Geopolitics Global Agenda

Robert Fico in Azerbaijan: Will Slovakia become a bridge between Brussels and Baku?

Filip Šandor

The visit of Prime Minister Robert Fico and his delegation to Azerbaijan on 6-7 May 2024 represented a new impetus in Slovak foreign policy relations in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan is the wealthiest state in the region (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia), with two-thirds of its budget coming from the production and export of oil and gas, which attracts EU countries seeking to diversify their energy imports.

The foreign visit had a strategic dimension, focusing on increasing trade, investment, cooperation in the defence industry, and the issue of natural gas imports. The political dimension illustrated Fico’s statement that Slovakia wants to be “a bridge between the European Union and Azerbaijan” and that “we have no differences of opinion on anything”.

The South Caucasus in the long-standing shadow of Slovakia’s interest

Although Slovakia’s foreign policy towards the region has long been oriented in the strategic documents of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs towards “intensification of contacts”, especially “with an emphasis on the economic dimension of cooperation”, mutual trade with the countries of the South Caucasus is still minimal. The latest available Foreign Ministry strategy document for 2023 illustrates Slovakia’s focus on “deepening economic cooperation” in the region. Only Georgia is explicitly mentioned from the South Caucasus region, both in the context of support for EU integration ambitions and in the context of a long-standing programme country within Slovak development assistance.

High-level state visits (government, representatives of other central state bodies) to the region began only in 1997. Their low number confirms Slovakia’s long-standing marginal interest in this area. Government visits account for only 9.29% of all visits to the region of the former Soviet Union (excluding the Baltic countries). There has been a revival of interest since 2008 (10 visits) when several visits to Armenia and Azerbaijan took place.

Since 2010, Georgia has become a country of increased foreign policy interest in parallel with its efforts towards rapprochement with the EU in the framework of the Eastern Partnership. The most intensive relations with the region were between 2010-2019, culminating in the decision to establish Slovak embassies in Azerbaijan in 2019 and Armenia in 2020. In Georgia, Slovakia established an embassy already in 2014.

Regarding the stability of state contacts in the form of international meetings, Armenia has been the most stable partner, having been visited annually since 1997, except for three absences. Armenia is followed by Georgia, then Azerbaijan. The fact that Georgia has the largest share of visits (38%), compared to Armenia (35%) and Azerbaijan (27%), suggests that Azerbaijan has been relatively in the background of the Slovak Republic’s foreign policy interests in the region.

Looking at the intensity of visits by Slovak representatives to the region, the most active was the first government under Fico (25%), followed by the Pellegrini government (17.39%) and the second Fico government (16.3%). At the prime ministerial level, Peter Pellegrini was one of only two to visit the region with a delegation (Azerbaijan in 2018), the other being Robert Fico- This contrasts with the overall minimal government interactions with Azerbaijan during the period. Regarding departmental focus, most visits were made by the Foreign Affairs departments at the ministerial level. At the presidential level, only Andrej Kiska visited the region twice, specifically Georgia, in 2016 and 2018.

EU Common Foreign and Security Policy

The dimension of the EU’s common foreign and security policy is not only complementary but crucial for Slovakia. For example, the visa liberalisation since 2011, the comprehensive trade agreement, and the association agreement (2016) itself have not only correlated with but may even have caused an increase in political and trade interactions between Slovakia and Georgia. A similar scenario could occur with Azerbaijan and Armenia, but in their case, the will to push for more intensive integration efforts is absent (especially in the case of Baku), and they are more comfortable with the current state of relations without a contractual character (except for visa liberalisation).

Georgia, which has signed all three of the above-mentioned agreements with the EU, has clearly been a forerunner in EU integration not only in the South Caucasus but also in the entire Eastern Partnership, with candidate status granted in 2023. It has thus become the first country with this status in the region, outside of direct connection with the EU territory. However, Georgia is currently gradually derailing from the European path with its anti-democratic tendencies. At the same time, Armenia and Azerbaijan have not made much progress in integration in their efforts to achieve an Association Agreement or a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area Agreement. However, Armenia signed an alternative Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in 2017 due to its presence in the Eurasian Union.

EU involvement has also increased in the person of the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, who has intensively addressed the internal political turmoil in Georgia, where he has negotiated an agreement between the coalition and the opposition, as well as facilitating a regular dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The EU established an observer mission in Armenia in early 2023.

Azerbaijan is currently comfortable with a balancing foreign policy without deeper integration into the EU. Azerbaijan realises that, despite some human rights and democratic shortcomings, it does not have to fear the imposition of sanctions by the EU, mainly because of Italy’s rejectionist stance and also because of Baku’s importance in the EU’s efforts to diversify energy supplies and resources. In 2022, Brussels and Azerbaijan signed a memorandum of understanding on strategic cooperation in the energy sector. Azerbaijan has committed to increasing its natural gas supplies to the EU by 18 bcm, and the EU has committed to investing 2 billion EUR in diversifying Azerbaijan’s economy.

Trade and investment realities

Regarding trade relations, the region is marginal in terms of its share in Slovak imports and exports. Imports from these countries have accounted for an average of only 0.01% of total imports into Slovakia over the last 30 years, with the largest shares coming from Georgia (44.65%), Armenia (30.63%) and Azerbaijan (24.71%). Slovak exports went mainly to Azerbaijan (51.16%), Georgia (33.06%) and Armenia (15.78%). Over three decades, the region as a whole has accounted for only a negligible 0.05% of Slovak exports. Slovakia’s exports are dominated by vehicles (Georgia), food products and demining systems Božena 5 (Azerbaijan), and textiles and clothing products (Armenia).

As evidenced by the first visit of a current Slovak government member to Azerbaijan in January 2024, made by the Minister of Defence, Robert Kaliňák, the region is notable for its post-conflict realities, such as mined fields.

It is therefore also of interest in terms of exports of defence industry products. While a positive balance of foreign trade with the region is good news for Slovakia, there is great potential in the dynamically developing region led by Azerbaijan, which represents the largest and richest consumer market. In particular, there has been a significant increase in trade volume with Armenia since 2020, which may be related to the establishment of the embassy in the country that year and the intention to launch more effective economic diplomacy towards the region. However, it remains to be seen whether the overall financial and personal capacity of the respective embassies in the South Caucasus countries and their staffing with economic diplomats align with this intention.

The potential of the region

Prime Minister Fico’s visit to Baku is a new impetus in Slovakia’s relations with the South Caucasus, which is a very dynamic and rapidly developing region. The region represents an important geopolitical crossroads, which, in light of current geopolitical changes, is important not only for the EU but also for Russia, Turkey, Iran, and China. The region is already becoming the intersection of several international corridors, such as China’s new Silk Road or the Russian-Iranian North-South Transport Corridor, while the latest Armenian peace plan in the conflict with Azerbaijan reflects precisely the concept of completing and linking infrastructure with its neighbours.

In terms of Slovakia’s strategic interests in the region, the following themes emerge as the most important: 1) support for the stability of the region (active participation in the EU and enlargement, sharing experience with transition and support for reform processes), 2) economic and commercial development of the region (economic diplomacy), and 3) the cultural and social dimension (preservation of traditional cultures, religions and numerous ethnic groups) within the framework of UN initiatives, while Slovakia should maintain (as it has declared in previous years) “balanced and pragmatic relations” with the various actors. With this strategic visit, the government has pragmatically focused on the richest state with the most significant potential in terms of trade and economy.

Photo credit: Facebook Úrad Vlády SR

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