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NATO Refuses to Take Sides
Lord George Robertson's visit to Armenia and Azerbaijan this month sent a clear message to both governments that NATO has no intention of locking horns with Russia in the South Caucasus region.
Although the NATO secretary general had stressed that his visit was part of a broader Partnership for Peace programme, both Baku and Yerevan entertained hopes that NATO would agree to take an active role in settling regional disputes. But, to their lasting disappointment, Lord Robertson remained firmly on the fence.
The NATO delegation was scheduled to visit Armenia and Azerbaijan in September 1999 following talks with the Georgian government in Tbilisi. However, the trip was cut short by the Balkan crisis and postponed for more than a year.
Naturally enough, the governments in Yerevan and Baku had very different expectations from the NATO visit.
For both countries, the Armenian enclave of Nagorny Karabakh was top of the agenda. The six-year conflict was suspended after an uneasy ceasefire in 1994 but subsequent peace talks have ended in deadlock.
Azerbaijan, which lost 20 per cent of its territory during the conflict, is eager for outside support. Earlier this year, President Heidar Aliev commented, "Independent organisations including NATO have yet to recognise Armenia as the aggressor and have taken no concrete steps to ensure that justice prevails, as they did in Kosovo."
However, in a meeting with Aliev, Lord Robertson stated categorically, "It is not part of NATO's remit to apportion blame." And he went on to say that NATO had no intention of interceding or duplicating the work of the OSCE's Minsk Group.
The secretary general also welcomed a recent offer by President Vladimir Putin to play a more active role in settling the dispute. "Traditionally, of course Russia has sided with Armenia but, since President Putin visited Baku [earlier this year] and held a very productive dialogue with President Aliev, there are signs that he is eager to find a real solution to the Nagorny Karabakh problem," said Lord Robertson.
Baku made no attempt to conceal its disappointment. The leading opposition newspaper, Azadlyg, commented, "Some [politicians] were displeased by signs that the head of NATO was kow-towing to the Russians whilst others were appalled by his categorical refusal to take part in the resolution of the Karabakh conflict."
Armenian political circles, however, welcomed Lord Robertson's stance. A source in the foreign ministry commented that the situation would give Armenia plenty of room for manoeuvre - especially against the backdrop of Putin's visit to Baku which had severely bruised feelings in Armenia.
Also high on the agenda was the subject of NATO membership. Azerbaijan has long been eager to strengthen ties with the alliance while Armenia has traditionally relied on military support from Russia.
Lord Robertson, however, told both sides that NATO expansion into the South Caucasus was unrealistic "in the foreseeable future". He said that, while any country can apply for NATO membership, applications from the South Caucasian states had a largely "theoretical character".
The Azerbaijani press drew particular attention to the fact that Lord Robertson refused an invitation to visit a military training complex in Baku. According to the Azadlyg newspaper, the NATO secretary general turned down the offer because "he could see that Azerbaijan's interest in strengthening ties with NATO was only skin-deep. He was also avoiding any steps which might have upset Russia."
Certainly, the delegation made it clear that NATO has no intention of ruffling Russian feathers in the South Caucasus. The alliance is determined to develop the thaw in NATO-Russian relations which came in the wake of the Kosovo campaign.
Mubariz Akhmedoglu, head of the Azeri Centre for Political Innovations, says, "Robertson's comments with regard to Russian politics in the Caucasus as well as relations between Russia and the USA are very much in line with today's realities."
He said NATO did not consider the events unfolding in the South Caucasus to be "of high, or even secondary, priority". In the modern world, concludes Akhmedoglu, the struggle for spheres of influence focuses on Europe, the Near East and the post-Soviet republics. "From this point of view, the strategists in America and NATO believe that, if they are to score a serious victory, then Russia should be awarded a consolation prize."
For Armenia, however, the NATO agenda featured one further item of importance - the question of Armenian-Turkish relations. Yerevan and Ankara are still at loggerheads over the 1915 genocide of 1.5 million Armenians, allegedly by Ottoman troops. Several European states have now officially recognised the genocide, which the Turkish government continues to deny.
However, it was Armenia's turn to be disappointed. Lord Robertson said that NATO could not take on the role of an arbiter between Yerevan and Ankara, nor could it influence the foreign policies of its member states. "Turkey is one of the 19 sovereign and democratic members of NATO," he explained.
The NATO secretary general went on to say that both countries were members of the NATO Partnership for Peace programme which, he believed, was the correct forum for regional problems.
In response to claims that Turkey has adopted an aggressive foreign policy towards Armenia which is hardly consistent with NATO membership, Lord Robertson replied, "I cannot agree with such a criticism against Turkey. I am acquainted with the leadership and the people of this country and I do not think that they are interested in sparking off any conflicts in the region."
Ara Tadevosian is director of Mediamax, an independent news agency based in Yerevan
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