08.12.2023 | Azerbaijan – Life between the world’s two most sanctioned countries

Azerbaijan has long been proud of its position as a bridge between Europe and Asia. Its food, architecture, and fashion are testament to the mixing pot of cultures found at the heart of modern Baku.

Baku has also embraced the trend of status architecture most associated with cities like Dubai or Singapore.  Heydar Aliyev Airport in Baku is a good example of a futuristic building from the outside with large glass panels and soft curves, albeit with a slightly tired interior.  In the queue for immigration, however, the faded beige carpets were not at the forefront of my mind as I nervously awaited an interrogation over the Armenian stamp in my passport – contentious due to the recent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.  With barely a glance at the stamp and a swift “Welcome to Azerbaijan”, we entered the country.

Our taxi driver was eager to point out Baku’s sights as he drove us the 15 mile journey to central Baku and proudly pointed out the sea of Azerbaijan flags hung from every balcony celebrating the country’s victory in the 2020 Karabakh war.  No mention was made of the more recent events in September 2023.  Having driven past the Olympic Stadium and athletes’ village, the venue and accommodation for the 2019 UEFA Europa League Final, one cannot help but notice the pit stops and road markings interspersed throughout the capital’s streets.  They are a reminder of the annual Baku Grand Prix, a key feature on the calendar of any Formula One fan.  Azerbaijan has truly embraced the modern phenomenon of hosting international sports events to boost tourism and its global reputation (cynics might call it sportswashing).

Behind this most modern façade of international sport and stylish architecture, however, Azerbaijan cannot escape the timeless truths of its geography.  Wedged between Russia and Iran, the world’s two most sanctioned jurisdictions, Azerbaijan has been forced to play a balancing act between its recalcitrant neighbours and the West.  Conversations with people in Baku highlighted the country’s pragmatism in the face of such a challenge.  Good relations with both Russia and Iran are crucial for the country’s economy.  But it must also consider other factors: Russia’s support of Armenia does not instil loyalty from the Azeris; military activity in the border region of Iran has escalated since 2020; and the threat of sanctions from the West looms heavily over Azerbaijan’s commercial relations.

The country’s government does not seek to be aligned with Russia but is aware of the importance of good relations.  Meanwhile Russia has a vested interest in maintaining its relationship with Azerbaijan: it is reliant on safe passage for its trade with Iran.  Since the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Azerbaijan has increased trade with Russia, although at a slower rate than other former Soviet countries.  In Baku itself, the influence of the Soviet Union and Russia is clear.  The majority of people speak Russian; huge Soviet-style apartment blocks are a prominent feature of Baku’s skyline; and the large quantities of dill garnishing the food is reminiscent of many a dish in Russia. Nevertheless, the Azeri government has claimed to be rigid about implementing Western sanctions against Russia.  Azerbaijan’s land borders with Russia, Georgia, and Iran were closed during the Covid-19 pandemic  and have failed to re-open.  The only exception is a small stretch of border with Turkey, ostensibly to allow students to travel easily between the two.  In the absence of explanation, the continued closure of the border is most likely because Azeri authorities are wary of business with its neighbours which may raise questions for the West. 

Despite its pragmatic approach to Russia, Azerbaijan was the only Caucasian country to be represented at the Ukraine Recovery Conference in June 2023.  This, coupled with its recent activity in Karabakh, has publicly undermined Russia’s power and influence in the Caucasus, showing the Kremlin that fear of its military has lost some of the power it once had in the region.

In the context of the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan falls somewhere between Georgia and Armenia for its overt opposition to the current Russian regime.  In March 2023, I visited the capitals of both.  In Tbilisi I saw widespread protests against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Across the border in Armenia, I was struck by the pro-Russia graffiti on Yerevan’s side streets, as well as the number of Russian flags and merchandise available to buy on every market stall.  One Russian couple told me they had come to Armenia as one of the few accessible tourist destinations welcoming Russians with open arms.  This has not been reflected in the Armenian government’s public condemnation of Russian actions in Ukraine, and all may have changed after the recent conflict in Karabakh, which has left Armenians feeling abandoned by Moscow.  We spoke to one Russian person in Baku who had relocated to Azerbaijan following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Their reasonings were far more akin to those I had met in Tbilisi who were critical of the Russian regime and wanted to escape.

Relations with Iran are complicated by several factors and Azerbaijan’s pledge to enforce Western sanctions is only the tip of the iceberg.  Since the January 2023 attack on the Azeri embassy in Tehran, in which two Azeri diplomats were injured and the head of security was killed, relations have been volatile.  Iran is seeking the resumption of diplomatic relations, whilst Azerbaijan is awaiting the outcome of an investigation into the attack.  At the border in northwestern Iran, Iranian military drills are indicative of an escalation in tensions in a region where there is a high population of self-identifying Azeris.  Having previously avoided exercises along the border, Iran has justified its new stance by accusing Azerbaijan of close relations with Israel.  Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev defended Azeri military exercises in November 2022, claiming they were carried out to protect Azerbaijan’s secular lifestyle.  Nevertheless, Iran needs Azerbaijan for its continued trade with Russia; and should Armenia remain unwilling to open a corridor to the Azeri exclave of Nakhchivan nestled between Iran, Turkey, and Armenia, Azerbaijan will need safe passage through Iran.

Despite the difficulties facing Azerbaijan, speaking to people in Baku, be they taxi drivers or businessmen, it quickly became apparent that Azerbaijan is optimistic.  Europe is more dependent than ever on gas and oil supplies from and through Azerbaijan thanks to sanctions on Russia, and relations with other neighbouring countries are good.  Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan provide significant trade across the Caspian Sea, whilst Turkey and Georgia are key trade partners over land.  Only time will tell if Azerbaijan is able to position itself as a global trading bridge between East and West, or whether the influence of Russia to the north and Iran to the south will be too great an issue.  For now, Azerbaijan has balanced itself well between the two.