Azerbaijan’s Elections and the U.S. Security Relationship

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev won reelection on October 9, giving another five-year term to the man who has ruled the country since 2003, when he took over from his father, Heydar. Azerbaijan has been a key regional security partner for the United States, in spite of Congressional restrictions on aid, receiving about $241 million in security assistance from the U.S. since 2000, according to data from Security Assistance Monitor.

In 1992, Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act put in place a restriction on aid to Azerbaijan, while the country was at war with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Section 907 prohibited aid until Azerbaijan could prove that it was “taking demonstrable steps to cease all blockades and other offensive uses of force against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.” But in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Congress allowed a number of exceptions to the law, for programs deemed necessary to “counter international terrorism” or “to support the operational readiness of United States Armed Forces or coalition partners to counter international terrorism,” while still requiring that the aid “will not undermine or hamper ongoing efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan or be used for offensive purposes against Armenia.” That exception has been repeatedlyexercisedevery year since, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on a 2010 visit to Baku that “Speaking personally, for myself, I would like to see it [Section 907] repealed, but that’s up to the Congress.” 

The law has been a key issue of contention between Armenian-American lobby groups – who were instrumental in passing the law in 1992 – and the more recently emerging Azerbaijani lobby groups. Pro-Armenia groups lament the 2001 loosening of restrictions on aid, and call for annual explicit Congressional approval for waiving Section 907 restrictions. Pro-Azerbaijan groups, meanwhile, argue that even with the loosened restrictions, the law “symbolically and materially punishes Azerbaijan and makes it vulnerable to a cut-off of aid in the future.”

The law also has been a thorn in the side of Azerbaijani officials dealing with the U.S. In a 2009 conversation with the U.S. ambassador to Baku, Aliyev criticized Section 907. A U.S. diplomatic cable summarized Aliyev’s comments, writing that Aliyev said the restrictions were “‘ridiculous, just a political tool,’ and should be lifted. The [U.S. government] should respond to Azerbaijan’s numerous requests for arms sales … ‘only defensive equipment, especially air defense, nothing that could be used against Armenia … We are in a situation in which we must be able to protect ourselves, at least for a little while, if attacked,’ Aliyev said.” 

Azerbaijani lobby groups in Washington have reportedly made the repeal of Section 907 and the sale of U.S. weapons to Baku one of their goals. And last year, conflict erupted between the Azerbaijani and Armenian lobby groups over the proposed sale of surveillance equipment to Azerbaijan, which Baku argued that it needed to monitor the border with Iran. Armenian groups, however, opposed the sale, arguing that the equipment could just as well be used against Armenian forces in Karabakh.

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In spite of Section 907, security assistance to Azerbaijan has been substantially greater than that to Armenia, according to Security Assistance Monitor data. As the graph above shows, while military aid to Armenia has remained fairly steady, to Azerbaijan it increased sharply after 2001, averaging more than $30 million a year between 2005 and 2008, before dropping slightly. (Note: the data from 2012 on do not include Defense Department grant aid numbers, as this information has not been released, so the total figures are likely higher.) In total, Armenia has received just under $104 million in U.S. security assistance since 2000, compared to Azerbaijan’s $241 million.

Most of the discrepancy is explained by the Department of Defense’s funding of programs in Azerbaijan, in particular under the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program. While the program’s chief aim is to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and related materials, technology and expertise, in Azerbaijan’s case CTR has focused on the security of the Caspian Sea. For one, aid to naval forces helps Azerbaijan strengthen its position vis-a-vis Russia and Iran, and secondly, it is aid that cannot really be used against landlocked Armenia. 

More recently, Azerbaijan has become an important part of the U.S. military logistics network to and from Afghanistan known as the Northern Distribution Network. In 2009, 96 percent of the container traffic through Baku’s sea port was related to the NDN. And now that the drawdown from Afghanistan has begun, eyewitnesses have started reporting U.S. military vehicles being shipped through the country, apparently on their way back to the U.S. 

The security relationship did not stop the U.S. State Department from harshly assessing the elections, which Aliyev won with 85 percent of the votes. It issued a statement saying the vote “fell short of international standards,” noting both a “repressive political environment” ahead of the vote and election-day problems that included “1) ballot box stuffing; 2) serious problems with vote counting; and 3) failure to record the number of received ballots.” The statement was much stronger than those of previous elections; it remains to be seen whether the U.S.’s relatively strong criticism of Azerbaijan’s politics will have an impact on the security relationship.

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