BAKU (Combined Sources)–In a bid to bring Azerbaijan back into its energy orbit and cement Russia’s hold over Caspian Sea energy, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed on Thursday a declaration of friendship and strategic partnership with Azerbaijan, which contained an unusually explicit statement of support for Azerbaijan’s stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict.
"The two sides underlined the importance of a speedy resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on the basis of respect for … sovereignty, territorial integrity and the inviolability of a state’s borders," said the declaration, which was penned during talks where Aliyev described the reocupation of Karabakh as "national goal No. 1."
"We are grateful to Russia for this position," Aliyev said after talks with Medvedev.
Azerbaijan agreed later Thursday to discuss selling gas to Russia, a prospect that could undermine a Western-backed project to bypass Russia and ship fuel from the Caspian Sea region directly to Europe.
The announcement was made by the head of Russia’s gas giant Gazprom on the first day of President Dmitry Medvedev’s regional tour aimed at securing Russia’s role as the main link between Caspian and Central Asian gas and Europe.
"In the course of talks, Gazprom and Azeri colleagues decided to start talks;on the conditions for buying Azeri gas," Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller told reporters in Baku after Medvedev’s talks with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev.
Russia is one of the world’s largest gas producers but it needs to import the fuel from its ex-Soviet neighbors to cover its own needs and export gas to lucrative European markets.
Most of the gas from ex-Soviet states around the Caspian Sea flows into Russia’s pipeline network. A push by the European Union and United States to court those states and build alternative export routes has alarmed Moscow.
Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said Russia was seeking a long-term contract with Azerbaijan and was ready to buy as much gas as Baku was willing to sell. Medvedev and Aliyev said more bilateral contracts were possible in the future.
Medvedev spared no effort to win the heart of Azerbaijan, a gas producer and a potential host of a trans-Caspian pipeline linking Central Asian fields and Europe.
"Azerbaijan is our strategic partner with whom we are linked by history and special kind of relations," Medvedev said in a statement after talks with Aliyev.
Russia, which brokered a ceasefire of the conflict in 1994, has a history of manipulating the Caucasus for its geostrategic gains. In the early stages of the conflict Moscow backed Azeri efforts to ethnically cleanse Karabakh’s Armenian population .In the early 1920s, Stalin placed the Armenian enclave within Soviet Azerbaijan a move to tighten Moscow’s grip over the Soviet Armenian Republic.
Although the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic gained its independence from Azeri rule at the collapse of the Soviet Union, Baku is vowing to restore its control over the historically Armenian territory by any means necessary, including an all out war.
Thursday’s developmen’s come as an increasingly belligerent Azerbaijan continues to undermine the legitimacy of the current Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group.
In recent months, Azerbaijan has used diplomatic alliances to gain support for its territorial integrity doctrine by a number of international bodies, including the United Nations General Assembly. It has also been raising allegations in the Minsk Group and the Council of Europe against Armenia’s position regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement process, claiming that an “Armenian occupation of Azeri lands” hampers the peace process. Official Baku has also hinted at its willingness to seek the dissolution of the OSCE’s Minsk Group.
In the past few years Baku has been using its energy supplies to leverage its position in the Karabakh settlement process by embracing Western-backed energy projects including an oil pipeline to the Mediterranean built by a BP-led consortium, and a second link that pumps gas from Azerbaijan to Turkey.
Azerbaijan’s BP-operated Shakh Deniz gas field will, at least initially, supply all the gas for Nabucco pipeline–an EU backed project to reduce dependence on Russian supplies.
Nabucco’s backers also want Central Asian Turkmen’stan, which has one of the world’s biggest gas reserves, to feed its gas to Nabucco through a projected trans-Caspian pipeline.
Russia, which has struck a deal with Turkmen’stan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to upgrade the Soviet-era network of export pipelines to Europe last year, seeks to persuade Turkmen leaders against seeking alternative routes.
Turkmen’stan and Kazakhstan are another two stops of Medvedev’s trip which will last until Sunday.