Baku: A Curious Choice for COP29

Francesco Sassi

6 mins - 18 de Enero de 2024, 10:00

While the discussion on the recently concluded COP28 in Dubai remains heated, an equally deep debate is needed on the somewhat surprising choice of Baku for the next COP29. The designation of Azerbaijan as host country is the result of an intricate game of vetoes and counter-vetoes, negotiations between hidden diplomacies, and vested interests. Behind it all, the pivotal role of Eastern European countries.

Lights and shadows of COP28 are today commented on by almost all international media, with conflicting positions among them on the outcome of the event that attracted a record 84,000 participants. For a more in-depth commentary on the controversial issues of COP28, I refer you to Enzo di Giulio's excellent analysis.

The decision to hold COP29 in Baku has little to do with climate policy and much more to do with international relations. It is a political event with profound implications. First, Azerbaijan is a major producer of both oil and natural gas and the country can be considered the cradle of the hydrocarbon industry.

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The holding of the conference in a fossil fuel producing country, and moreover chaired by a leading figure in the industry such as Sultan Al Jaber, raised significant criticism. This already happened last year at COP27 in Egypt, but today the involvement of the hydrocarbon industry has allowed Emirati diplomacy to reach an agreement that for the first time announces, amidst many contradictions, a future away from fossil fuels. To date, nothing is known about how Baku intends to act as a mediator between the parties involved, nor how the issue of internal dissidents and the very limited freedom of the press will be addressed between now and November 2024.

Azerbaijan arrives at COP29 having carved out an increasingly prominent role for itself on the international stage. Not limited to its influence in the Caucasus, the country led by Ilham Alyiev is in fact the eastern pivot of a pan-Turkish axis, an indissoluble bloc under the motto "Two countries, one nation" created with Turkey. A concept repeated with extreme diligence at every bilateral summit and embodied in meetings with European diplomats, where Baku explicitly supports Turkish claims in Mediterranean waters. Relations between the two allies have never been closer, not least because of Ankara's diplomatic and military support for Baku in the victorious conflict with Armenia in 2020.

A war in which Moscow mediated with its hands tied, given Azerbaijan's obvious superiority on the ground and diplomatically. Not satisfied with the outcome three years ago, Azerbaijan has finally settled the long-standing Nagorno-Karabakh dispute in September 2023. At the final hoisting of the Azerbaijani flag in the capital, Khankendi, known to the Armenian community as Stepanakert, Alyiev and Erdogan were present. United by fruitful family business in the reconstruction of key infrastructure in Nagorno-Karabakh, the two sealed for the umpteenth time an alliance whose stability enables the connection of European energy markets with the Caspian basin.

The September blitzkrieg, which lasted only a few days, provoked a mass exodus of nearly 140,000 people, the average population of a north-central city. A quarter of those who fled in haste are children, pregnant women and people with disabilities or chronic health problems. The European Parliament called the Azerbaijani armed intervention "ethnic cleansing" and called for a complete review of relations with Baku. Planned retaliatory measures against Azerbaijan include both the suspension of the Memorandum of Understanding signed by Ursula von der Leyen and Azerbaijani President Aliyev in July 2022, an agreement that provides for the doubling of gas imports through the Southern Gas Corridor and is part of Europe's strategy to diversify away from Russian gas imports, and the complete halt of any oil and gas imports from Azerbaijan to the EU. An outcome that would have immediate effects for the Italian economy, given that Azerbaijan is now the second largest gas importing country after Algeria, via the TAP pipeline.

While Russia has explicitly recognised the annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh as a fait accompli, EU officials, in cooperation with the US, have supported Armenian claims, condemning an escalation that Baku could expand in the near future to control the Zangezur corridor. This strip of land would de facto connect the Caspian Sea with the Black Sea, a favourite trade route between China and the EU – an outcome that is absolutely necessary to avoid in order to maintain parity of credibility for European diplomacy in the Caucasus region.

However, the series of events that have destabilised EU-Azerbaijan relations over the past three years do not seem to have compromised the energy and gas partnership. During COP28, EU Commissioner Simson and Azerbaijani Energy Minister Shahbazov discussed increased gas flows between Azerbaijan and Europe, but also new investments in renewable energy and the so-called Green Energy Corridor for renewable energy and hydrogen imports. In fact, Azerbaijan is the destination of new international investments in both solar and wind energy, a field in which the collaboration with the Emirati Masdar and the Saudi ACWA Power stands out.

In the background, EU member states such as Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Slovakia have in recent months signed new natural gas import agreements with Azerbaijan. The same Commission has also overseen the signing of an agreement for the construction of a 1,200 km long power line across the Black Sea that should bring green molecules from the Caucasus and Caspian Sea to Eastern European markets. All of this, of course, under the aegis of energy security and transition and the diversification of imports from Russia following the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

It will not surprise the reader, therefore, to learn that the choice of Baku as the venue for COP29 has fallen into the very hands of the EU's Eastern European states which, due to cross vetoes with the Russian Federation, had to choose a third and interested partner to host the Summit. A decision that also required Armenia's support and sanctified by the exchange of prisoners of war between the two sides.

By supporting a costly domestic decarbonisation process, the EU risks mistakenly treating energy, climate, and international politics as disconnected issues, neglecting the protection of other values essential for a 'just, orderly and equitable transition' away from fossil fuels. In the meantime, it is reasonable to hope that weapons will be laid down in the Caucasus to create a climate more conducive to hosting the global climate diplomacy elite in Baku in 2024. 
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