Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal to jointly use the Gabala radar station with the United States caused debates and split opinions in Azerbaijan. Putin made the offer on the sidelines of the June 6-8 G-8 summit in Germany. The Gabala station is the only Russian military installation in Azerbaijan, and Moscow has leased it until 2012.
Putin’s announcement came as a surprise. Many observers in Azerbaijan learned about Putin’s proposal from TV channels and newspapers. Yet, a closer examination would have revealed that the topic had been on the agenda for almost a month, although not many people had paid attention.
On May 15 Russian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Vasiliy Istratov told journalists in Baku that Russia was open to discussions about joint use of the Gabala station with the United States (Trend.az, May 15).
On May 21, two weeks prior to Putin’s announcement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov paid an official visit to Azerbaijan, where he met with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, Prime Minister Artur Rasizade, and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov.
The parties discussed the radar station during these meetings, as well as several other topics. After the meeting with Lavrov, Mammadyarov stated that Baku did not receive any offers either from Moscow or Washington on joint use of the station. He added, “The [Gabala] Station is located in Azerbaijan, and if there will be any discussions regarding its joint use, Baku must be informed” (1news.az, May 21).
Moreover, “If such proposal was to come,” continued Mammadyarov, “we would first carefully review all of its aspects, and then we would make our position known” (1news.az, May 21).
Azerbaijan’s official position was already known by the time President Putin and President Aliyev discussed the issue over the phone, one day before Putin’s G-8 speech. President Aliyev apparently gave a green light to the idea during this conversation (Itar-Tass, June 10).
Following the announcement, President Aliyev said that joint use of the station would raise the country’s importance on the international stage. At the same time, he made clear his opposition to the installation of any new military bases in Azerbaijan (Day.az, June 15).
On June 8 Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov reminded that the Gabala station is leased by Russia, but it is the property of Azerbaijan. “The Azerbaijani side is ready to hold bilateral or trilateral discussions with the United States and Russia regarding [its joint use]” said Azimov (iTV.az, June 8).
But local experts and analysts were skeptical about the prospects of the proposal and predicted that Putin’s “smart move” would not deter Washington from its initial plan to place missile-defense system components in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Local analyst Rasim Musabekov noted, “The U.S.-Russia cooperation is a positive development for Azerbaijan, [and] Baku has nothing to lose from this cooperation.” But he questioned whether Washington and Moscow would agree on the proposal (Echo-Az, June 9). Musabekov believes that Putin’s proposal is of an “investigative” nature, testing the waters to determine whether the U.S. missile-defense systems in Europe are intended against Russia or not (Zerkalo, June 9).
Vafa Guluzada, a political scientist, former diplomat, and expert on the Middle East, stated that Putin’s proposal would fail due to two main reasons. First, “The anti-missile shield in Europe is aimed at controlling Russia, which plans to increase its military power. Hence, in this specific case, Washington is not particularly interested in Iran or North Korea.” Second, “by agreeing to cooperate and jointly use the Gabala radar station, Americans would indirectly place themselves under the control of Russia’s Ministry of Defense, which the U.S. would never agree to” (Zerkalo, June 9).
Another local military expert, Vladimir Timoshenko, noted, “Currently, there is an information channel between the Gabala radar station and a command control center in Moscow. Information received from the station is sent to Moscow. Therefore, the only effective way that Washington and Moscow could possibly cooperate is if the information received from the station is sent by Russia to Brussels or Washington” (Echo-Az, June 9).
In addition to these, there were also concerns about the potential reaction of Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, Iran. But Tehran was cautious in its initial response.
Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini said, “Iran will study the proposal in the framework of bilateral talks between Moscow and Tehran” (Day.az, June 10). The Iranian parliament, however, called on the Iranian government to react “harshly” to Putin’s proposal and urged Baku to oppose it.
Finally, some opposition parties have objections regarding the plan and demand the closure of the station. “The best response for Azerbaijan regarding Putin’s proposal on joint use of the station would be to close it altogether,” suggested Mehman Javadoglu, the deputy head of Musavat party (Day.az, June 13).