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

Azeris Angry at Putin Radar Offer

Many say Putin has no right to allow Washington to use the Galaba station.
By Jasur Mamedov
Russia’s unexpected offer to let the United States share its radar station in Azerbaijan has left many here stunned and angry.



President Vladimir Putin stunned US counterpart George W. Bush with his offer, made at the G8 summit in Germany last week, which was intended to defuse a row over US plans to site missiles in Eastern Europe. But once the shock has died down, another row may start, since many Azeris instantly pointed out that Putin has no right to offer the use of someone else’s facilities.



Azeri president Ilham Aliyev was quite positive about the idea. “This is a new element in [Azerbaijan’s] strategic cooperation with the two countries,” he told Russian television.



But other officials were angry.



“If Russia intends to allow it to be used by a third country, it must discuss the issue with Azerbaijan,” said Ziyafat Askerov, vice-speaker of Azerbaijan’s parliament. Citing article 4 of the Gabala radar station lease agreement, he said the station cannot be handed over to a third party without Azerbaijan’s permission.



Azerbaijan’s former ambassador in Russia Khikmet Haji-zade, who is now a well-known political analyst, was also critical. “The Russian president’s statement is utter political tactlessness,” he said.



“The president of Russia has failed to take two factors into consideration. The first is that Azerbaijan already has a missile defence system. The second is that it is up to Azerbaijan to determine the fate of the Gabala radar station, not up to the country that has temporary lease of the facilities. That is why Azerbaijan’s response to Putin’s statement should be tough.”



The US intention to build missile defence systems in the Czech Republic and Poland have been at the heart of one of the bitterest arguments between Moscow and Washington since the end of the Cold War. Russia is unconvinced that the system is targeted only against Iran and has threatened to pull out of a series of bilateral arms treaties and increase its military presence in Europe.



Many agree that by offering to share operation of the radar station in Azerbaijan’s Gabala District, just 200 kilometres away from Iran’s borders, Russia has stripped the American administration of its main trump card and driven it into a tight corner.



The Gabala radar station monitors much of Asia, including Iran, as well as a large part of Africa and islands in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. It was built in 1987 and Russia continued to use it after the fall of the Soviet Union despite having no legal grounds for doing so. Russia and Azerbaijan finally agreed in 2002 that the station was Azeri property. Russia would pay 3 million US dollars a year to rent it on a ten-year lease.



Iran has been anxiously watching to see how the events will unfold. The Iranian embassy in Baku quoted the Iranian foreign ministry as saying, “Over the past days, there have been many conflicting statements about the joint Russia-USA use of the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan. We are checking them with a great attention and particular sensitivity.”



And Azeri experts warned that Azerbaijan could become a target for Iranian attack if US forces did arrive. They said Baku should demand security guarantees from both Russia and America before allowing the centre to be placed on its territory.



The public in Azerbaijan are also concerned about the ecological consequences of expanding the radar station, which is widely seen as the source of dangerous radiation.



“If the US is allowed to use the radar station, its capacities will be increased, which means the damage being done to the environment will grow too,” said independent military expert Azad Isazade. “The clouds reflect radar waves onto densely-populated areas of the country nearby. Officially, they say the station is harmless but independent medical studies suggest the contrary.”



“Before moving to increase the capacities of the Gabala radar station, it is necessary to assess its influence on the environment and populated areas,” agreed Adil Gadirov, director of the Institute for Radiation Problems. “Currently, we do not have the slightest idea of that. State commissions have been organised twice to study the issue, however no results have resulted.”



Political analyst Rasim Musabekov was the only one who spotted a silver lining in the offer. He said cooperation with America might bring the White House and the Kremlin to support Azerbaijan in its efforts to regain control of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh province, which is ruled by ethnic Armenians and outside central government control.



“The shared use of the Gabala radar station will lead Russia to change its stance on the Karabakh issue in Azerbaijan’s favour,” he said. “Making the right use of the factor of energy resources and their transit, growing profits and the strategic US-Russia partnership in the region, Azerbaijan will boost its chances of having the Karabakh problem solved in its favour.”



Jasur Mamedov is a military correspondent with the newspaper Zerkalo.

More IWPR's Global Voices