THE SOUTH CAUCASUS/IS KAZAKHSTAN LETTING MOSCOW OFF THE HOOK IN ARMS CONTRABAND AFFAIR?

Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 59

Kazakhstan yesterday took responsibility for the Russian-owned transport plane, its contraband cargo of six MIG-21 fighter aircraft, and the approximately thirty accompanying Russian military personnel, currently immobilized in Baku. The Azerbaijani authorities impounded the transport and fighter planes and detained the accompanying personnel on March 19, when the giant AN-124 made a refueling stop at Baku’s Bina airport arriving from Taldy-Kurgan, Kazakhstan. It was not until March 23 that Azerbaijan made this affair public (see the Monitor, March 24).

On March 24, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokaev and the ministry itself issued parallel statements, claiming Kazakhstani ownership of the MiGs and other military equipment aboard the Russian-owned transport. The statements from Astana described the MiGs as having “outlived their service life” and as being sold by Kazakhstan to an authorized arms dealer, the Agroplast company in the city of Liberec, the Czech Republic, under a contract signed last October. Seeking to dispel Azerbaijan’s suspicions that the MiGs were intended for Serbia–as well as the detained crew’s alibi that they were bound for North Korea–the Kazakh statements insisted that those destinations “were not stipulated in any of the contract’s points.” Such a disclaimer dispels nothing, though it may officially exonerate Kazakhstan’s government of direct responsibility in the affair. The statements expressed regret for what they described as the “inconvenience” to Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan’s National Security Ministry and the State Customs Committee issued a joint statement citing the contradictory assertions from the Russian plane’s customs documents and from the crew. They alternately gave their destination as North Korea and Slovakia, though Azerbaijan is obviously not situated on either route. The passenger manifesto listed eighteen military escort personnel, but an additional fourteen unlisted individuals were on board, all Russians from Kazakhstan. An Agroplast representative accompanied them and was detained as well.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Leonid Drachevsky, on a prescheduled visit to Baku, delivered a protest note, which accused Azerbaijan of violating international law and demanded the release of the crew and plane. The note followed on the heels of official protests from Russia’s Foreign Ministry, showing the Russian side’s cavalier attitude to international law (AP, Reuters, Turan, Itar-Tass, March 24). One specialized Western publication suggested yesterday one possible explanation for the Russian plane’s stopover in Azerbaijan: The MiGs may perhaps have been destined for Iraq or Iran (Global Intelligence Update, March 24). Azerbaijan is continuing the investigation.

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