The first official visit by Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev to Moscow will spell nothing new for Russian-Azerbaijani relations. The reason: they are now as good as they have ever been. At any rate, the countries do not have to face any crisis moments. And any frictions existing in mutual dealings can be smoothed away without difficulty.
This situation dates from the time of Heidar Aliyev, when he was the president and did his utmost not to quarrel with Moscow.
Russia and Azerbaijan see eye to eye on the division of the Caspian into unequal sectors so that the relevant states have the right to participate in the development of their neighbours' oil fields. The understandings achieved between Baku and Moscow have greatly advanced a final settlement of the Caspian problem.
Baku also takes an understanding view of Moscow's stance on Chechnya, stressing that it is a matter for Russia alone to decide. Baku also wants Moscow to adopt a similar attitude on the Karabakh issue. It is one of the few complications that exist in relations between Russia and Azerbaijan.
As far as Nagorno-Karabakh is concerned, Moscow has always sought to play it both ways, but invariably identified with Armenia. It supplied this country with weapons at crisis moments.
Aliyev wants the Minsk OSCE Group on Nagorno-Karabakh, of which Russia is a member, to be more active in proposing effective ways to solve or at least to ease the conflict. But, as an intelligent man, he realises that this is a very complicated matter. It will be interesting to watch his reaction to a Minsk group's proposal for a 15-year moratorium on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, on condition that both states subscribe to confidence-building measures, or at least pledge not to fuel the conflict. During Aliyev's talks in Moscow, the Russian side would like to know his opinion about the suggestion.
There are rumours in Baku that if Russia helps Azerbaijan with Karabakh, Azerbaijani territory will never host American military bases. Whether there is any truth in that is hard to say. But undoubtedly the issue of a Western, above all American, presence on post-Soviet territory is an irritant for Russia, although some sort of American base to protect the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline will be set up.
However, it is not a matter of Americans taking over from Russians in Azerbaijan. There, unlike in Georgia, Russia has no military bases except for the Gabalin radar station. Its existence used to cause some friction between the two states, but now the issue is off the agenda owing to the flexibility shown by Moscow and Baku.
Another challenging issue is Azerbaijan's possible switch to western weapons standards. Baku is known to be lukewarm to the idea of purchasing Russian military equipment, and Moscow would like to buck this trend. The question is, will it succeed?
Another source of friction between the sides, very mild one, is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, which will reorient main Azerbaijani supplies away from Russia.
In 1996, Russia and Azerbaijan signed a treaty pledging 5 million tonnes of Azerbaijani oil for the Baku-Makhachkala-Novorossiisk pipeline. Between 2002 and 2003, the real level pumped dropped to 2.5 million tonnes. Energy Minister Igor Yusufov, ahead of Aliyev's Moscow visit, said he was not pleased. Russia will seek to increase the transit to 5 million tonnes. Yusufov also added that the pipeline's potential capacity was 15 million tonnes.
However, Russia is well aware that diversification of oil routes is inevitable, and Azerbaijan is not interested in hurting Russia.
In its turn, Baku is concerned that Russian companies are not seeking particularly actively to work in Azerbaijan's oil sector, as it would like them to. The point is that no exact figures exist on Azerbaijan's oil resources. In the early 1990s, Azerbaijan was likened to Persian Gulf states, but its real oil reserves are limited and not always easy to reach. So projects to develop Azerbaijan's oil deposits are expensive and need a long time to recoup. Naturally, Russian oil giants want to take part in bigger and more substantive projects than those on offer in Azerbaijan.
In the course of his visit to Moscow, Aliyev will have a meeting with Russian businessmen and will try to get an answer to his question about their willingness to work in Azerbaijan. And while oil sector co-operation begs too many questions, electric power is the sphere where Moscow is very active. Yusufov noted that Russia has a vested interest in the privatisation of power facilities in Azerbaijan.
These privatisations are consonant with the idea entertained by Russia's national power grid Unified Energy Systems head Anatoly Chubais, who believes that power industry is the right instrument for consolidating Russia's foothold in former Soviet republics.
Another factor making for mutual attraction is Azerbaijani migrants. According to Azerbaijani specialists, Russia has a population of 1.5 to 2 million Azerbaijani migrants, with each sending 100 dollars home monthly, the total exceeding the country's budget.
Aliyev's talks in Moscow will demonstrate the two states' readiness for dialogue.