Unites States & Azerbaijan -- A Foreign Service Officer
Tells Us Why the New 'Great Game' Isn't

February 1, 1999

Comment: #230

Discussion Thread:  #229


[1] Comments on Azerbaijan from a Foreign Service Officer, February 1, 1999. Attached.

Attached below are comments by a Foreign Service Officer who has spent time in Azerbaijan and the Caucasus. His comments provide a nice balance to the Steven Kinzer article in the NYT [Comment #229, Reference 1]. Note particularly his discussion of the comparison to Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1939 as well Russian "threat" to the Caucasus and Azerbaijan.

Chuck Spinney

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Comments from a Foreign Service Officer
February 1, 1999

This draws a number of comments from me, and after all I was a witness to this until recently.

Kinzer is a non-Turkish, non-Russian speaking journalist who, although he did some nice travelogue pieces on Azerbaijan, has a fascination with the 'new great game'. As an aside, if, as I was taught at Oxford University so many years ago, there was never really an old 'great game', other than in the minds of the same sort of jingoistic journalists who now write about the 'new great game', how can there be a 'new' great game?

Azerbaijan, caught between two regional powers which it fears, Russia and Iran, would like nothing better than to have the U.S., a non-regional power which is distant enough for them not to fear us, come in and protect them. By the way, Poland, similarly caught between two hostile regional powers has, throughout this century sought, and at times received, similar outside guarantees. The fate of both Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1938-39 points out the weaknesses of such a policy.

The GOAZ is obsessed with Russian military and intelligence threats, especially with Russian support for Azerbaijan's Armenian enemy. Azeris do not believe that they, 7 million strong, were defeated by 100,000 Karabakh Armenians. Oh no, they were defeated by an alliance of Armenia and Russia, which included Russian troops fighting in Karabakh (I have talked to Azeri officers who claimed to have taken Russian prisoners, but since such prisoners never appeared in TV theater, I think we can dismiss the notion as fantasy.

Although there are Russians who still like to speak in menacing terms about the south Caucasus and Caspian, and plenty of Americans trying to perpetuate careers built on worrying about a Russian threat who are happy to worry about them, Russia's position in the Caucasus is pretty hollow. They are on the run in the north Caucasus, with Chechnya virtually independent, and Dagestan collapsing into even greater chaos than Chechnya, if that is possible. In Azerbaijan, they just don't count. They have not been able to do anything about the Azeris developing offshore oilfields which the Russians insist the Azeris do not own, and their negotiating position on division of the Caspian has slipped steadily. Their embassy in Baku always seemed pretty clueless, and I saw no sign of an effective FSB or SVR station.

Two anecdotes of their ineffectiveness:

  • President Aliyev likes to receive visiting dignitaries with a gala show at the Republic Palace (actually a theater). These galas combine political speeches with Aliyev's favorite music and entertainment acts, and go on for 4-5 hours. Once Aliyev is in the building, presidential security locks the doors, and everyone is a virtual prisoner until Aliyev leaves. When Shevarnadze visited Baku in February, 1997 (an event which reconciled two men who had not seen eye-to-eye since they came out on opposite sides of glasnost), not a word of Russian was spoken (something of a charade, since most of the people there were Russian mother tongue, but this is nation-building). The Russian ambassador was so lost that our Chargé lent him our interpreter.

  • In February, 1998, when the GOAZ responded to a rising tide of scandal with a morality campaign, which included closing discotheques, of two top-of-the-line discos in Baku, the Russian-owned one was closed, but the Turkish-owned one had a better 'krysha' and never missed a beat.

A final comment about the likelihood of NATO troops in AZ. In August, 1998, a party of 40 technicians from USAF were supposed to come to Baku to install a load of DOD-excess medical equipment we were donating to GOAZ. At the last moment, their visit was scrapped for 'force protection' reasons and the work was eventually done by a commercial contractor.