Azerbaijan’s Nato Aspirations Suffer A Self-inflicted Setback

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 85

On September 13 the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, U.S. General James Jones, canceled the Cooperative Best Effort-2004 exercise, which was scheduled to be held September 14-26 in Azerbaijan and involve almost 1,000 personnel from more than 20 NATO member and partner countries.

The exercise was designed to provide basic training for peace-support operations at the small unit level, and to enhance interoperability among NATO member and partner countries. A major component of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, Cooperative Best Effort exercises were held successfully in Georgia in 2002 and Armenia in 2003.

SACEUR took this decision after Azerbaijan rejected the scheduled participation of Armenian officers in the exercise. A statement by NATO’s Supreme Command noted that all Partnership for Peace exercises are agreed and conducted on the principle of inclusiveness for all allies and partners that wish to participate; NATO therefore expressed “regret that inclusiveness could not be upheld in this case.” Endorsing NATO’s decision, the U.S. State Department also “deeply regretted” Azerbaijan’s move as one “inconsistent with the country’s stated desire to work toward closer partnership with NATO.” It reminded Baku, “It is crucial that all PfP countries should be able to participate in the program” (NATO and State Department statements, September 13).

As recently as his September 9-10 visit to Baku, the deputy commander of the U.S. European Command, General Charles Wald, had expressed hope that the exercise would be held successfully and bring Azerbaijan closer to NATO (Azertag, September 9, 10). Turkey’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, Ahmet Unal Cevikoz, publicly advised Azerbaijan’s government to allow the Armenian officers’ participation. Citing Azerbaijan’s commitments within NATO’s PfP program in terms of hosting joint exercises and nondiscriminatory treatment of participants, Cevikoz cautioned Baku that failure to live up to such commitments would damage Azerbaijan’s cooperation with NATO (Azad Azerbaijan, September 9; Trend, September 10).

However, mounting public protests swayed the authorities into refusing entry to the Armenian participants. Initially confined to the radical opposition, the protests quickly spread to Baku’s mainstream media and political groups. Rather than attempting to work with public opinion to contain that dynamic, the authorities embraced the protesters’ line of reasoning. Their arguments held that officers from an aggressor country that seized Azerbaijani territory and evicted the local population could not be allowed to participate in an exercise on Azerbaijani soil. The radical Karabakh Liberation Organization (KLO), factions of the former Popular Front, and some opposition NGOs launched a picketing campaign outside governmental buildings and NATO countries’ embassies and announced plans to call mass protest demonstrations if the Armenian officers arrived.

At the forefront of this campaign, ANS Television added a somewhat more sophisticated set of anti-NATO arguments, such as: Azerbaijan has done more for NATO and the West generally than these have done for Azerbaijan; the country has become “NATO’s hostage”; Azerbaijan did not become independent of Moscow and the CIS only to become dependent on NATO; NATO condones Armenian aggression; and the authorities should “resist NATO’s pressure” (ANS TV, September 5, 10).

The political authorities appeared hesitant or intimidated. Foreign Affairs Minister Elmar Mammedyarov and his deputy, Araz Azimov, were among the few senior officials who attempted to rescue the exercise by explaining to the public that failure to host it as agreed would damage Azerbaijan’s cooperation with NATO (ANS TV, September 5; AzerNews, September 10).

During the second week of September, the authorities’ position crumbled. First, some small pro-government parties in parliament endorsed the protests. During a September 10 meeting with Russian Ambassador Nikolai Ryabov, Defense Minister Safar Abiev publicly protested — on behalf of the “Azeri people” as well as himself — against Armenian participation. Ryabov responded by urging closer Russia-Azerbaijan military cooperation (ANS TV, Azer Tag, September 10). That same day, Azerbaijan’s parliament adopted a statement to NATO’s Secretary-General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, in which it “resolutely protested against the participation of Armenian officers” in the exercise and warned that it “can damage cooperation between NATO and Azerbaijan” (Azer Tag, September 10). On September 11, President Ilham Aliev was quoted as declaring: “If we ask Azeris whether they want Armenians to arrive, they would say no. I do not want those Armenian military personnel to arrive either. Azerbaijan will take the necessary measures in this regard” (Turan, Itar-Tass, September 11).

Baku tried several compromise solutions, such as accepting only civilian Armenian personnel for the exercise or reducing the number of Armenians to three and their status to that of observers rather than participants. For its part, Yerevan sought participation by seven Armenian officers, as well as Azerbaijani guarantees for their safety. Ultimately, on September 13 in Brussels, a meeting between de Hoop Scheffer, Mammedyarov, and Armenia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vardan Oskanian failed to break the deadlock. NATO promptly canceled the exercise. De Hoop Scheffer assessed Azerbaijan’s position as “unacceptable from a PfP country” and a “breach of commitments.” Oskanian “welcomed NATO’s principled stance while regretting the missed opportunity for regional cooperation” (Mediamax, Armenpress, September 13).

Azerbaijan has recently allowed the Karabakh problem to undercut the country’s NATO aspirations and, potentially, its relations with Washington. In 2003, Azerbaijan refused to participate in the Cooperative Best Effort exercise that Armenia hosted successfully that year with full-fledged Turkish participation. In February 2004, an Azeri officer assassinated an Armenian fellow-officer during a NATO-sponsored seminar in Hungary. The crime did not meet with unequivocal condemnation in Azerbaijan. (By the same token it led to anti-Azeri stereotyping in most of Armenia’s media.) When two Armenian officers attended a June 2004 Cooperative Best Effort planning conference in Baku, KLO members broke into the conference hall, threatened the participants, and rioted in the city center. The police intervened late and ineffectively. Six KLO militants, including their leader, were then sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to five years. On September 9, President Aliev, speaking in his capacity as a citizen, described the sentence as excessive and proposed that the Court of Appeals amend it (AzerNews, September 9).

Political advisers did Aliev a disservice by recommending resistance to Armenian participation in Cooperative Effort-2004. First, those advisers failed to appreciate that NATO could not allow any PfP country to decide who may or may not participate in the alliance’s exercises. Second, by disrupting a NATO peacekeeping exercise, those advisers damaged Azerbaijan’s own efforts to promote the internationalization of conflict management efforts in the South Caucasus with full-fledged Western participation. Third, Baku unwittingly gave some ammunition to those in NATO who would further delay the approval of Azerbaijan’s Individual Partnership Action Plan. Fourth, Baku ended up looking unpredictable while Yerevan looked statesmanlike in this situation. Finally, as an overarching consideration for Azerbaijan to ponder, Armenia-NATO rapprochement could reduce Russia’s leverage on Armenia, correspondingly increasing Western opportunities to shape regional security arrangements and resolution of the Karabakh conflict.