Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 23 Issue 2
Authors: Giuliano Bifolchi and Silvia Boltuc
Ilham Aliyev’s visit to Italy confirmed Baku’s interest in strengthening commercial and business partnerships with Rome and attracting Italian investments in the reconstruction process in the Nagorno-Karabakh territories, which are now under Azerbaijani control.
On September 1st-2nd, 2022, the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, paid a working visit to Italy to strengthen Italian-Azerbaijani bilateral relations and strategic partnership.
During the two-day visit, Aliyev met Italian authorities such as Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi to address the issue of Azerbaijan’s important role in the European energy market. In addition, the Azerbaijani President inaugurated the new Embassy of Azerbaijan in Italy in the heart of Rome, signed an agreement on academic cooperation for the Italy-Azerbaijan University, and participated in the 48° edition of Cernobbio Forum in a panel, also attended by the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, where he gave a speech on the role that Azerbaijan can play for energy security.
During his visit, Aliyev stressed that Azerbaijan is ready to double its gas production and expand gas export to Italy through the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) from 10 billion cubic meters to 20/22 billion cubic meters. Furthermore, the Azerbaijani President stated that Baku and Yerevan might sign a peace agreement to stabilise the Caucasus region in a few months.
The Italian media praised Ilham Aliyev’s visit underlining how Azerbaijan is a fundamental strategic and commercial partner for Italy and represents a possible solution to the current energy crisis. Indeed, in the last few days, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said that Italy had reached new agreements with countries such as Azerbaijan and Algeria to increase gas supplies. These new energy partners have allowed Italy to halve Russian natural gas imports since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict. According to Draghi, “last year, about 40% of our (Italia) gas imports came from Russia. Today, on average, it is about half.”.
Azerbaijani’ caviar and cultural diplomacy’ in Italy
Due to the Italian prolonged difficult political and economic situation, Azerbaijan has decided to focus on Italy. Among the leading countries of the European Union, Italy seems to be the least stable member country from a political point of view: indeed, in the last decade, seven different governments have alternated in the Bel Paese (Monti 2011-2013, Letta 2013-2014, Renzi 2014-2016, Gentiloni 2016-2018, Conte I 2018-2019, Conte II 2019-2021, Draghi 2021-2022) and the following September 25th, 2022, the Italian citizens will go to the polls to decide which political party or coalition will rule the country and face the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic and the energy crisis following the imposition of sanctions against Russia.
In the chaotic Italian political and economic situation, Azerbaijan has exploited natural gas and promoted its role as a logistics hub for Made in Italy to gain Italian support for Baku’s regional strategy, particularly in Nagorno-Karabakh. Therefore, over time, the Italian media have changed their narrative about Azerbaijan by slowly ignoring the problems of democracy in Baku and directing all attention to the strategic partnership, TAP’s importance for Italian energy diversification, and business opportunities. By the way, it is not surprising how the Italian media have changed their opinion on Azerbaijan if we consider the difficult situation in which the journalists of the Bel Paese live. In fact, according to World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders, in 2022, Italy went from 41st position to 58th in just one year.
In addition to the famous cultural diplomacy Made in Azerbaijan, characterised by the donation of money for restoring monuments and archaeological sites in Italy, the Bel Paese was not immune to the well-known Baku’s “caviar diplomacy”. Indeed, in 2021, the Milan court sentenced Luca Giuseppe Volontè, a former UDC deputy and member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, to four years in prison because the Italian politician accepted a bribe from Azerbaijan to reject a report on Baku’s treatment of political prisoners.
Azerbaijan has also targeted the Italian academic world to create international university partnerships and foster new scientific literature that justifies Baku’s territorial claims on Nagorno-Karabakh. On the one hand, Baku welcomes young Italian researchers into the Azerbaijani academic institution exploiting the problematic condition that the younger generations live in the Italian academic world. On the other hand, the Azerbaijani universities, primarily the ADA University, have reached additional collaboration agreements with the leading Italian universities to foster joint research projects.
Italy: between geopolitical imperatives and ‘useful dictators’
The economic crisis deriving from Covid-19 and the current energy crisis due to the sanctions on Russia have greatly affected the Italian economy and society.
According to official data, in July 2022, the employment rate in Italy drops to 60.3%, the unemployment rate to 7.9% and the inactivity rate rises to 34.4%. The consumer price index for families and workers increased by 7.8% in one year (from 2021 to 2022), and, comparing this year with the year 2020, the cost of living has risen by 9.8%. The rise in prices of energy goods (from +42.9% in July 2022 to +44.9% in August 2022), unregulated energy (from +39.8% in July 2022 to +41.6% in August 2022), and processed food goods (from +9.5% in July 2022 to +10.5% in August 2022) have increased the inflation in Italy. The ‘core inflation’ increased from +4.1% in July 2022 to +4.4% in August 2022.
The Ukraine conflict has attracted tremendous interest among the Italian citizens and media, focusing on the Western sanctions against Russia, the energy and economic crisis, and the new geopolitical international order. Thus, the necessity to diversify the natural gas imports and reduce energy prices are among the main topics that the Italian political parties discuss during the current electoral campaign. In this political and socio-economic situation, considering Italy’s alignment with Brussels and Washington’s about the Russian Federation, the only possible alternative to Russian gas is represented by increasing Italian imports from countries such as Azerbaijan.
Therefore, strengthening relations with Azerbaijan is an Italian geopolitical imperative to decrease dependence on Russian gas and try to give answers to an Italian population progressively angry and disappointed by the policies that the Italian Government has adopted since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict. Progressively, the Italian public opinion has changed its stance on the sanctions against Russia: indeed, according to a recent survey, 51.1% of Italians ask for lifting sanctions on Russia.
In this framework, Draghi Government has decided to strengthen the partnership with Azerbaijan, ignoring the community’s severe problems regarding freedom, rights and democracy of the Caucasian country. In 2022, Reporters without Borders ranked Azerbaijan at 154th place out of over 180 countries on the Press Freedom Index, with a score of 39.40 (according to the same index, the Russian Federation is at 155th place and Armenia at 51st place), while Freedom House rated Azerbaijan as ‘Not Free’ and an ‘authoritarian regime’. On February 8th, 2022, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev approved a new media law allowing the Government to control all news media. In addition, in 2022, Transparency International ranked Azerbaijan 128th place out of over 180 countries on the Corruption Perception Index (Russia ranks 136th place while Armenia is in 58th place). According to Amnesty International, persecution and harassment of government critics continued, peaceful protests were violently broken up, and the central authority continues to contrast the work of human rights defenders and NGOs.
Since several Italian authorities, including Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, have often declared that Italian support for Ukraine is in defence of the values of democracy, how is it possible that Italy has improved its partnership with a dictatorial regime like Azerbaijan just to diversifying natural gas import? We can find the answer to this question in the words of Mario Draghi, who in 2021 defined Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as “a dictator we need” and with whom Italy (and the West) should cooperate to overcome international issues.
Therefore, according to this way of thinking, Italy can cooperate with Ilham Aliyev’s authoritarian regime to reach its geopolitical imperatives. Hence, to collaborate with Azerbaijan, Italy must accept Baku’s foreign and military policy in Nagorno-Karabakh and then close one’s eyes to the Azerbaijani army aggression that in 2020 caused the resumption of the conflict in the region, which lasted 44 days and ended thanks to the Kremlin’s mediation role.
Ilham Aliyev’s visit to Italy again underlines the strong link between Italy and Azerbaijan cemented by the TAP pipeline and the commercial partnership. Italy, which has always had historical-cultural solid relations with Armenia, has decided to aim for Azerbaijan and sacrifice the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh in exchange for Azerbaijani gas to reduce the energy crisis that Bel Paese is experiencing due to the sanctions imposed on Russia.
From this point of view, Italy and most of the Italian media prefer to ignore the problems inherent in Azerbaijan’s lack of freedom and democracy, confirming the double standard policy that has characterised the West in various situations.
Even though Italy-Azerbaijan cooperation will increase in the following years and the Bel Paese will obtain more Azerbaijani natural gas, it remains uncertain whether Azerbaijan can become a logistic and energy hub as the Government of Baku has often declared, bearing in mind the geopolitical dynamics of the Caspian Sea area that directly involve the Russian Federation and Iran, two countries that they are currently antagonists of the West.
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