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Azerbaijan Tiptoes Towards NATO

Baku’s cautious policy seemingly designed to avoid spoiling relations with Iran and Russia.
By Jasur Mamedov
Although Azerbaijan is moving closer towards NATO, it remains shy of talking about full membership of the alliance, apparently out of concern about the geopolitical implications of such a commitment.



On November 8, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliev visited NATO headquarters in Brussels before flying to Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin. The two stops on his trip illustrated the delicate foreign policy Baku is pursuing with both NATO and Russia.



“Today probably marks the start of a new stage in this relationship," said Aliev in Brussels. "We think it's very important for our country, which is young but already has growing potential, to be a true and reliable partner for NATO."



Azerbaijan’s chief foreign ministry spokesman Tahir Tagizade told IWPR that his government believed in gradual cooperation, “We don’t claim that we’ll become a NATO member-state tomorrow, or in a year. But we believe that the current framework of our partnership gives enough scope for us to make moves in this direction. Azerbaijan is now well aware that integration with Europe and Euro-Atlantic structures will bring stability to the region.”



Some analysts see Azerbaijan’s deliberately cautious policy as designed to avoid spoiling relations with its big neighbours Iran and Russia.



“Over the last 10 to 15 years, integration with the West has been a strategic priority for Azerbaijan,” said political analyst Leila Alieva. “But the authorities are now saying that good relationships should be built with Russia and Iran in order for the country to have a normal existence.



“There’s a contradiction here: Azerbaijan can move closer to the West only through democracy, through political and economic reforms. But what draws us closer to Russia and Iran is being an authoritarian regime.”



Another analyst, Elkhan Mehtiev, said Azerbaijan wanted to escape the kind of Russian hostility Georgia has evinced by making its NATO ambitions so plain.



“It’s no secret that all Georgia’s troubles started after it announced its intention to join NATO and took radical steps in that direction,” said Mehtiev. “No one wants to have a conflict with Russia over this. Azerbaijan’s leaders understand that if they act like Georgia, the troubles that await them will be even worse. NATO places a high value on cooperation with Azerbaijan, but it isn’t going to be a question of full membership.”



Some opposition figures argue that Azerbaijan is being too cautious and should instead move full-speed towards NATO membership.



Sulhaddin Akber, president of the Azerbaijani-Atlantic Cooperation Association and a leading member of the opposition Musavat party, said, “It’s true that there are some internal and external problems hampering Azerbaijani integration with NATO. But if Azerbaijan acted in concert with Georgia, Tbilisi would not be left to cope with the pressure from Moscow alone.”



Azerbaijan joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme in 1994 and is now implementing an Individual Partnership Action Plan, IPAP, with the alliance.



Baku has been reforming its armed forces since 1997 to bring them into line with NATO requirements. The country’s military education system has undergone the most noticeable changes: with Turkish military assistance, young officers are now being trained in accordance with NATO standards.



Under its IPAP, Azerbaijan has been putting up new radar stations with United States assistance in the southern region of Astara and the coastal region of Khyzy.



“The primary aim of this is to allow Azerbaijan to control and guard its borders,” said Jonathan Henick, public affairs officer of the US embassy in Baku. “We believe that there is a threat from the trafficking of weapons, drugs and people via the Caspian Sea. We think that it’s in the interests of both the USA and Azerbaijan to have these negative phenomena under control.”



Some Azerbaijani experts say the radar stations are primarily intended to watch out for illegal traffic between Russia and Iran, but Henick denied this, saying, “It’s not the USA’s aim to keep an especially close watch on some particular route. Its aim is to develop Azerbaijan’s controlling capacities.”



Despite the partnership plan, a number of experts say they see little evidence that the Azerbaijani military is willing to undergo reform.



Alekber Mamedov, director of the Centre for Civil Control over Armed Forces, said that the only areas where Azerbaijan was able to cooperate with NATO effectively involved protecting the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and counter-terrorism activities.



“I would like NATO to put pressure on the Baku authorities to undertake military reforms in Azerbaijan. If it does not do so, any cooperation with such corrupt officials will harm the reputation of a world-class organisation like NATO,” he said.



Yildirim Mamedov, formerly a brigade commander and now a colonel in the reserve, said that military reform in Azerbaijan was a mirage.



“Currently we can see no changes either in the minds of our military leaders or in the technical and physical condition of the army,” he said. “It’s pure pretence.”



Mamedov said there were big obstacles standing in the way of Azerbaijan meeting NATO standards, but the alliance had at least helped the army conduct professional exercises.



Uzeir Jafarov, a lieutenant-colonel in the reserve, said, “Over the next five to 10 years, Azerbaijan won’t be able to fulfill its commitments to NATO. Personally I don’t believe that under the command of the corrupt generals in the defence ministry, any effort will be made to aspire to NATO standards.”



Unlike in Georgia, NATO is not a subject of passionate debate in Azerbaijan.



Taxi driver Ehtiram Tagiev, 40, only remembers that NATO once confronted the Soviet Union. “I can’t say whether NATO membership will be beneficial for Azerbaijan or not, since the organisations Azerbaijan has joined up till now have done nothing good for our country and haven’t brought a resolution to the Karabakh conflict any closer,” he said.



Schoolteacher Azad Orujev, 30, said cooperation with NATO could only benefit the country. He said soldiers should have higher wages and their conditions of service should improve.



“But politically, membership in NATO cannot change anything in Azerbaijan,” he said. “As long as we have oil, democracy will be something we can only dream about.”



Jasur Mamedov is a journalist with Zerkalo newspaper in Baku.

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