Different articles are written in different ways. Some swiftly gush out of the keyboard within an hour or two. Some require significant corrections because of the thoughts that come up while you work. But I must admit that I have never been overwhelmed by so many contradictory feelings as I was when I decided to put my attitude towards the Russian Federation into words. Who and what are Moscow, the Kremlin and citizens of Russia, first and foremost Russians, to us today? How can we form an unbiased opinion about their place in today’s world, and most importantly, as far as Azerbaijan’s interests are concerned? The task is almost impossible. The range of emotions is too wide. Why? I will try to explain.
The Russian Federation is a great country with an ancient history, rich culture and literature, outstanding achievements in science, education and sports, home to hundreds of great people who played an invaluable role in the fight against fascism. It is the cradle of many bright ideas that have had a great influence on the development of humanity. It is a country with enormous natural resources and a modern army, including one of the most powerful nuclear arsenals. At certain stages it was part of our common home and played a significant role in Azerbaijan’s economic and cultural development. There are many ties that bind us, including numerous bonds of kinship and friendship, the Russian language, as well as many Azerbaijanis living in Russia. This country still plays a major role in the events taking place in the world and, above all, in the immediate vicinity of its borders. Its balanced position was of no small importance to our victory in 2020, when we liberated most of our lands from Armenian occupation.
Russia is a prison of the nations, which has repeatedly imposed its dominance on its neighbors, including us, destroying burgeoning national identities and unceremoniously robbing the invaded territories. An ideologically bankrupt heir to the Soviet empire, it is experiencing a severe demographic crisis against a backdrop of an unstable resource-based economy, an outflow of foreign investment, and a complete lack of progress in science-intensive technology. It is a magnet and beacon for outcasts and renegades. Its foreign policy in recent years has been a conspicuous series of confrontations and interventions, resulting in sanctions and a threat of military confrontation. Russia’s attempts to revive its authority cause nothing but sarcasm and horror. It was Russia’s support in mid-1990s that allowed the Armenian separatists to seize our lands. And it was Russia’s mediation that prevented Azerbaijan from liberating the small part of the territory where the Armenian occupants still remain from the Armenian fascists.
These paragraphs are mutually exclusive. However, even these polar characteristics fail to fully cover the entire spectrum of opinions about Russia. “You will not grasp her with your mind / Or cover with a common label, / For Russia is one of a kind– / Believe in her, if you are able.” For the author of these lines, Fyodor Tyutchev, these words were a declaration of love in the awareness of the uniqueness of his homeland. Little has changed since the poem was written in the 19th century. Russia is still hard to grasp with one’s mind, which in our deeply digitized times is fraught with difficulties. Just believing in it doesn’t work very well either. It cost us dearly in the great experiment of building a hitherto unseen bloody utopia called communism. Nor did it work in the early 1990s, when the young Russian democracy emerged on the ruins of the collapsed behemoth of the USSR. Today it is no longer young, and not quite a democracy, if you’ll pardon the play on words.
I can’t help but point out that the West also bears some responsibility for modern Russia’s twisted path. After the attack on the United States in September 2001, Russia was among the first to offer its support. It provided territory for transit of NATO supplies, its generals shared their experience from the Afghan campaign with their American colleagues. But, driven by the memory of the hunger strikes in Moscow in the mid-1990s, the Seven Bankers’ Cabal, and the famous “Bush legs” (chicken legs sent as humanitarian aid in the time of food shortages in the USSR), the West rather harshly sent Russia to the nosebleed section. Nobody took seriously the fact that the outcast was gradually gaining strength—and the ambitions and desire to sit in the front row again, even if not in the center.
They should have.
Russia came back. We can scoff all we want, saying that it is a colossus with feet of clay, that its collapse is inevitable, and so on. One thing is indisputable: Russia is an objective reality. Recent talks with the United States and NATO are further proof of this. One can disagree with Russia, one can try to call Russia to order, but one cannot ignore Russia. There is a bear in the room, and it’s hard not to see it. I am not saying that we should be moved by it, or worse, admire it, but we cannot stick our heads in the sand like an ostrich. I am going to pick and list a few points that I consider to be milestones on Russia’s path to becoming what it is today.
Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, Libya. A separate point is the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh. I have already mentioned that Russia resembles a bear, and sometimes it is an insomniac bear, refusing to hibernate, roaming around the forest—an imminent threat. And the world, for all its thunderous rhetoric, is unable to stop it.
Liking or not liking Russia is every person’s own business. I, for one, resent attempts to avoid sharp edges in relations with our northern neighbor at all costs just because we share a past, or because many Azerbaijanis live in Russia. The past is very important and must not be forgotten or vilified indiscriminately to please today’s realities. There are many aspects of our common history with Russia that are good for our people. But let us not forget that the very existence of a common past is the result of military aggression of Bolshevik Russia against independent Azerbaijan and the annihilation of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. As for the Russian citizens who are ethnic Azerbaijanis, I wish them all the best from the bottom of my heart. I hope they do not forget their historic homeland, while working honestly and diligently for the good of the Russian Federation. But neither this, nor the economic ties, nor the wish to be on the safe side means that we can give up even part of our sovereignty. We should have a clear position with concrete red lines, realistic ones, based on the awareness of the difference in our weight classes.
I am equally repulsed by attempts to demonize or, worse, bully Russia. To do so, one would have to be a narrow-minded person at the very least or an obsessive Russophobe, like the famous American General Forrestal, who committed suicide while shouting “The Russians are coming!” Speaking of suicidal tendencies, our homegrown extremists, like those who label students who receive education in the Russian language as traitors to the motherland (bewildering, to say the least), also clearly have them. Expectations based on certain factors in the future are a matter of forecasting and preventive analysis, but it is short-sighted to base our decisions on them here and now, even despite some strange insinuations in the form of lengthy interviews with pro-Kremlin analysts, talk of a new reconquista, vague statements by public figures, and so on.
You don’t get to choose your neighbors, just like you don’t get to choose your parents; we know that better than anyone else “thanks” to another, very special, neighbor of ours. But this is not about them. You have to know how to be neighbors with Russia. There is no alternative to it. This country, just like any other, has its own aims and interests and there is no guarantee that they will coincide with our desires and preferences. None of our neighbors who chose the path of either open or veiled confrontation with Russia has benefited from it. Let me remind you that Azerbaijan also once pointedly and openly broke up with Russia and distanced itself from it. It happened under the People’s Front and we all know the result of that flag-waving. Heydar Aliyev taught us a brilliant lesson in diplomacy during his first visit to Moscow after his return to power. Our president warmly greeted Boris Yeltsin, who did not hide his pro-Armenian sympathies, as a dear friend, despite the strained personal relationship between them. The interests of the country demanded it. With Vladimir Putin, the Azerbaijani leader was able to build a trusting relationship based on deep respect and mutual understanding of the interests of their respective states. The direct dialogue between Vladimir Putin and Ilham Aliyev is one of the positive aspects of the relations between the two countries. Such contacts are extremely important in world politics, including our part of the planet.
Let me revisit a long-forgotten story. Kyrgyzstan, 2010. President Bakiyev “tickled” the Russian bear by screwing him on the issue of closing Manas Airport to NATO aviation. He agreed to close the airport and received financial aid for it, several hundred million dollars, which he and his son Maksim, who headed the parallel Cabinet of Ministers—the Central Agency for Development and Investment (“TsARI” in Russian—the acronym was not accidental)—safely pocketed. But he was never going to close the airport, having already received money from his Western partners as well. The response from the Kremlin was not long in coming. Then President Medvedev almost made it clear openly who had ousted Bakiyev for getting carried away. Father and son Bakiyevs left, ceding the leadership of the country to Otunbayeva, who was replaced by Atambayev, who was then arrested by Zheenbayev, who was replaced by Zhaparov… And all of this happened within 10 years.
I will not go into detail of the main topic of the day, Kazakhstan. I just want to say that despite the well-known saying about free cheese and the mousetrap, our friends in Kazakhstan will be faced with a situation where they have to pay for the cheese while sitting in the mousetrap. And it’s not even the best quality cheese. The speed of withdrawal of CSTO troops is not essential here. Russia has once again proved that it does what it sees fit.
Not trying to please either Russophobes or Russophiles (the former will call me a Kremlin agent, the latter a Russophobe, and godspeed to them all) with an artificially balanced approach, I can say that my attitude comes from a combination of positive memories (which the new generation who never lived together with Russia as part of one state), an understanding of Russia’s immense role in processes that directly affect Azerbaijan’s interests, and a clear awareness of the hostility and potential danger that Russia can pose in a unwelcome scenario.
I have already mentioned Pandora’s box, a source of disasters. But there is a nuance known mainly to connoisseurs of ancient Greek mythology. Pandora’s box, along with countless disasters and misfortunes, also contained hope. We can only hope that our Russian colleagues will treat our relations as a mutually beneficial cooperation of mutually respectful partners, preserving and multiplying the many bright and good episodes that abound in our history, and putting aside the “big brother” syndrome, which is equally dangerous for them and for us. Candy from the Kremlin no longer holds any appeal to us. The Beatles’ famous song “Back in the USSR” cannot be made popular at this point. Nor do we want to sing “Russia, goodbye”, as Verka Serdyuchka once did.
That is, of course, unless Russia itself pushes us to it…
Translated from Caliber.az