This post is about Azerbaijan, but also Russia and Iran and Turkey, as well as a Sunni/Shi’a split. No clever intro; just want you to know what you’re getting into.
You really don’t hear very much about Azerbaijan. This is the first time I’ve brought it up on the blog, even though I’m really interested in the Caucuses. It was one of those wretched post-Soviet states of interest seemingly only to oil and gas tycoons, who transformed its sleepy Caspian capital of Baku into that gleaming Dubai-y city you see above.
It turns out that, geopolitically, Azerbaijan is really important, and it isn’t just because of its oil and gas. It’s all about location and ethnicity. Azerbaijan is one of those borderlands, those crossing between regions across the vastness of Eurasia, where looking at a modern map tell you a lot, but also tells you very little. It doesn’t tell the complete picture.
Because to understand Azerbaijan, you have to see it not as “Caucasus” and “Post-Soviet”, and think of its orientation (so to speak) north, but as a country bordering Iran. That border, at least in that place, is a new development. The region was a battleground between Russian and Persian empires, and their antecedents, for centuries. It was finally won in the 19th century by the former, but that didn’t change its essential nature, just its political leanings.
Because Azeris are, mostly, Muslim. They had their historic homes in the Persian Empire. The ties were toward the holy cities in Iran. You can see that by the Azeri population in Iran: they make up the great northern swath of that country, and are far and away Iran’s largest ethnic minority, comprising as much as 25% of Iran’s population. Indeed, there are far more Azeris in Iran than there are in Azerbaijan, making northern Iran, really, the bulk of the Azeri homeland.
This has mattered to both countries, enormously (and to the Soviet Union as well, which is why the Orthodox church was eventually tolerated but Islam was quashed). Iran has always worried about an Azeri uprising or a desire for unification, and frankly, so has Baku. This mattered less when Azerbaijan was poor and weak. Now that it is increasingly rich, and strong, it is a potentially difficult situation.
But interestingly, it is one that Azerbaijan wants to avoid. Why would a newly prosperous country of about 10 million want to shoulder the destiny, either de facto or de jure, of 20 million more, and in doing so, wage war with a regional power? This might explain the otherwise baffling shift of President Ilham Aliyev, who is trying to turn his country from Shi’a to Sunni.
This is explained in a penetrating essay by Paul Goble in Eurasia Review.
A curious discussion” has broken out in the Azerbaijani segment of the Internet concerning the possibility that Azerbaijan could shift from being a Shiia majority country to being a Sunni majority one and that Baku would like that to happen so Azerbaijan would line up with Turkey and Kazakhstan rather than with Iran.
Those taking part in the discussion, he says, have pointed out that President Ilham Aliyev very much wants his country to be part of the Muslim world that has good ties with the West rather than part of it with bad relations not only with the West in general but with Israel in particular.
Moreover, given Baku’s close relations with Turkey, the nature of Islam in Azerbaijan has become more important for Aliyev following the victory of the more religious party of Erdogan in Turkey. Consequently, to the extent that Baku wants to underscore its ties with Ankara, it now must focus on religion as well as nationality.
Ilham Aliyev is the son of the first President of the post-Soviet state, Heydar. Where Heydar was smart and ruthless, Ilham was seen (rightfully) as a flighty playboy. His survival–and thriving–is a bit of a shock (a whole book could be written about the second generation, including Bashar al-Asad and Joseph Kabila). But what is with this plan?
Well, it is geopolitics. Azerbaijan has found itself tied to the West, through pipelines and mutual benefits. Iran’s sphere of influence became increasingly fraught, based on its belligerence and isolation. Azerbaijan is trying to change its destiny from southward to westward, both literally (with Turkey) and metaphorically.
There are obstacles. For one, there is the literal obstacle of Armenia, which is more Orthodox-oriented and has violent relations with Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh) and, well, fraught ones with Turkey. But pipeline routes have managed to sometimes bring a measure of peace, or at least cooperation.
Another fly in this oily chardonnay, readers might point out, is that the three main powers in the area, Russia, Turkey, and Iran, are increasingly close, which makes a pivot (necessitated perhaps by the fears that ethnicity and religion will trump self-interest) very difficult.
But I think that Ilham sees it differently, or at least, I see it differently. These alliances are temporary. Russia, Turkey, and Iran have, in their various forms, battled each other for influence over the Eurasian heartland for thousands of years. They still are.
Turkish and Russian influence over Azerbaijan is a direct way to pull influence from Iran, to remove a key piece of its oil and gas dominance from the chessboard. It takes away part of the Caspian and takes away overland routes. It is geopolitics at its most, well, geographic.
(This idea of geography being dominant isn’t new. It’s just new to the US, in ways that we always ignore. It isn’t new to our friends and rivals in Eurasia, which is why we never seem to play the game right. Interestingly, I think this is something Rex Tillerson does know. He has to. The question is will his knowledge be in the service of rough ethnonationalism?)
That history and geography matter, and will matter more than current passions, is clear in one paragraph of Goble’s article, which really tells you all you need to know about how the world usually works.
And on the other, the legacy of communist-era anti-religious efforts means that many in Azerbaijan just as is the case in other post-Soviet states know far less about the specifics of their religious attachments than many assume. Indeed, for most of the past two decades, people there have referred to mosques as being “Turkish” or “Iranian” rather than Sunni or Shiia.
Directions, ultimately, matter.