Azerbaijan’s recent move to indefinitely postpone joint military exercises with the United States is a sign that bilateral strategic ties are stagnating, analysts in Baku believe. Some wonder whether the social-network-inspired unrest that has swept the Middle East and North Africa, and which has also touched Azerbaijan, played a role in Baku’s decision.
Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry on April 20 announced the postponement of “Regional Response-2011,” without citing a reason. The joint military exercises had been scheduled for May 15-25. Last year, Baku also pulled out of similar exercises.
Asked to explain the reason for the move, Defense Ministry representative Eldar Sabiroglu told EuraisaNet.org that the ministry is not involved in politics – a turn of phrase that indicated that the postponement was not the ministry’s decision. Sabiroglu also insisted that the exercises had not been cancelled, saying that the maneuvers, instead, “are postponed for an uncertain term.”
“We intend to continue military cooperation with the United States,” he added. The US Embassy in Baku declined to comment on the exercises’ indefinite postponement.
Military analyst Jasur Sumarinli suggested that this latest postponement is part of a trend by Baku to downgrade US military cooperation. In February 2011, the Azerbaijani government unilaterally cancelled consultations with the United States on security matters, local media outlets reported. Parliament has also not ratified the second part of the cooperation plan signed in March by the US European Command and Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense.
“It would be fair to say that, at present, there are not any activities in the military area between the United States and Azerbaijan,” said Sumarinli, editor-in-chief of the Mil.az news agency.
Last year, tensions surrounding a potential Turkish-Armenian rapprochement and the absence of a US ambassador to Baku were cited as reasons for ditching the exercises. This year, there is fresh reason for discord -- Western criticism of the police crackdown on unsanctioned street demonstrations in Azerbaijan. Amid the turmoil in the Middle East, such statements make officials in Baku wonder on what side its Western allies are betting, analysts say.
“Baku does not have an answer yet to the question about the US and European attitude towards Azerbaijan in this context,” said pro-government political commentator Mubariz Akhmedoglu, the president of the Center of Political Technologies and Innovations.
Experts in Baku believe that Azerbaijani officials are inclined to use the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process as a gauge of Western loyalties. In an interview with the Russian TV channel Rossiya-24 in early April, President Ilham Aliyev reproached Western states for alleged “double standards” on the issue. The United States and France, along with Russia, are co-chairs of the Minsk Group, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe entity that oversees Karabakh peace talks.
“When we saw that the UN Security Council’s resolution on Libya is being implemented immediately, but four resolutions on Nagorno-Karabakh are not implemented during 17-18 years, of course, it raises the question -- why? What is the reason for being so fast [with Libya] and so passive in the case of Azerbaijan?” Aliyev asked.
Meanwhile, in an April 25 interview with the Russian newspaper Moskovksiye Novosti, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov heaped praise on Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev for “personally” getting involved in attempts to broker a lasting Karabakh settlement.
"He is genuinely trying to find a common ground for the process not to freeze, not to lose traction, but to move forward,” Mammadyarov commented.
And, like a Greek chorus, Azerbaijan’s parliament, controlled by President Aliyev’s Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP), has sounded the refrain. At parliament’s April 15 session, YAP deputies complained that the United States and European Union were not doing as much as they could to push for Karabakh peace.
Political analyst Sulkhaddin Akper, who heads the Azerbaijan-Atlantic Cooperation Association, a Baku-based think-tank, believes the single-most important factor in Azerbaijani officials’ decision-making calculus is Russia: Given the memory of Russia’s 2008 blitz against Georgia, Baku is wary of doing anything that would inordinately rile the Kremlin.
Sumarinli, the military expert, shared Akper’s view. “Military cooperation between Baku and Washington is stalling,” he said. “Baku does not want to anger Russia and keeps canceling exercises, but the United States does not show enough persistence.”
Baku’s desire to not to anger Moscow would seem to preclude any possibility of Azerbaijan hosting a US military facility. According to congressional testimony given in March by Adm. James G. Stavridis, the head of US European Command, the United States is currently looking for a logistics base in the Caucasus that would help maintain a steady flow of supplies to US and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Stavridis cited the establishment of a “Black Sea/Caucasus en-route location to further U.S. expeditionary capability” as among the European Command’s top priorities in 2011.
“Russia is not irritated much with the US military cooperation in our region,” Akhmedoglu said of the canceled military exercises. “But, in the meantime, of course, Baku should be careful in its actions after August 2008.”
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku and a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan.