BAKU (RFE/RL)—Peacefully resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, bolstering Western energy security, and promoting democracy in Azerbaijan. Such will be the priorities of Matthew Bryza, the new U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan.
Bryza is a career diplomat and a seasoned expert of the South Caucasus, where he served as one of Washington’s highest-profile representatives during the administration of former President George W. Bush.
Speaking to RFE/RL in a recent interview, he says his appointment as U.S. envoy to Azerbaijan in late December is “a continuation” of his work in the region.
Much of his efforts, he says, will be directed at negotiating a peaceful settlement to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan that Armenia seized during a brief war in the early 1990s.
This, he says, is “more important than any other issue in the region.”
Progress Being Made
He acknowledges that failure to settle the long-running dispute has generated some disappointment in the Minsk Group, the body commissioned by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) 18 years ago to broker a solution to the conflict.
But Bryza, who formerly co-chaired the Minsk Group, says substantial progress has been made in recent years.
“It’s completely natural for people to feel disappointed until any negotiated process reaches its conclusion. And disappointment is felt on both sides about the conflict,” he says. “But what I do know from my own experience inside the negotiations — and now from the outside — is that there has been significant progress made. If we look back at where the negotiations were in, say, 2005 or 2004, the process didn’t even exist. It had reached a stopping point.”
Bryza says the U.S. mission in Baku will also work hard on ensuring that European nations have access to more diversified energy supplies.
The United States has actively lobbied for the construction of the Nabucco pipeline, which would bring gas from the Caspian basin to Europe via Turkey. Advocates say the pipeline will reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian gas, with the additional benefit of bringing Turkey closer into the Western fold.
Bryza says Washington and Baku agree on the need to increase Europe’s energy security.
“It’s a long-standing area of cooperation where we are working together so that our European allies have a diversified supply of natural gas so that they feel safer, both politically and economically,” he says.
But Nabucco has suffered a series of setbacks due to competition from rival regional pipelines and Azerbaijan’s apparent reluctance to formally commit to the project.
Azerbaijan in January signed an agreement with the European Commission to supply gas to the so-called Southern Corridor, a network of pipelines including Nabucco that would pump oil and gas to Europe. The deal, however, does not specify which of these competing pipelines Azerbaijan would eventually supply.
Bryza’s appointment could be instrumental in drumming up regional support for the Nabucco pipeline. Managers hope to begin construction of the pipeline toward the end of this year.
Another delicate task facing the new U.S. ambassador is to promote democracy and human rights in a country widely criticized for its poor record on both counts.
Bryza says Washington will continue to press for democratic reform and economic liberalization in Azerbaijan.
“What I’m really interested in is working together at all levels of Azerbaijani society,” he says. “Yes, the government, but also elites in Baku from business, common people out in the regions, whether they’re farmers or medical professionals or teachers, to build a culture of democracy rather than thinking only about the mechanics of democracy.”
Helping to loosen up President Ilham Aliev’s grip on politics and the economy could be particularly tricky for Bryza, who critics say harbors close ties with Azerbaijan’s ruling elite.
Those concerns prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to appoint Bryza while the Senate was in recess at the end of 2010, a move that allowed Obama to circumvent strong opposition from two powerful Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer of California and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
‘Democracy Does Good Things’
The wrangling over Bryza’s appointment resulted in Washington having no ambassador to Azerbaijan for more than a year, an absence that some Azerbaijanis believe held back democratic progress in their country.
But Bryza denies his controversial appointment hurt Azerbaijan or bilateral relations in any way.
“When democracy is working, democracy doesn’t hurt,” he says. “Democracy does good things.”
Touching briefly on international affairs, the ambassador also firmly defended Washington’s stance on the political unrest currently sweeping the Middle East.
He rejects criticism that the United States performed a diplomatic U-turn by supporting antigovernment protests after decades of backing authoritarian leaders in the Middle East, in particular toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
U.S. foreign policy, Bryza insists, has been consistent in supporting democracy “everywhere possible.”
“When it looked like President Mubarak was maybe going to refuse to leave office, I saw some criticism of President Obama that he believed too much in democracy and pressed too hard for Mubarak to leave,” Bryza says. “Now we see that President Obama, of course, was right, and we have to always be pressing for long-term stability through democracy.”