Congressional Hearing Examines Human Rights, Security Ties With Azerbaijan

Central Eurasia

Ties between the U.S. and Azerbaijan have become strained in recent months. The Azerbaijani government has pushed back vocally against American criticism of the country's human rights record, accusing Washington of interference in its internal affairs. Yet the two sides have mutual security interests and the tension involved in balancing this relationship was the subject of a recent Congressional hearing.


Azerbaijan plays an important geopolitical role due to its location between Russia and Iran and its large reserves of oil and natural gas. Gas from the Caspian Sea can help break Europe's dependence on Russian energy, and so helping to extract that gas and ship it westward has been one of the U.S.'s main strategic priorities in the region. Militarily, Azerbaijan has tried to remain relatively neutral; it is neither as close to the U.S. as is neighboring Georgia, nor as close to Russia as is Armenia.


On June 11, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on “The Security, Economic and Human Rights Dimensions of U.S.-Azerbaijan Relations,” in which officials from the State Department and Congress discussed how to balance those various priorities. It was perhaps an indication of Azerbaijan's sense of the appropriate balance that their country missed the hearing because of a scheduling conflict; Azerbaijani Ambassador to the U.S. Elin Suleymanov “had meetings on the security front” with U.S. officials, according to Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), who chairs the commission.


Senator Cardin and Representative Christopher Smith (R-NJ), the co-chairs of the commission, both emphasized the need to balance security interests with human rights. “Azerbaijan has played an important role in the Northern Distribution Network. It has troops serving on the ground in Afghanistan. It made a strong statement in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity by voting with the United States in the UN Security Council. So while we have significant concerns, we also have much to celebrate with Azerbaijan,” Senator Cardin said. “While we all recognize the important role Azerbaijan plays in the energy sector, and we also recognize that Azerbaijan has carved out for itself a forward-leaning international relations policy that seeks to balance the pressures from Russian and Iran with friendly relations with the U.S. and Israel, the special role of this commission is to urge and insist that OSCE governments meet their human rights commitments,” Rep. Smith added.


U.S. officials at the meeting did highlight the security ties between Washington and Baku. “Azerbaijan has been a key partner for the United States and NATO from Kabul to Kosovo,” said Eric Rubin, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, testifying at the hearing. “Azerbaijan currently has 94 troops serving in Afghanistan and has committed to remain involved in the country beyond 2014. It has completed missions to Iraq and Kosovo. Azerbaijan is a key node in the Northern Distribution Network and air route sending non-lethal goods in and out of Afghanistan.”


Security assistance to Azerbaijan is complicated by the fact that it has an unresolved conflict with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. The law known as “Section 907” restricts U.S. military aid to Azerbaijan, a provision Azerbaijan's diplomats have long fought against. Rubin, however, noted that there are the possibilities for waivers “for U.S. efforts to counter terrorism, support the operational readiness of U.S. armed forces or coalition partners to counter terrorism, [and] ensure Azerbaijan’s border security.”


As a result, U.S. military assistance to Azerbaijan has been focused on “strengthening Caspian security, countering terrorism, stemming the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and enhancing maritime domain awareness,” Rubin said. Since 2002, the U.S. has provided $44.4 million in Foreign Military Financing and $9.9 million in International Military Education and Training and Export Control and Border Security programs “that focus on military professionalization, building operability, and enhancing border security,” he said, adding that the budget for all such programs in 2014 was about $4 million.


Another State Department official, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Thomas Melia, attempted to tie the observance of human rights to Azerbaijan's broader security needs. “We recognize that Azerbaijan lives in a very difficult neighborhood and that its government seeks stability,” Melia testified. “The United States strongly supports Azerbaijan’s long-term stability, security, and prosperity. The best way to guarantee such a future is to strengthen democratic processes and institutions to buttress respect for the rule of law and fundamental freedoms. Doing so will foster long-term internal stability, create the most inviting environment for economic investment and growth, and make Azerbaijan the very best that it can be.”