05/16/2012 10:21 am ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

Eurasia's Hinge: Azerbaijan Is More Than Just Energy

Washington, D.C. -- Last week in Washington's venerable Willard Hotel, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and former Governor Hailey Barbour of Mississippi drew comparisons between their states and the Republic of Azerbaijan. They were part of a buoyant celebration of Azerbaijan's 20-year relationship with the United States. Their sentiments, and those many of the guests, were focused largely on Azerbaijan's status as a critical mid-sized energy power connected to world markets, and increasingly to Europe, through important pipeline systems. Indeed, energy is the principal reason most governments and corporations pay attention to Azerbaijan.

Energy wealth in today's world is enough to generate interest almost everywhere. Indeed, without energy the small Caucasian state of Azerbaijan would likely have been an afterthought in the post-Soviet space: deep in the shadows of the Christian civilizations of Georgia with its compelling cultural attachments to Europe, and Armenia with its engaged and potent political diaspora on both sides of the Atlantic.

But Azerbaijan is much more than an energy hub. It is precisely at the hinge of powerful cultural forces where old empires overlap and modern states compete -- and it has energy. Azerbaijan is the sum of three elemental tendencies that accentuate the pivotal nature of its geographic position: culturally infused with Iranian culture, ethnically and linguistically Turkic, and historically part of the Russian, then Soviet empires. Eurasia's future is likely to play out in and around Azerbaijan for reasons that are independent of the Caspian's energy wealth but are amplified by it. Put differently, Azerbaijan's importance to the West goes well beyond oil and gas.

From the vantage point of Baku, its strategic universe is increasingly complex and worrisome, if not threatening. To the north, Russia is a lethal cocktail of dysfunctional politics, official corruption, economic torpor, regional fissures and ethnic shifts -- all within the cone of a demographic death spiral and powered by resentment at having lost an empire and its corollary, unrequited imperial ambition. Russia has never forsaken its appetite for its former Caucasian possessions. Its wars in the North Caucasus, its attack on Georgia in 2008, and its efforts to impede a settlement between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh as a way to increase its own presence and influence in the region and block Azerbaijan's access to Turkey illuminate Russia's strategic design. For Russia, the key to this region is Azerbaijan.

To the south, Iran is on the cusp of conflict. Azerbaijan shares a 700-kilometer border with Iran, and up to 25 percent of Iran's population, according to some estimates, are Azeris. Iran's mullahs of Azeri descent have made Baku a special target, as they are mostly Shiite Muslims, and Iranian authorities have never made a secret of their disdain for Azerbaijan's independence. Their strategies will resonate in Azerbaijan to the extent that the smaller northern state fails to anchor its citizens in a more potent set of values and lives by them. A destabilized Iran, whether from internal revolution or attack from outside, will pose a special range of challenges for Azerbaijan. It is implausible to imagine that Azerbaijan can be isolated from the resulting turmoil, and therefore it is in the West's interest to assist Azerbaijan in advancing inoculations of strong civil society antibodies. Yet there is every reason to believe that a stable Azerbaijan linked politically, economically and militarily to the West can serve as a model for post-conflict Iran, as well as a conduit for the West's values and ideas.

Turkey represents a counterforce to Iran, an important influence impeding Azerbaijan from sliding into Iran's orbit. Its links to Azerbaijan have grown steadily, based on common ethnic and linguistic foundations, and there are growing economic, social, educational, political and military ties. Major energy pipelines connect the two. Former Turkish Prime Minister Ebulfez Elcibey may have struck close to the mark when he inaugurated the concept of Azerbaijan and Turkey as "one nation with two states." Turkey's support for Azerbaijan against Armenian claims on Nagorno-Karabagh has been constant. Yet the Arab Spring, and particularly turmoil in Syria, have exposed institutional weaknesses in Turkish foreign policy that could eventually affect a range of Turkish interests, including Azerbaijan. And Europe, reluctant to give Turkey traction toward full membership, will miss a singular derivative opportunity to pull Azerbaijan into its embrace.

Azerbaijan faces difficult challenges in governance, civil society and democratic development which must be addressed if it is to maintain its delicate balancing act amid these powerful interests and states. But it also boasts important strengths and instincts. A strong sense of national identity, as well as its historic tradition of Islamic modernism, has been a barrier to the inevitable inflow of radical Islamist ideas, though this is a constant worry. It actively seeks Europe and strong relations with the United States, despite the often distracted attention of both. (Washington currently has no ambassador in Baku.) Azerbaijan's young professionals can be found in most Western and Asian capitals and universities today, and its cadre of professional diplomats, prepared increasingly by the globally-linked Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, are notable.

But these strengths and Azerbaijan's growing sense of self-confidence should not detract from the larger sobering picture. Azerbaijan's neighborhood grows increasingly dangerous and unstable, while many of the most potent political, economic and cultural dynamics intersect the small Caucasian country. It is hard to imagine where modest investments from the West that reaffirm Azerbaijan's inclination and predispositions might pay a larger dividend, nor where failure to do so could have more extended consequences. It's about a lot more than energy.

Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow and S. Enders Wimbush is the Senior Director for Foreign Policy and Civil Society at the German Marshall Fund of the United States based in Washington, DC.

Co-authored with S. Enders Wimbush

This piece was originally posted on the GMF Wider Europe series.