A senior source within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's Joint Force Command has told EurasiaNet that Azerbaijan stands a better chance of gaining NATO membership in the near future than either Georgia or Ukraine.
"Earlier, the perception in both Brussels [North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] headquarters] and Baku was that Georgia should integrate into NATO first and Azerbaijan should follow," the source said. "However, the situation has changed and it might be that in the year to come Azerbaijan will become the frontrunner. Baku may enter NATO earlier than Ukraine and Georgia."
After Georgia's 2008 war with Russia, "[m]any NATO member-states believe that . . . it is simply impossible to provide membership to Georgia," the source continued.
Ukraine's domestic divisions over NATO and political turmoil have reduced its membership chances, he said. "It is unclear who will represent the Ukrainian government in six months or a year and what its position on NATO membership will be."
By comparison, Azerbaijan appears a bastion of stability. Among its other "strong advantages" are the country's "strong cultural links" with NATO member Turkey and its strategic importance for the planned Nabucco and TGI (Turkey-Greece-Italy) gas pipelines, projects which "will deepen Western support [for] Azerbaijan in the coming years," according to the source.
If Azerbaijan opted to petition for NATO accession, "no one could stop it," he continued. "And if NATO will decide to accept Azerbaijan, Russia would hardly be able to hold it back." The source did not state whether or not there are active consultations underway with Baku on membership.
A NATO diplomatic source, who did not want to be named, said some key officials at NATO headquarters in Brussels were pushing hard for engaging Azerbaijan on the membership question. "Turkey, Romania, Italy, Poland, [the] UK and [the] Baltic states," are among the member-states also backing a fast track for Azerbaijan's NATO membership, the diplomatic source said.
A senior source within the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry confirmed the information, but added that not everyone in Brussels is enthusiastic about the idea of Baku's membership in the alliance. "There are many opinions there," the Azerbaijani government source said, referring to opinion in Brussels.
One potential accession weak spot is democratization in Azerbaijan. Baku has faced mounting international criticism for the recent lifting of term limits on President Ilham Aliyev. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. According to the Joint Forces Command source, however, the country's political stability and strong government could make the accession process "smoother."
Unlike Georgia and Ukraine, Azerbaijan, long careful about balancing its ties with both the West and Russia, has never openly expressed an aspiration to join NATO. Baku's relations with the alliance are at the second stage of IPAP [Individual Partnership Action Plan], which supposes ongoing military and other reforms in compliance with NATO standards. By contrast, Georgia and Ukraine are at the "Intensified Dialogue" stage, ordinarily the last step before a Membership Action Plan and, eventually, a formal membership invitation. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A spokesperson for the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment about Azerbaijan's relations with NATO, referring a EurasiaNet correspondent instead to Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov's remarks on the topic last month.
At a May 5 NATO-Azerbaijan conference in Baku, Azimov stated that, although he did not rule out Azerbaijan's eventual accession to the alliance, "NATO membership is not a universal panacea. The example of Georgia showed that appropriate conditions must emerge for it."
"Appropriate conditions" could be interpreted as shorthand for Moscow's reaction. Amid recent talk of a potential breakthrough in its 21-year struggle with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan has worked dexterously to massage the Kremlin's ego -- particularly on security issues.
At a May 30 meeting of the Intergovernmental Commission on Azerbaijani-Russian Cooperation, Azerbaijani First Deputy Prime Minister Yagub Eyubov expressed interest in expanding the two countries' defense industry ties, the Turan news agency reported. In this game, energy also plays a role. Similar emphasis has been put on negotiations with Russian energy giant Gazprom about Azerbaijani gas sales, and on an agreement to increase gas deliveries to Russia by 80 percent in 2009. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
At the same time, Baku has made clear its interest in closer ties with NATO. In late May, the government officially approved the transit of non-military NATO cargo to Afghanistan, and the parliament voted in March to double the number of Azerbaijani peacekeepers serving in Afghanistan to 184. A month later, President Aliyev told NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer that further troop increases could be possible.
In May, Baku also hosted two large conferences on partnership with NATO, marking the 15th anniversary of Azerbaijan's cooperation with the Alliance. The month before, it hosted NATO military exercises, and took part in broader, month-long exercises in Georgia that ended on June 3.
One Baku-based political analyst, however, does not believe that these actions signal a change in Azerbaijan's official go-slow policy on NATO. "The Karabakh conflict is the most important problem for Azerbaijan. It is clear that Azerbaijan's NATO aspirations would make Russia an open ally of Armenia in the Karabakh conflict," noted Elhan Shahinoglu. "Therefore, Aliyev's government is likely to continue its balanced foreign policy until the time when and if it receives clear support from NATO members on the Karabakh issue."
The NATO Joint Forces Command source conceded that Azerbaijan's further integration with the alliance "would make the military alliance between Armenia and Russia even stronger," but did not elaborate. Azerbaijan's likely problems with Iran on the topic are also understood, he added.
Some NATO member-states have already publicly declared their interest in Azerbaijan joining the alliance -- albeit, on condition that "[d]emocracy and human rights . . . and a strong and free economy" are established, according to Romanian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Nikolae Ureke, speaking at a May 12 NATO conference in Baku.
In the end, the case for Azerbaijan comes down to geography and energy. Said Ambassador Ureke: "Azerbaijan is NATO's strategic point in the South Caucasus."
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.