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Trump Nominates Career Foreign Service Officer As Next Envoy To Azerbaijan

By Mushvig Mehdiyev September 8, 2018

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If the Senate approves, Earle D. Litzenberger will be the 12th ambassador of the U.S. to Azerbaijan / The German Marshall Fund of the United States

On Tuesday, the White House released a statement stating that U.S. President Donald Trump has nominated Earle D. Litzenberger, a career member of the United States Foreign Service, to be the next ambassador to Azerbaijan. Litzenberger’s nomination comes nearly two years after Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.

Like all presidential nominations of envoys to foreign countries, Litzenberger’s candidacy must be approved by the Senate, which could take several months. First, the nomination must be referred to the Senate Foreign Relations committee, before which the nominee will testify prior to a vote on the nominee in the full Senate.

Political analysts in Azerbaijan have already started giving an insight into why Litzenberger may have been picked.

Tofig Zulfugarov, who served as Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan from 1998-1999 and ambassador to Latvia and Estonia between 2010 and 2015, says security in the South Caucasus region and European energy diversification are likely the two main factors in deciding who is best to represent the U.S. president in Azerbaijan.

“The U.S. administration has a growing interest in a more secure and safer South Caucasus region due to mainly the neighboring countries,” Zulfugarov told Caspian News, referring to Russia and Iran, which share borders with Azerbaijan.

“Since Azerbaijan is the most influential and economically and demographically strongest country in the South Caucasus, addressing the political interests of Washington in the region seemingly starts in Azerbaijan,” he said.

Georgia and Armenia are the two other countries that form the South Caucasus. Currently the U.S. does not have an ambassador to Georgia.

Zulfugarov put Litzenberger’s professional background as one of the possible determinants for his nomination by President Trump to be the 12th U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan. Litzenberger currently works as a Senior Advisor in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the State Department in Washington, D.C. He has served as Deputy Chief of Mission to the U.S. Mission to NATO, the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, and the Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

The U.S. and Azerbaijan established official diplomatic relations in 1992, shortly after Azerbaijan announced its independence from the Soviet Union, which officially dissolved in December 1991. In recent years, the two countries have been cooperating to promote European energy security, expand bilateral trade and investment, and combat terrorism and transnational threats.  

The diversification of Europe’s energy supplies, helping it to pivot away from Russia – on which it currently depends – has Washington’s blessing. The new American ambassador, Zulfugarov says, may help reassure Azerbaijan that the country’s role in Europe’s future is under close watch by the U.S. government.

“The latest political developments in Europe put diversification of the continent’s energy inflows high on [the American] agenda again. President Trump criticized Germany for its willingness to import more natural gas from Russia and called for diversification,” Zulfugarov said, referring to Trump’s public rebuke of Germany for its dealings with Russia at a NATO summit held in July.

“Litzenberger has rich experience in the field of security, and from this point of view his appointment would be essential in addressing the political support of the U.S. to secure the realization of the energy projects such as Southern Gas Corridor,” Zulfugarov told Caspian News.

Trump slammed Germany at the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11, for its plans to increase natural gas purchases from Russia via the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

“Germany is a captive of Russia because it is getting so much of its energy from Russia,” Trump said at the summit. He called the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which could pump 55 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Russia to Europe, as a “horrific” pipeline that would only help Moscow strengthen its grip over Europe’s energy security.

“Gas supplies to Europe through the Southern Gas Corridor cannot obviously compete for the gas imports from Russia due to the volume difference. However, the project may be useful in keeping other largest projects under control. If you have two or three various sources, of course, you’ll feel free in certain issues, including a price deal.”

The Southern Gas Corridor is set to go fully online by 2020 and will pump 10 billion cubic meters of gas annually from Azerbaijan to Europe. The corridor already delivers another six billion to Turkey. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline would add 55 billion cubic meters of gas to Russian supplies sent to Europe each year.

Eleven American ambassadors have so far served in Azerbaijan. Robert Finn was the first in 1992, while Robert Cekuta was the most recent. Ambassador Cekuta departed post in April of this year.