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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Globalization to Azeris Means Oil and War

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The Azeri student raised his hand and asked the lecturer: "Is it true that SARS was started by the Pentagon?" The speaker, a China specialist from Iran, enthusiastically responded: "Yes, it is too much of a coincidence that the first SARS cases were reported last November just when the United States needed to distract China from opposing its war plans in the UN Security Council." In the audience, heads nodded in agreement.

The exchange took place last month at a conference on globalization organized by the Qavqaz University in Baku. Conspiracy theories are popular in many corners of the world. One way of dealing with the United States' role as the "sole superpower" is to assume that anything and everything that happens must be part of Washington's grand strategy.

Azerbaijan is suddenly looming larger on the United States' foreign-policy radar screen: not as a source of oil, but because of its strategic location next to Iran. There is mounting speculation that the United States is ready to take active steps to promote "regime change" in Iran. Speculation aside, the United States has officially announced its intention to scale down its military presence in Germany, and instead rotate small forces through forward bases in places like Azerbaijan.

Is Azerbaijan ready for what might be coming its way? And just what has "globalization" meant to a place like Azerbaijan? Its impact can be summed up in two words: war and oil.

The struggle with Armenia for control of the province of Nagorny Karabakh ended with a cease-fire in 1994 that left Armenian forces occupying 17 percent of Azeri territory including six districts beyond the Karabakh province. The fighting drove out 800,000 refugees, an exodus equivalent in scale to that of the Palestinians, yet it is a community whose plight is largely ignored by the international community.

Fifteen years after hostilities began, the refugees are living in miserable conditions on government handouts of $5 a month. Some have set up home in the courtyards of buildings in downtown Baku, just meters away from the headquarters of the international companies that are renovating the luxury villas left over from Baku's first oil boom, a century ago. The fruits of the current oil "boom" seem largely confined to downtown Baku. A few blocks into the city, cattle and sheep can be seen grazing by the roadside.

The rest of the world long ago lost interest in Karabakh, relegating it to the long list of seemingly intractable conflicts in that part of the world including Chechnya, Abkhazia and Transdnestr. But time does not heal all wounds. A new generation of Azeris is being raised with the humiliation of defeat.

Students at Baku State University were keen to impress on me their readiness to die for Karabakh, women as well as men. I tried to persuade them that there is no point starting a new war, since Russia is bound to back Armenia, and no one will come to the aid of Azerbaijan. True, they conceded: But even an honorable defeat could serve to restart negotiations, citing Anwar Sadat in 1973 as an example. What about the human suffering that war would bring? Are people not more important than land? No, a student replied: "People can be replaced, land cannot." Another added: "And the refugees are people too."

Many Armenians fear that Azerbaijan will use its oil wealth to rebuild its army and attack Armenia. Few Azeris subscribe to this view, since they believe that once the stealing is over there will be no money left for their army. In contrast, they believe that the United States is propping up President Haidar Aliyev because he can be forced to make a deal with Armenia, clearing the way for the oil export pipeline. This conspiracy theory has more than a grain of truth, but there is no sign that the United States is either willing or able to persuade the Armenians to meet the Azeris half way.

The Russians have such leverage over Armenia, but they are disinclined to use it since for most of the past decade the United States has been trying to dislodge them from the Caucasus. The Azeris seem to have fallen into a "security trap": By inviting in the United States, they have further antagonized the Russians. Russia is an unreliable and unlikely peace broker. But the Washington policy of "oil for peace" has played out for a decade, without result. A fresh approach is needed if war is to be averted.

War, however, is in the air. The latest speculation is that the United States is planning to use Azerbaijan as a launching pad for an invasion of Iran. Baku has testy relations with Tehran because of its ties to Armenia, unresolved disputes over dividing oil fields in the southern Caspian, and the presence of a large Azeri minority in Iran. But the last thing Azerbaijan needs is war with another of its neighbors.

President Aliyev turned 80 in May, but celebrations were overshadowed by his collapse on live TV on April 21. There are now severe doubts over whether he will be able to run for a third term in the presidential election scheduled for October. His son, Ilham, is being groomed for succession. Huge posters of father and son staring into each other's eyes beneath the slogan "Independent Azerbaijan" adorn every town square. The preparations being made for Ilham's succession cast doubt on the sincerity, or at least the wisdom, of the Western campaign to monitor the election to ensure that it is "free and fair." What kind of fairness can there be, when Azeri voters have been exposed to the beaming face of the chosen successor for months?

Even more depressing is the fact that it is Western governments and corporations that are the main forces keeping the Aliyevs in place. It is also sad that the best hope for disruption of the succession scenario seems to lie with a palace coup, since the cronies of Aliyev pere seem to distrust the capacity of Aliyev fils to keep the spoils regime in place.

Many Azeris still see the United States as their only hope. They assume that because the United States is the main beneficiary from globalization, it must therefore be in control of the process in every corner of the globe including Azerbaijan. They are deeply suspicious of Russia, given their experience of two centuries of colonial rule. The European Union is a long way off, and France is seen as too sympathetic to the Armenians. Turkey is weak and beset by its own problems, and Azeris bridle at the "elder brother" stance adopted by some Turks. That leaves the United States and British Petroleum.

The Azeris are a proud people whose culture has been preserved through centuries of rule by Seljuks, Safavids, Ottomans and Soviets. They will survive the oil boom and the war on terror wherever it should lead. But they deserve a better deal from the international community in general and the United States in particular.

Peter Rutland, a professor of government at Wesleyan University and editor of the Jamestown Foundation's Russia and Eurasia Review, contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.