The energy crisis prompts the EU to seek closer ties with Azerbaijan

2023-05-31 09:03:00, Kosova & Bota CNA
The energy crisis prompts the EU to seek closer ties with Azerbaijan
Illustrative photo

"Since the beginning of Russia's war, we have decided to turn our backs on Russian fossil fuels and diversify towards reliable energy partners."

Ursula von der Leyen's comments in December last year came as a deal was signed to build a new undersea cable under the Black Sea, a cable that is supposed to allow Azerbaijan and Georgia to supply green electricity markets Hungarian and Romanian.

Despite the direct and defiant tone of the European president's comments, experts say the furor surrounding the so-called Black Sea Cable project belies the larger issues surrounding the initiative. Chief among them is its cost-effectiveness and the actual feasibility of its stated environmental goals.

'Glaciers are shrinking'

Currently, more than 90% of Azerbaijan's energy comes from non-renewable sources, given that the wind farms on the Caspian Sea that should feed the potential cable do not yet exist. There has been talk of potential exploitation of Georgia's hydropower potential, but local environmentalists warn that the country's capacity has long been overestimated.

"Civil society and media struggle to survive"

Other critics of the initiative have focused on what is perceived as an element of hypocrisy towards the EU's aim to reduce energy dependence on Russia, arguing that the initiative simply involves changing ties with a human rights-violating dictatorship, including in an illegal war, with another.

Azerbaijan has long drawn international condemnation for its hostility to dissenting voices, with severe restrictions on media freedoms, routine imprisonment of state critics and repeated reports of torture used against prisoners.

"The president has absolute, unchecked power in making all decisions," explains Giorgi Gogia, associate director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia division.

"It is a situation where critics are often the target of false criminal or administrative charges and where civil society and the media struggle to survive."

As EU-Azerbaijan relations have warmed amid the war in Ukraine, experts believe the lack of willingness to leverage Azerbaijan's interests in European markets represents a missed opportunity to curtail such abuses under the Aliyev regime.

"Closer ties should definitely be linked to the conditions of concrete improvement of rights in the country," says Gogia. "Unfortunately, we just don't see it at this stage."

Was it all just a message?

There is also the issue of Azerbaijan's long-running war with neighboring Armenia over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian breakaway region within Azerbaijan that has been in the midst of violent, deadly clashes in recent years.

According to Richard Giragosian, director of the Center for Regional Studies in Armenia, the EU's apparent reluctance to factor the conflict into the terms of any energy deal "tends to justify the victory of authoritarian Azerbaijan over the struggling democracy in Armenia."

Whether the Black Sea Cable project has any real prospects for success will largely depend on the results of a future feasibility study, which is expected to be published in early 2024./ CNA.al

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