Asia has surged to prominence in the 21st-century geopolitical arena. Recognising its newfound importance, the West seems to have pivoted its focus towards the region, one which Russia has long viewed as its backyard and where China has become increasingly economically dominant. Summits in the 5+1 format (with Central Asia’s five republics) have already been organised by the US (September 2023) and Germany (October 2023), with the UK and Italy also expected to host their own. Added to this, European politicians have embarked on tours of Central Asia, such as German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (June 2023), French President Emmanuel Macron (November 2023) and Italian President Sergio Mattarella (November 2023). Do these activities allow us to speculate that we are witnessing a Great Game 2.0., a sequel to the multifaceted geopolitical competition that once took place over Central Asia between the Russian and British Empires? Whether this is the case or not, it is a fact that the current Central Asian geopolitical context features more actors, including multiple Western powers, China and, to some extent, India and Pakistan.

Enter Azerbaijan, which is determined to become an integral piece in the puzzle of Central Asian geopolitics. In its pivot to Central Asia, Baku’s ambitions, position and attitude are certainly different from those of the above-mentioned countries. Since its independence in 1991, Azerbaijan has directed almost all of its resources toward the resolution of the decades-long Karabakh conflict. Now, with the finalisation of the Karabakh chapter and the restoration of its territorial integrity, Azerbaijan needs to rethink and reshape its foreign policy priorities.

Baku’s foreign policy over the past 15–16 years has been marked by a balancing or ‘equidistance’ between Russo-centric Eurasian structures and the Western power bloc. The hostility between Russia and the West has only strengthened Azerbaijan’s determination not to align itself with either of the confronting parties. At the same time, this has led to a quest for a new geopolitical structure and direction for Baku’s foreign policy and economic development. Here, Central Asia emerges as a potential strategic partner for Azerbaijan, offering a mutually beneficial geopolitical and economic alignment.

This geopolitical calculation is driven by several factors, but mostly by common roots, ethnolinguistic kinship and a shared historical legacy. The concept of Turkic unity itself originated in Azerbaijan during the late 19th century, while Azerbaijan together with Turkey has been zealously pushing the Turkic agenda and integrationist projects since the 1990s. Although these initiatives were initially rooted in and designed to promote cultural ties between Turkic societies, there has been a noticeable shift, in recent years, towards greater political and economic convergence among the Turkic states. The Organization of Turkic States (OTS), loosely modelled on the EU, possesses the potential to evolve into a supranational organisation if effectively managed. OTS member states have also had the chance to turn their integrationist ideas into tangible projects such as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route – also known as the Middle Corridor – whose significance has only been growing in light of the Russo-Ukrainian war.

Azerbaijan aims to position itself not only as a Caucasian or Caspian state but also as a bridge to Central Asia

The increased importance of the Middle Corridor is also attracting greater international attention to the region. The EU recently announced the allocation of €10 billion for the development of this massive connectivity project, which would circumvent Russian infrastructure. Within this substantial investment, 33 infrastructure projects, with a particular focus on rail initiatives, are earmarked for financing. The Middle Corridor further accentuates the key position of Azerbaijan, which plays a crucial role in this framework by serving as a vital link between Europe and Asia. This significance is attributed to its well-established transportation infrastructure, featuring ports along the Caspian Sea and robust connections with neighbouring countries such as Georgia and Turkey, which comprise the European leg of the Middle Corridor.

In other words, Azerbaijan – or more precisely, the Azerbaijan–Turkey tandem (as the two countries usually work together in such geopolitical and geo-economic projects) – can become a bottleneck for the West, which seeks to establish deeper connections with Central Asia. Having economically expanded into Central Asia since the 1990s, Turkey has also grown its political and even military presence in the region by signing military agreements with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and selling Turkish UAVs (drones) to Kyrgyzstan.

The development of Azerbaijan's relations with Central Asia is being fostered on both shores of the Caspian Sea. This explains Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s participation as an ‘honoured guest’ at the 5th Consultative Meeting of the Heads of State of Central Asia, held in Dushanbe in September 2023. The inclusion of Aliyev indicates that Central Asian countries are increasingly acknowledging Azerbaijan as an integral participant in their regional dynamics. At the same time, Aliyev himself, in his latest remarks – especially in his inauguration speech in February – has placed special emphasis on relations with the Turkic states of Central Asia when announcing ‘our family is the Turkic world’ slogan.

Looking ahead, Azerbaijan aims to position itself not only as a Caucasian or Caspian state but also as a bridge to Central Asia. This strategic positioning sends a clear message, particularly to Western powers who seek deeper cooperation with Central Asia: Azerbaijan, together with Turkey, is the gateway for engagement with the region. Azerbaijan’s pivot towards Central Asia is underpinned by a calculated evaluation of the region as a less risky alternative compared to alignment with either the Russo-centric Eurasian structures or the Western power bloc. As a means of avoiding the potentially destabilising entanglements associated with alignment with more dominant powers, Central Asia has emerged as a geopolitical structure that offers relative stability and opportunity for Baku.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Rusif Huseynov

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Gulkhanim Mammadova

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