BAKU -- The last time Azerbaijan found itself at the center of geopolitics in a major way was when Nazi Germany was hoping to take over the important oil wells in this country. The fact that Germany was unable to grab the Azerbaijani oil wells was not for lack of trying on Adolf Hitler's part. Part of the reason for the Battle of Stalingrad was to secure the Baku oil fields.
Azerbaijan, at the time part of the Soviet Union, suffered tremendously because of the Second World War, known in the former Soviet space as the Great Patriotic War. It lost 210,000 soldiers and 90,000 civilians out of a total population of just over three million people, almost 10 percent of its population.
The memory of this tragedy is never too far from the minds of people in this region, who still recall the years of war, partial occupation and years of subjugation that followed, as the Cold War settled in and they found themselves on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.
Today Azerbaijan is in the forefront of global politics once again, albeit in a much more favorable position. The recent turmoil in Ukraine has repercussions far beyond its borders.
Europeans need Russia's gas, or failing that, they need to replace it. And the solution needs to be found sooner rather than later.
In the immediate future, the only two countries able to provide the amount of gas needed to replace Russian supplies are Turkmenistan and, to a lesser degree, Azerbaijan.
But Turkmenistan’s gas would need to pass through the Caspian Sea, via the Trans-Caspian pipeline, through Azerbaijan and onto Georgia, Turkey and only then to its final destinations.
This can only happen if Azerbaijan is willing to risk displeasing Moscow, and if Russia doesn’t overreact if Baku does.
Azerbaijan today holds particularly strategic importance to the Western alliance. Its oil and gas reserves are squarely at the center of the region’s politics and policies.
It might be worth reminding policymakers in the United States that the Russian border is only about 100 miles from Baku.
Relations between Washington and Baku are cordial but could be better; Washington wants to see more evidence of democratic progress, like civil rights and rule of law.
But after years of living under communist rule, democracy in this part of the world must be spoon-fed and advanced one baby step at a time, while a solid base is built on which to build democratic institutions. Rushing headfirst into a politically unknown future frightens many here, with good cause.
Considering the neighborhood it finds itself in, the risk of destabilization in Azerbaijan is a fear the leadership would rather not have to contend with. Iran to one side, to the other Armenia – with which Azerbaijan is, for all intents and purposes, in a state of war -- and then there is Russia, Armenia’s close ally.
The former Soviet countries of Central Asia, with their mélange of ethnicities, nationalities, religions and political leanings, are potentially explosive minefields, and one must tread very carefully.
Even so, while Russian is still widely spoken in Azerbaijan, and Russian culture is still very much alive, it is not difficult to see that people’s hearts lean very much towards the West and America.
Anyone in doubt of how much influence the United States has in this part of the world should simply look at the recent Eurovision Song Contest: Contestants from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Ukraine, and even Russia, all chose to sing in English, instead of their native languages.
By. Claude Salhani of Oilprice.com