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The Curious Partnership of Serbia and Azerbaijan Has Everything to Do with Russian Regional Influence

Martin Wirkus | Europe and Eurasia Fellow

Azerbaijan-Serbia document signing. Image credit: President of Azerbaijan via Wikimedia Commons.


In early 2024, Serbia curiously signed a bilateral security cooperation plan with Azerbaijan. This partnership with the majority Muslim country is unusual given Serbia’s historic dispute over Kosovo with the Muslim Albanians. Furthermore, Azerbaijan has recently engaged in armed conflict with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh. Serbia and Armenia are both Orthodox Christian countries, hence explaining surprise over the partnership between Serbia and Azerbaijan. Yet despite these initial differences, the curious partnership is “developing rapidly”. Russia’s connection to Serbia and Azerbaijan, particularly involving their territorial disputes, can be used to better understand this relationship.

 

The Russian Connection

 

The relationship between Serbia and Russia has evolved significantly, particularly during times of mutual hardship. The breakup of Yugoslavia and the USSR occurred almost simultaneously, heralding a decade of turmoil for both countries. However, it was the 1999 NATO bombings of Kosovo that truly solidified their bond. Then-sitting Russian president Boris Yeltsin strongly condemned NATO's campaign as "illegal" and "open aggression", marking a new high in their relations.

 

Similarly, Russian influence has remained strong in the Caucuses region since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan has played an integral role in growing this regional influence. Whilst Armenia is led by Nikol Pashinyan, a pro-democracy figure responsible for leading anti-government protests in 2018, Azerbaijan is led by Ilham Aliyev, who inherited the presidency from his father—a senior KGB official. Aliyev's familial Soviet background makes him a preferable partner for Russia, providing Moscow with a sense of familiarity and potential leverage over Azerbaijan's leadership.

 

United by their shared communist past, Russia, Serbia, and Azerbaijan have cultivated a unique relationship, with both Azerbaijan and Serbia receiving support from Russia in their respective territorial disputes.

 

Nagorno-Karabakh: Paving the Way for Serb-Azeri Relations

 

The recent fifth-term victory announced by Aliyev is underscored by his success in the long conflict over territory of Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh. The area has been a source of tension between the former Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The conflict stems from the historic significance of the province for both national identities. With military support from Armenia, between February 1988 and May 1994, ethnic Armenians claimed the territory within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic and established the Republic of Artsakh.

The ensuing decades of tensions escalated significantly in 2020 when Azerbaijan launched a 44-day offensive and reclaimed control of the territory. A peace agreement brokered by Russia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia that same year saw Armenia relinquishing control of the territory in exchange for the safety of its ethnic Armenian population who were protected by a Russian peacekeeping force. Despite this agreement, Azerbaijan, with Russia’s tacit approval, violated the agreement in December 2022 by blockading Nagorno-Karabakh and thereby exacerbating tensions. Under the pretext of a landmine attack on Azerbaijani citizens, Azerbaijan launched a two-day offensive on September 20, 2023 which resulted in a decisive victory. In forcing regional players to choose sides, this conflict has paved the way for Serb-Azeri relations as both countries seek to align with Russia.

 

Serb-Azeri Relations as a Reaction to Armenia’s Western Focus

 

Russia’s tacit approval of the 2020 peace agreement’s violation could be a reaction to Armenia’s efforts to diversify their allies. The Kremlin has accused Armenia’s Nikol Pashinyan of trying to “destabilise [the] common Eurasian space” through the pursuit of economic and security cooperation with NATO and Washington. Following the outbreak of the Russo-Ukraine war, Pashinyan aligned with Ukraine, reflecting his government’s efforts to diversify Armenia’s foreign policy away from Russia. Tensions with Moscow peaked in mid-2023, when Armenia announced a joint military exercise with the US while refusing to host military drills for the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia’s regional security organization.

 

Despite this, Pashinyan uses the lack of Russian support in upholding the 2020 peace agreement conditions to further justify his westward shift. Relations between Yerevan and Moscow have reached breaking point, with Pashinyan threatening to leave the CSTO amidst recent concerns that Azerbaijan is planning to unleash a “full-scale war” on Armenia. Serbia may have interpreted Russia’s rewarding of Azerbaijan for its loyalty and punishment of Armenia as a green light to cultivate its security relationship with Azerbaijan.

 

Amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, the relationship between Serbia and Azerbaijan could be seen as a move to counterbalance Armenia’s Western focus. Armenia decided to ratify the Rome Statute on November 14, 2023 and join the International Criminal Court (ICC). Its ratification means that Vladimir Putin is liable for arrest in the case of future visits to Armenia. These actions have been framed as a reaction to Russia’s failure to strictly uphold the 2020 peace agreement, however could also be interpreted as an expression of Armenia’s ambition to join NATO. Such membership would align Armenia more closely with Western interests and sow further discord in the region, weakening Russia's influence and altering the balance of power. Strengthening ties between Serbia and Azerbaijan could serve as a strategic response to balance against perceived shifts in regional power dynamics.

 

Caucuses Cooperation: Evolving Regional Security

 

Serbia and Azerbaijan strengthening ties should be interpreted as a reaction to Armenia's perceived ‘betrayal’ of Russia. Both Serbia and Azerbaijan have historically had complex relationships with Russia but find common ground in countering Armenia's pivot towards the West. Furthermore, having sought each other’s diplomatic support for their shared territorial struggles, the Serbia-Azerbaijan bilateral relationship is founded on their contentious territorial claims, evidenced by their friendly votes in international institutions. Moreover, their relationship is underpinned by a mutually beneficial economic and military cooperation. This cooperation is forging a new security paradigm in the Caucuses.




Martin Wirkus is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. He is excited about exploring the emerging security challenges in Central and East Asian countries, along with delving into the political, economic, and social issues that define this diverse region.

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