On November 3-5, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer visited, for the first time in this capacity, the three South Caucasus countries. He conferred with the head of state, the defense minister, military leadership, and other top officials in each of the three capitals. The visit’s goal was twofold: to signal that NATO’s Partnership program is rapidly moving its focus toward this region, as decided at the alliance’s summit in Istanbul in June; and to encourage the three countries to take advantage of Individual Partnership Plans (IPAPs). Ambassador Robert Simmons, newly appointed as the NATO Secretary-General’s Special Representative for the South Caucasus and Central Asia, accompanied de Hoop Scheffer on the visit (see EDM, October 25).
NATO views IPAPs as the instrument that allows willing partners to develop individualized relationships with NATO, focusing on military reform, establishment of effective state institutions, and certain basic democratization goals. IPAPs are two-year programs, with their implementation assessed at periodic review conferences. IPAP can potentially serve as an avenue toward membership for countries that aspire to that status; the alliance’s motto in this regard being that it would go as far as the country chooses to go, subject to IPAP performance.
Georgia became the first South Caucasus country to have its IPAP approved by NATO. Originally submitted ahead of the Istanbul summit for promulgation there, the document was ultimately accepted by the North Atlantic Council in Brussels on October 29. In the joint news conference with de Hoop Scheffer in Tbilisi, President Mikheil Saakashvili reaffirmed Georgia’s goal to join NATO as a full member before the end of Saakashvili second and final presidential term — a goal he had first announced during his recent visit to the Baltic states (see EDM, October 21). Without dampening Saakashvili’s optimism, de Hoop Scheffer tempered it with realism by remarking that a long winding road leads toward full membership. He stated openly for the first time that Georgian membership was possible, and noted “an enormous drive on the part of the Georgian government and people to fulfill that ambition.”
Remarks by both sides during the visit indicated that NATO’s liaison officer for the South Caucasus would be stationed at the Defense Ministry in Tbilisi. The NATO leader chose a cautious, non-specific wording to remind Russia of its obligations to fulfill the 1999 Istanbul Commitments regarding Georgia. He expressed his “hope” in a bilateral Russian-Georgian “solution” to the problem of Russian troops and bases, rather than calling for an internationally-assisted withdrawal of those forces from Georgia (Prime-News, Imedi and Rustavi-2 televisions, Civil Georgia, November 4, 5).
Georgia is already behaving as a de facto ally, with platoon-size units serving under NATO command in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and company-size units with the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, where Georgia is now augmenting its contingent to 300 troops and has offered to increase it further to 850. Georgia is balancing its security consumer’s role with that of a security provider in both the NATO and the ad hoc coalition context.
In Azerbaijan, final preparations for NATO approval of that country’s IPAP topped the agenda of de Hoop Scheffer’s visit. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Araz Azimov, who handles Azerbaijan-NATO relations, noted that procedural issues had held up IPAP’s promulgation since the Istanbul summit. The document also includes a concept for developing Azerbaijani rapid-deployment units for service with NATO’s Response Force.
As could be expected, de Hoop Scheffer faced persistent public questioning in Baku about NATO’s position on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and a possible NATO role in conflict-settlement. His answers indirectly confirmed NATO’s reluctance to take a position or play a role. He advised Azerbaijan that it was perhaps time to “turn a page” in its approach to Karabakh conflict-settlement. For his part, Azimov held out the possibility of NATO contributing peacekeeping troops to an international contingent, if one were deployed in the conflict zone under an international organization’s mandate (Turan, Lider TV, November 5; Zerkalo, November 6; ANS TV, November 4-7).
The familiar small group of Karabakh Liberation Organization militants staged a vociferous picket during de Hoop Scheffer’s visit, protesting preventively against Armenian participation in an upcoming NATO Parliamentary Assembly seminar in Baku. The police rounded up a few of the protestors only after they had finished their demonstration. Milli Majlis Chairman Murtuz Aleskerov declared that Armenians could be allowed to participate in this seminar because they are civilian, rather than military. In September, Azerbaijan’s leaders, including Aleskerov, had ruled out the participation of a few Armenian military officers in NATO’s Cooperative Best Effort 2004 large-scale staff exercise in Baku, thereby leaving NATO no choice but to cancel this annual event. Azerbaijan’s NATO aspirations suffered an unnecessary setback as a result of political advisers overruling the foreign policy professionals on this matter and giving in to a handful of militants (see EDM, September 15). Inclusiveness is a bedrock principle of NATO’s Partnership programs. Further setbacks may ensue if political advisers insist that Azerbaijan, rather than NATO, should determine what kind of personnel may or may not participate in NATO exercises in Azerbaijan.
In Armenia, de Hoop Scheffer underscored the significance of that country’s recent decision to draft an IPAP with NATO and to appoint an envoy to the alliance. Implicitly acknowledging the national tradition of close links with Russia, he noted in an address to Yerevan University faculty and students that Armenia may develop its NATO partnership without damaging its relations with Russia, and that any residual mistrust toward NATO was a Soviet propaganda legacy. Armenia can prove that a country can maintain close relations with Russia while becoming an active NATO Partner, he concluded. One pro-NATO politician, Hovhanes Hovhanissian of the Liberal Progressive Party, commented that good relations with Russia need not mean being “Russia’s vassal” (Mediamax, November 1, 5; Azg, Haikakan Zhamanak, November 5).
At every stop during the visit, de Hoop Scheffer made the point that NATO does not compete with any country or organization (that is, Russia and the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization, of which Armenia is a member) in the region. He underscored that NATO has no intentions, plans, or interest in establishing military bases in the South Caucasus, nor would this meet the interests of the region’s countries.