Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Aliev and Putin: New Best Friends

With Heidar Aliev's visit to Moscow, Azerbaijan and Russia have buried more of their differences.
By Nair Aliev

An agreement between Russia and Azerbaijan on military cooperation last week has helped to quicken the thaw in one of the former Soviet Union's chilliest relationships.


The deal, struck by Presidents Heidar Aliev and Vladimir Putin on January 25 during the former's state visit to Moscow, will help to resolve the main bilateral issue dividing the two states - the status of the last Russian military installation in Azerbaijan, the Gabala radar station.


In a move that would have seemed incredible a few years ago, they also agreed that Russia would help modernise Azerbaijan's air defence systems in order to help protect the station.


Aliev's trip to Moscow from January 24-26 follows Putin's official visit to Baku a year ago. Journalists said that the rapport between the two, both former KGB officers, was good. "I had counted only on having a 30-minute meeting with Vladimir Putin, but we talked for almost four hours," said Aliev, according to the Russian news website, Izvestia.ru.


In a round of official receptions, Aliev was also received by Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, Minister of Foreign Affairs Igor Ivanov, the mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, and was given an honorary doctorate by Moscow State University.


The official show of warmth towards Aliev was a big shift away from the frosty relations Azerbaijan had with Russia under Boris Yeltsin. At that time, the Azerbaijanis accused Moscow of supporting Armenia in the war over Nagorny Karabakh and backing military coup attempts. Aliev and Yeltsin reportedly distrusted each other ever since they were in opposite camps in Mikhail Gorbachev's Politburo.


The Gabala radar station in northern Azerbaijan was the main bone of contention between the two countries. It became Moscow's last military foothold in the republic after Russia closed its bases in Azerbaijan in 1992-3. Russia uses it to track ballistic missiles in the Persian Gulf and Middle East area.


Baku had wanted to extend the lease of Gabala for only three to five years, while Russia wanted to hold on to it until 2020.


In Moscow, Aliev and Putin agreed that the station was officially the property of Azerbaijan, but the Russians would rent it for another ten years at a cost of seven million US dollars a year. Moscow will also begin to pay back the 31 million US dollars in overdue rent that it owes for the station.


From now on the station will be designated an "analytical information centre", whose data Russia has promised to share with Azerbaijan.


In the most radical move, Russia will undertake to upgrade Azerbaijan's air defence systems, which are the main guarantor of the station's security.


Currently, Gabala is guarded by one Azerbaijani air defence division and lightly armed Russian soldiers. However, military analysts say the best guarantee of its security is an overall improvement in the country's air defences.


While the Gabala deal is widely seen as a significant breakthrough, there have been some notes of caution. The Azerbaijani political scientist Rasim Musabekov warned that the station remained a danger for Azerbaijan. He referred to reports that radiation is causing health problems amongst the local population and suggested that enemies of Russia might target the station putting local people at risk.


Several bilateral problems remain between Moscow and Baku. Aliev and Putin failed to sign another hoped-for document, an agreement on the status of Azerbaijan's large diaspora community in Russia. And the two states have not yet agreed on the contentious issue of demarcating the Caspian Sea.


However, Aliev told a press conference they he and Putin had agreed to begin work on drawing a median line between the Russian and Azerbaijani sectors of the Caspian. A conference - already twice-postponed - is due to take place later this year in which all five countries bordering the sea will try to negotiate an overall deal.


Azer Mursaliev, a commentator with the Kommersant newspaper in Moscow, said Azerbaijan now looked like a reliable strategic partner for Russia - in contrast to other former Soviet states, a presumed reference to the cooling of its relations with Georgia and Turkmenistan


Nair Aliev is a correspondent for Echo newspaper in Baku.