While this month marks the first anniversary of Azerbaijan's membership of the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, the celebrations are likely to be over-shadowed by questions over Azeri commitments to democratisation and human rights. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) will meet on January 24th, and high on the agenda will be Azerbaijan. A solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, also involving Armenia, does not appear to be close, although important developments are taking place in concluding agreements on sovereignty over the Caspian Sea. Relations with the US are improving, with a visit by the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to Baku in mid-December, and the US President George Bush signing the law repealing the aid ban to Azerbaijan on January 11th.
Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe in January 2001, together with Armenia, committing itself to solving the 13-year conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, improving its democratisation processes and abiding by the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. This step was seen as an important development in the country's re-emergence from the lingering effects of the Soviet era. Similar to other newcomers to the council Azerbaijan is subject to strict monitoring procedures on the issues of democracy and human rights. However, a report by the assembly's Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee criticised Azerbaijan for jailing political prisoners, an offence that could lead to sanctions being imposed. Two years ago the council suspended Russia's voting rights.
Much of the discussion in recent weeks has focussed on three individuals, two ex-defence ministers and an ex-interior minister, but human rights organisations believe that he number of political prisoners in Azerbaijan reaches into the hundreds. The process of democratisation has also been criticised, with some European commentators claiming that no progress has been made in the last year. In late December last year between 3000 and 5000 demonstrators took to the streets to demand he resignation of President Haydar Aliyev, complaining about social hardship.
They also believed that Aliyev had not fulfilled his promises, made before his election in 1993, to solve the Nagorno-Karbakh conflict with Armenia. The 1988 to 1994 war with Armenia essentially ended in a bitter defeat for Azerbaijan and a peace agreement seems as distant as ever despite efforts by the UN and the OSCE through the Minsk Group of Russia, France and the US. According to the borders drawn up during the Soviet era the enclave is part of Azerbaijan, but Armenia and the enclave's ethnic Armenian inhabitants claim it to be part of Armenia. The Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Askanian on January 8th insisted again that Azerbaijan had no historical claims to the region, and on January 12th the president of the self-declared republic Arkadiy Gukasyan said that it retained the right to reject any peace treaty of which it did not approve.
The other regional difficulty- although rather less bloody- has been the issue of sovereignty over the Caspian Sea, centring on the oil and gas reserves under its bed. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan have traditionally sided with Russia, which wants to split the seabed according to the length of shoreline each country has and to keep the waters in common, and both signed agreements with Russia to this effect last year. Azerbaijan has long had a dispute with Turkmenistan over oil fields in the middle of the sea, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has invited both leaders- separately- to Moscow later in January to discuss the issue, hopefully inducing a closure. Turkmenistan on January 9th said that the long-awaited summit to sort out the sea's hydrocarbon resources would be held in Ashgabat later this year.
The other protagonist, Iran, has stepped up its diplomatic efforts to try and counter the Russian initiative- aside from other concerns it does not want the Russian fleet in the southern Caspian. Tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran have risen since Iranian gunboats forced two Azeri oil-exploration ships from a disputed oil field in July 2001, but recent efforts by Iran indicate that Tehran would like a resolution. The Iranian envoy for Caspian affairs Mehdi Safari was last in Baku on January 8th- his second visit in recent weeks. All the same a planned visit to Tehran by Aliyev has again been postponed.
Relations with the US have been improving, especially since September 11th. On a visit to Baku in mid-December Donald Rumsfeld said that he wanted the US to have closer military ties with Azerbaijan, and that the campaign in Afghanistan gave the US an opportunity to "reconnect with those (Caspian) countries". George Bush finally signed into law in early January the bill suspending the law banning direct US aid to the Azeri government under a section of the Freedom Support Act. This is largely seen as recognition of Azerbaijan's permission allowing the US to overfly the country en route to Afghanistan.