Azerbaijani allegations about the reported transfer of a multi-million-dollar stash of Russian weapons to Armenia should prompt Baku to rethink its relationship with Moscow both in terms of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and energy policy, local analysts say.
On January 8, the independent http://www.mediaforum.az/ ">"Mediaforum.az" portal first published the copy of a document allegedly signed by Lieutenant General Vyacheslav Golovchenko, deputy commander of armaments for Russia's North Caucasus military district, that listed weapons and army vehicles transferred in 2008 to Armenia's defense ministry from Russia's military base in the northern Armenian town of Gyumri.
The 69-item list included 27 T-72 tanks, several armored personnel carriers, various types of missiles and guns, grenade launchers, machineguns, submachine guns, mines, and shells. Anonymous experts cited by Mediaforum.az put the approximate value of the transfer at roughly $800 million.
The document's source was not indicated.
While both Moscow and Yerevan have denied the transfer, Azerbaijani officials tell EurasiaNet that they have no doubts that the handover took place.
One Azerbaijani government source, who asked not to be named, told EurasiaNet that the signed document was "first . . .obtained by the Azerbaijani security services via their channels in Moscow, and then leaked to Mediaforum.az."
"We have enough information on the issue," the source said. He did not, however, specify what further steps Baku plans to take.
In a January 15 statement, Azerbaijan's foreign ministry noted that the "Russian actions cause special concern . . . in the context of strategic partnership relations between Baku and Moscow and Russia's mediating role in the Karabakh conflict's resolution."
Parliamentarians have taken up the cry. Aydin Mirzazade, deputy chairman of the parliamentary commission on defense and security, argues that Azerbaijan should demand that Armenia return the weapons and vehicles to Moscow - or that Moscow withdraw from a role in the negotiations over Nagorno Karabakh, APA news agency reported.
Whether or not the transfer actually took place is not a subject for public debate. The story has reawakened memories of the late Russian Lieutenant General Lev Rokhlin's 1997 accusation that the Russian defense ministry was transferring weapons to Armenia without the Kremlin's assent.
Instead, analysts and parliamentarians alike are focusing on how Baku should respond, and reasons for the alleged transfer.
Analyst Ilham Ismayil believes that Azerbaijan should now express clear support for the Nabucco gas pipeline - a project designed to offer an alternative to Russian supply routes to Europe - during the January 26-27 Nabucco summit in Budapest.
"It is abnormal when a country [Russia] which you call a strategic partner transfers arms to your enemy," Ismayil commented. Azerbaijani observers had earlier expressed concerns that arms withdrawn from Russia's former bases in Georgia would end up in Armenia - the current scandal is cited as justification for those fears.
Rauf Mirkadirov, political columnist for the Baku-based Zerkalo (Mirror) daily, goes still further. The Kremlin, he believes, hoped to use the arms transfer to trigger a fresh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh in 2009, and thereby block the Nabucco project. The transfer acted as a de facto response to Azerbaijan's own military buildup, he said; Azerbaijani military spending now stands at well over $2 billion per year.
"[T]aking into account all of Russia's recent actions, the possibility of the conflict resuming soon is unfortunately increasing again," Mirkadirov said.
The South Caucasus' territorial conflicts are the only lever left for Russia to keep its influence in the region, to oppose Georgia and Azerbaijan's integration with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and to block energy projects like Nabucco, Mirkadirov added
But while Azerbaijani tempers simmer, Moscow shows little sign of changing its story.
On January 21, the Russian foreign ministry gave the Azerbaijani embassy in Moscow an official note that affirms that the Russian defense ministry did not transfer or sell to Armenia any of the arms described in the Mediaforum.az report. The note described the report as "disinformation, which has a clearly anti-Russian character," news agencies reported.
In a January 16 statement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that a joint investigation with the Russian General Staff had shown that " [t]he person whose name is mentioned in the Azerbaijani media did not sign any documents and Russia did not supply arms to Armenia last year. We came to the conclusion that this document is false."
Lavrov emphasized that, as co-members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia has programs of "military-technical cooperation" with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. "Our Azerbaijani friends know it and there were no concerns in the past," he said.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.