Azerbaijan's authoritarian leader, Ilham Aliyev, was re-elected president after winning the Nagorno-Karabakh war and can turn his country into an energy and trade hub halfway between Asia and Europe.
Azerbaijan’s victory in the Nagorno-Karabakh war revamps the country as a regional power and helps the Aliyev dynasty consolidate its grip on power
Originally slated for the fall of 2025, the presidential election in Azerbaijan took place on February 7, 2024. It was the current leader, Ilham Aliyev (who “inherited” the presidency from his father, Heidar Aliyev, upon the latter’s death in 2003) who asked Parliament in December 2023 to organize snap elections, in order to capitalize on the victory in the armed confrontation with Armenia and the recapture of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, in September 2023. The Azerbaijani media even described the vote as the “victory election”. And, as expected, Aliyev secured a comfortable win in the first round, grabbing over 90% of the vote, the turnout being almost 70% of total eligible voters. Ilham Aliyev will continue to lead Azerbaijan with his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, serving as vice-president. Officially created in 2017, the position is seen by critics as an important step towards consolidating the Aliyev family's dynastic authority in the wealthy Caucasian state. All the more so since, based on the results of the 2009 referendum, the limit of mandates the president is entitled to hold was discarded. 62-year-old Aliyev can thus lead the country for as long as he is able to. And his family's dynasty will endure as well, as Mehriban Aliyeva can always step in to replace her husband, should he ever have to resign from the highest office in the Azerbaijani state. The couple also have three children, two daughters and a boy named after Ilham’s grandfather, Heidar Aliyev.
I think keen observers of developments in the Caucasus have long abandoned any doubts regarding the authoritarian nature of the regime in Baku. The February 7 election fell quite short of the standards of liberal democracy. The opposition has been utterly fragmented for many years. The independent media is but an ideal dream, and Ilham Aliyev’s counter-candidate in the February 7 presidential election was Zahid Oruj, an “independent” candidate who in the previous election, in 2018, got only a little over 3% of the vote and actually declared his public support for Aliyev. The idea of any real opposition to the current regime in Baku is, therefore, a utopian concept.
However, it would be a mistake to consider that the Azeri leader does not benefit from popular support. To a large extent, the support is real and legitimate, although there is no reliable survey that can be carried out to verify that assumption. Rather, that assessment is based on the numerous supporters who celebrated the victory in the February 7 election, on the lack of major social disturbances and on the absence of any real public discourse from the opposition as a consistent and clear-cut alternative to the dominant state rhetoric. And since the time of Ilham's father, Heidar, the Aliyev regime has achieved what few other authoritarian regimes in the world have managed to do: to ensure long-term prosperity and social peace, thus harnessing the country's natural resources with relative wisdom. Added to these crucial issues is now the recapture of the Nagorno-Karabakh province, an achievement that has boosted Azerbaijan’s strategic presence in the Caucasus region, undoubtedly increasing Ilham Aliyev’s approval rating.
The expansion of national territory enables Baku to assume the role of a much more influential player in the region than it was before September 2023. A closer look at the current map of the Caucasus reveals, among other things, that the victory in September expanded the territory of Azerbaijan very close to its exclave, Nakhichevan, thus narrowing the Armenian corridor that separates them. This new development opens up two possibilities: either Baku launches a new offensive and occupies Armenian territory to connect the two Azeri territories (which would greatly harm Aliyev’s foreign policy), or it observes existing treaties and norms and negotiates with Armenia for the creation of a logistics corridor. Such a corridor, which would allow for the transit of Azerbaijani goods without stopping through Armenian checkpoints, is not stipulated by any bilateral standing agreement. However, the idea was aggressively promoted by Ilham Aliyev himself in the spring of 2021, when he explicitly referred to the Zangezur corridor as a priority that falls in line with the “national, historical and future interests” of Azerbaijan, the Azeri leader threatening to achieve it “by force” if Armenia refuses to cooperate.
Baku now finds itself in the unique position to act on that threat. Armenia already has enough evidence that its military is unable to withstand an Azeri attack, and that Russia is no longer an ally it can rely on if hostilities were to break out. Yerevan is knocking on the EU’s doors, but the conflict in the region and endemic corruption put the country at a disadvantage compared to Georgia in terms of relations with the European community bloc. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, relies on Turkey’s unwavering support, which also makes Iran cautious, opting for negotiations rather than for a war it wouldn’t be able to fight on real terms. Turkey is pushing for the creation of the Zangezur corridor, as this would give it direct access to the Caspian Sea and to the Turkish states of Central Asia.
Energy resources and its position halfway between China and the EU, assets Azerbaijan can use in its relationship with Brussels
Azerbaijan is smartly playing to its strengths in its relations with the EU as well. On December 17, 2022, an Agreement was signed in Bucharest between Azerbaijan, Georgia, Romania and Hungary regarding the creation of a “Strategic Partnership in the field of development and transport of green energy” (electricity and hydrogen). The fruit of intense diplomatic efforts, including and especially on the part of the Romanian Foreign Ministry, the agreement is already being implemented, being designed to create a real “energy bridge” between the Caspian and the Black Seas. It will thus help enhance the energy security of Romania and Europe, facilitating the transfer to the single market of green energy produced in Azerbaijan with fossil fuels. It will also curb the EU’s dependence on methane gas from the Russian Federation, regardless of it being delivered north or south of the Black Sea.
In addition, Azerbaijan manages to further advance its institutional relationship with Brussels. An agreement on the facilitation of travel visas entered into force in 2014. In February 2017, negotiations were also launched for creating a new comprehensive EU-Azerbaijan cooperation agreement, more in-depth than the previous one, which was anchored in the realities of the 1990s. Today, when the European Union is, by far, the most important trade partner not only of Azerbaijan, but also of other countries in the region, negotiations for a new agreement aim to shift the focus of the partnership on efforts to modernize and, above all, diversify the Azerbaijani economy. This country's accession to the World Trade Organization is an important step forward in this context, and the EU will take on a game-changing role, supporting Azerbaijan’s efforts.
If anything, Brussels' strategic interests are legitimate. Azerbaijan is not only a source of energy, but it is also located in a very important area for the so-called Middle Corridor, which connects the Far East to Europe. Strongly supported by China, as it represents the most convenient trade route from its point of view, this logistics corridor crosses the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus region and the Black Sea to reach Europe via Romanian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian ports and, alternatively, Turkey. However, the Middle Corridor comes with disadvantages of its own. It is largely controlled by China and other authoritarian regimes, and a significant segment is located on land, with relatively little maritime transit. However, it remains a viable alternative to the Northern Corridor, which extends only on land, thus entailing higher costs in terms of logistics. Adding to that are also high political and security costs, since the landbridge passes through the Russian Federation and Belarus. The Middle Corridor, on the other hand, faces increased competition from sea routes, especially the one connecting the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Despite being longer, sea routes have the advantage of being cheaper and ships have a significantly larger capacity than freight trains.
The Azerbaijani route, threatened by alternative routes bypassing ‘problem’ countries
The volatile situation in Yemen and the Horn of Africa, the occasional blockages in the Suez Canal, but also the geoeconomic plans of all stakeholders have meanwhile led to the development of a new project. I’m referring to the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC). At the G20 summit of September 2023, held in New Delhi, participants from 7 states (India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, France, Germany, Italy and the USA) as well as representatives of the European Commission signed a memorandum expressing their commitment to creating this logistics corridor. It is one of the rare projects strongly supported by both the United States and the European Commission. The corridor largely consists of sea lanes whereas its segments on land avoid conflict zones in the Middle East, where it crosses stable states such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. Although the conflicts in Yemen and Gaza seem to have dampened the interest of current and potential partners, US and EU support in addition to other factors previously mentioned have made IMEC extremely appealing.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that IMEC is trivialized by some major players who were left out of the corridor structure, such as Turkey, Qatar or Iran. Nor is it coincidental that all three states have close ties to Hamas, an organization that attacked civilians in Israel just a month after the G20 summit in New Delhi. In the end, all that confirms the possibility of IMEC becoming an extremely important project in the long run, and those who feel left out should strongly reconsider their own policies.
In this broader context, Azerbaijan needs to mitigate the shortcomings of its own infrastructure. Baku has time and again postponed key investments in its railway network, both physically and morally obsolete. And in the absence of such infrastructure projects, cargo transit on the east-west corridor, from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea to Europe and back, remains cumbersome and more expensive than alternative routes. Surprisingly, there are long-standing problems with natural resources as well. Azerbaijan's gas passes through a TANAP pipeline of merely 56 inches (142.24 cm) in peak capacity segments (and even narrower elsewhere across the pipeline). In its current technological makeup, TANAP allows for the transit of just over 22 billion cubic meters of gas per year, requiring expensive upgrades if that figure is to exceed 30 billion. Of the total current transit capacity of 22 billion, a little more than half reaches the European market via the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), the rest remaining in Turkey. But this country's economy consumed an average of 55 to 60 billion cubic meters annually in the last five years, while Azerbaijan's total production in 2022 was a little over 32 billion cubic meters and 48.3 billion in 2023. Under these circumstances, more countries will need to contribute to safeguarding westward gas transit in order to meet the consumption needs of the markets in both Turkey and Europe, in the context of decreasing reliance on Russia. Turkmenistan and other countries in Central Asia can provide gas and oil, but a much larger and more modern infrastructure is needed to meet the demand. In addition, the waning use of fossil fuels in the West will soon produce critical effects on the global oil and natural gas markets.
Considered in the geostrategic and geoeconomic context here described, all these elements are indicative of the fact that, while enjoying prosperity and stability today, even under an authoritarian regime, a country such as Azerbaijan needs to carefully ponder its future. China's strong interest for the functioning of the Middle Corridor is insufficient so long as Baku does not pitch in to implement major investments in infrastructure. Natural gas reserves also require significant investment, both for increased production and for export. An authoritarian regime can find solutions to such problems, but it will also need external partners, who in return will demand things that Baku may not be able to provide, or may be able to do so at significant costs. Eastern partners will demand economic and trade facilities enshrined in agreements that will not always have Azerbaijan’s best interests at their core, as seen, for instance, in the cases of many Chinese investments in eastern and southeastern Europe, or in Turkey and Africa. Western partners will request guarantees with political underpinnings. In this highly tangled geopolitical framework, the current regime in Baku will have to carefully examine all limitations and options. And recent history has shown that the most promising partners are neither to the north or to the south, nor to the east, but to the west: Georgia, the Black Sea and a European Union that, at any rate, has been Azerbaijan’s most important and reliable economic partner for many years.