Following a visit to NATO headquarters, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayet Guliev announced on December 20 in Baku that the country intends to apply for the status of “aspirant to membership” in the alliance. The Azerbaijani delegation discussed the matter with key Western counterparts during the meetings of foreign ministers of NATO and partner countries held on December 15-16 in Brussels. Conferral of aspirant status would entail a NATO-assisted national program to raise Azerbaijan’s ability to cooperate with the alliance and ultimately to qualify for membership. According to Guliev, Baku regards the aspirant’s status as a transitional, time-limited stage toward joining the alliance as a full member.
In an accompanying measure, President Haidar Aliev empowered a special Commission on Azerbaijan-NATO Cooperation to plan and implement military-political cooperation with the alliance in the framework of the Partnership for Peace program and of the Euroatlantic Partnership Council. The commission will periodically report directly to the president. Initial building blocks for such cooperation include the status-of-forces agreement, recently ratified by Azerbaijan’s Milli Majlis, and the participation of Azerbaijan’s first peacekeeping platoon in the operation in Kosovo under NATO command, as part of the Turkish battalion in the German military sector.
The Brussels meeting took note of that progress and also approved plans to set up a NATO Information Center in Baku. The planned center is described as a regional one, whose activities would encompass the three South Caucasus countries. NATO Secretary-General George Robertson plans to inaugurate the Center during a visit to Baku this year. Azerbaijan would thereby become the second newly independent post-Soviet country, after Ukraine, to host a NATO Information Center. While the Kyiv center–and the Ukrainian government–must contend with the anti-NATO sentiment of Ukraine’s leftist parties, that problem has not arisen in Azerbaijan, where the leftist opposition is marginal and the nationalist opposition by and large favors close relations with NATO. Azerbaijan is indeed one of the very few post-Soviet countries in which pro-Russian groups are too weak to interfere with the national pro-NATO consensus. The alliance’s regional information center faces, by contrast, an uphill effort in Armenia, where dependence on Russia has historic and psychological roots.