With Surprise Visit To Azerbaijan, Russia’s Lavrov Attempts To Rectify Yerevan Blunder

Fuad Muxtarlı Analysis 4 December 2019
With Surprise Visit To Azerbaijan, Russia’s Lavrov Attempts To Rectify Yerevan Blunder

In the wake of scandalous Karabakh remarks in Armenia, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov unexpectedly appeared in Baku in a hope to alleviate Azerbaijan’s concerns about the Kremlin approach to the conflict and the actors to the problem in an attempt to hammer out a peaceful solution.

Speaking in Yerevan, he said “everyone understands that without the consent of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, it will be impossible to draw up any agreements. Armenia simply will not sign them. This is what we proceed from”.

Even more prior to the visit, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, made an awkward attempt to take away criticism and focus from her boss’s remarks.

Azerbaijan’s former foreign minister Tofiq Zulfuqarov also sees eye to eye with most of the independent experts that Lavrov made statements reflecting Armenia's position. However, he did not make similarly clear-cut remarks, favoring Baku’s fair position. He did not make any statement about our main problem - the liberation of the occupied territories. Again, he remained in his position. I think that his position is prejudiced against Azerbaijan on ethnic grounds, the former official opined.

In fact, the visit of Sergey Lavrov took place against a very revealing background. The Russian foreign minister arrived in Azerbaijan shortly after the opening ceremony of the TANAP section, through which Azerbaijani gas will go to Europe.

On the one hand, no-one in Russia spoke out officially against the Azerbaijani Southern Gas Corridor. And today, experts unanimously admit that this project is not able to oust Russia from the market. But, on the other hand, Azerbaijani gas has already de facto revolutionized the European market.

And the situation here is "shifting" not in favor of Moscow. Azerbaijan’s independent gas export has already made the Russian South Stream project meaningless. Moreover, just like the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway is getting Kazakhstan’s interest and the Southern Gas Corridor may turn out to be an attractive alternative for Turkmenistan.
Where there are gas reserves, there is no reliable transport means to export it coupled with economic problems. Finally, the price of Russian gas in the European market is falling as there is no world gas price, unlike oil. Moscow is reorienting itself to the eastern market, and it is far from being as profitable as the European one.

Nevertheless, the expected “arm twisting” did not follow during Lavrov’s visit. Moreover, Sergey Lavrov made a lot of efforts to “wipe” his own blunder.
We should recall that during his Yerevan visit, the Russian foreign minister told a joint press conference with his Armenian counterpart Zohrab Mnatsakanyan that the separatist Karabakh should be a party to the resolution process.

The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry in response said that “as we have already noted many times, the settlement of the conflict requires the return of the Azerbaijani population to Nagorno-Karabakh. Secondly, substantive negotiations are needed. Thirdly, the Armenian military should be withdrawn from the occupied territories.”

Whether this was an attempt at gauging Azerbaijan’s reaction, or the minister simply expressed himself unsuccessfully, remained unknown, but very soon the Russian Foreign Ministry made serious efforts to extinguish the scandal.

Along with Mehriban Aliyeva’s visit to Russia, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman assured that “statements by representatives of the co-chairing countries of the OSCE Minsk Group have repeatedly indicated that the plan for a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict should provide for the right to all internally displaced persons and refugees to return to their former places of residence,” and Russia does not consider Nagorno-Karabakh as one of the parties to the peace talks.

Now, Sergey Lavrov, in talks with President Ilham Aliyev, assured that “... I absolutely support your thesis that rhetoric should be avoided, which runs counter to the fundamental principles approved by both parties, the principles that are enshrined in the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act"- with which he sent an unambiguous message to Pashinyan. Then, already at a joint press conference with Mammadyarov, he noted that "military-technical cooperation is one of the areas, important areas of our strategic partnership with Azerbaijan."

And, finally, he presented a new edition of his thesis expressed in Yerevan, already taking into account the position of Azerbaijan, supporting “contacts between the communities of Nagorno-Karabakh”.

“Russia has been one of the authors of this initiative,” the Russian foreign minister said, commenting on the recent “exchange visit of journalists.” I think this is very important. Any decision must be made by the people who live on this earth. I am for contacts between communities, and that they resume. Any decision should be made by the population of both Armenia and Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh,” he said.

An explanation is needed here. Let’s be realistic: unlike representatives of the United States and the European Union, Russian diplomats prefer not to touch on such a topic as the withdrawal of troops. And in Baku, Sergey Lavrov, unlike, say, George Kent or Donald Tusk, tried not to stroke too clearly against the fur of his recent Yerevan interlocutors.

Nevertheless, he tried to correct his own statements made in the capital of Armenia, and present them in such a way that it was not too obvious reverse, and at the same time, allowed to remove Azerbaijan’s objections. And then it is already clear that all this “post factum adjustment” of Lavrov’s Yerevan speech, our country can rightfully place it on the record of achievements.

Another thing is indicative: during the negotiations in Baku, the Russian foreign minister did not touch the topic of possible cooperation between Azerbaijan and the Russian integration associations - the EAEU and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Baku has repeatedly stated that Azerbaijan does not consider membership or does not seek an observer status for itself in these organizations.

This already a priori means that numerous reports on the topic of “five districts in exchange for Azerbaijan’s joining the Collective Security Treaty Organization” can once again be recognized as buried. And this means that our country is ready for cooperation with Russia in various fields, but this is precisely cooperation, and not a power vertical in diplomatic reading. This was confirmed by the “unmarked results” of Lavrov’s visit to Azerbaijan.