Azerbaijan: NATO Relations Under Strain

Heightening of anti-Armenian sentiments appears to have put paid to partnership for peace operation.

Azerbaijan: NATO Relations Under Strain

Heightening of anti-Armenian sentiments appears to have put paid to partnership for peace operation.

Wednesday, 15 September, 2004

Relations between NATO and Baku may have been damaged after the alliance was this week forced to cancel a military exercise in Azerbaijan this week, commentators here warn.


The alliance called off Cooperative Best Effort 2004 following Azerbaijan’s change of mind about the scheduled involvement of three Armenian officers in the partnership for peace operation.


The authorities’ move seems to have been a response to a heightening of public hostility towards Yerevan in the wake of the unexpectedly harsh jail sentences handed down to a group of Azerbaijani veterans who protested against a recent visit by Armenians to a NATO conference in Baku.


Visiting the town of Barda on September 11, President Ilham Aliev spoke out against the Armenian officers coming to Baku. On the previous day, the Azerbaijani parliament passed a resolution appealing to the NATO Secretary General to stop the visit.


On September 13, the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia were invited to NATO headquarters in Brussels to discuss the issue. Following the meeting, the alliance issued a press release saying, “We regret that the principle of inclusiveness could not be upheld in this case, leading to the cancellation of the exercise.”


NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer expressed similar sentiments in comments to Armenian foreign minister Vardan Oskanian.


Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are members of NATO’s partnership for peace programme, which works on the principle that all parties who wish to take part in an exercise must be allowed to do so. So the Baku authorities knew that by refusing to receive the Armenian delegation under pressure from the public, they were running into direct conflict with the alliance.


A group of parliamentary deputies have said the cancellation of the exercises is a “victory for the Azerbaijani people”, while other commentators have warned it has badly damaged the country’s relationship with NATO.


Anti-Armenian propaganda in Azerbaijan has reached unprecedented levels recently and was strengthened by the jail sentences given to the leaders of the Karabakh Liberation Organisation.


Six members of the KLO, including its chairman Akif Nagi, were sentenced on August 30 after they had protested the participation of two Armenian officers in a NATO preparatory conference in the Evropa Hotel in Baku on June 21. The activists attempted to disrupt the meeting, with security staff apprehending them only at the last moment after they had broken glass panes in the doors of the conference room. No one was hurt in the attack.


Nagi and his organisation are well known for their extremely negative stance on any contacts with Armenians, while the Nagorny Karabakh problem remains unresolved. Since it was created in 2000, the KLO has called for a military solution to the Karabakh issue and condemned the peace talks sponsored by the international Minsk Group.


Last year, KLO members organised violent protests in front of the offices of two human rights organisations – the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan (headed by Eldar Zeinalov) and Institute for Peace and Democracy (headed by Leila Yunus), whom they accused of maintaining close ties with Armenian colleagues.


After it was announced that Armenian officers were to come to Baku, Nagi told IWPR in an interview on December 19, 2003, that his organisation would do everything in its power to foil the visit. “This visit will turn out to be a tragedy and blood for them,” he said.


Many thought that the trial of the activists would be a formality and the defendants would walk free from the courtroom with suspended sentences. Nagi was jailed for five years - his colleagues were handed slightly shorter terms.


On September 2, the president criticised the court’s decision - unprecedented in the history of independent Azerbaijan - saying it was “too severe a punishment”.


“As president I cannot and do not wish to interfere with the decision of the court,” he said. “But as a citizen I believe that the punishment passed by the court is disproportionate to the defendants’ actions. As a citizen I cannot support this decision.” The president advised the offenders to apply to the court of appeal.


In Armenia the sentencing of the KLO activists received mixed reviews. The head of the Democratic Party of Armenia, Aram Sarkisian, said, “I am convinced that the KLO protest was a result of the anti-Armenian hysteria launched by the authorities in Azerbaijan. And this court sentence is a result of their domestic policy and propaganda.”


David Shakhnazarian, a former government member who advocates closer contacts with Azerbaijan, welcomed the sentences. He told IWPR, “I hope that this helps lead to a decline in anti-Armenian propaganda in Azerbaijan. Knowing well that in Azerbaijan, just as in Armenia, the courts are not independent, I see it as an impulse coming from the current authorities of Azerbaijan. I hope that this will not just be a one-off case.”


In Baku, Eldar Zeynalov, director of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, called the court verdict an example of double standards. “After the same people had trashed our office last May the case against them was closed shortly afterwards,” he said. “So the government actively encourages pogroms against human rights defenders. And now they turned this trial into a political show. I am sure that very soon the appeal court will reduce the punishment for the KLO activists and free them all. The authorities will find more use for these lads…”


The events of recent weeks have succeeded in uniting both government and opposition in a rare show of unanimity. Rasim Musabekov, an executive committee member of opposition party Musavat, told IWPR, “Of course, the image of our country was damaged by our failure to observe our NATO commitments. However, we demonstrated that Azerbaijan is capable of standing its ground on national questions, refusing to compromise. And that is more important.”


Mamed Suleimanov is a correspondent for the Regnum news agency in Azerbaijan. Shahin Rzayev is IWPR’s Azerbaijan coordinator. Regnum correspondent Vigen Hakobian in Yerevan contributed to this report.


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