NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev on their way to the joint press conference
NATO's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen took a quick trip through all three south Caucasus countries this week, where he criticized Azerbaijan's pardon of a soldier who killed an Armenian while on a joint NATO exercise in Hungary. Rasmussen also voiced strong support for Georgia's (eventual) alliance membership.
Rasmussen's trip took place at a time of heightened tensions in the Caucasus, especially between Armenia and Azerbaijan, over the pardon of Lieutenant -- now Major -- Ramil Safarov. At a speech in Baku, he pretty strongly condemned the move:
I am deeply concerned by the Azerbaijani decision to pardon Ramil Safarov. The act he committed in 2004 was a crime which should not be glorified, as this damages trust and does not contribute to the peace process.
At a joint press conference with President Ilham Aliyev, Rasmussen was asked about the issue, and Aliyev answered too, defending the pardon as in line with the Constitution, which must have been a bit of an awkward moment.
Rasmussen used identical words at a speech in Yerevan, and they apparently weren't strong enough for a number of protesters at his speech.
The reception was warmer in Tbilisi, of course, where President Mikheil Saakashvili said that Rasmussen deserved to be named an "honorary Georgian." Rasmussen gave a fairly strong endorsement of the concept, at least, of Georgian membership in NATO:
Georgia is a special partner for NATO, and model of commitment.... Of course Georgia wants to be more than an active NATO partner, you want to become a NATO member and our summit in Bucharest in 2008, and we decided that Georgia will become a member of NATO. In Chicago, in May this year, we make clear that we stand by that decision and we welcomed Georgia’s progress. NATO’s door is open to countries which show real and sustained efforts towards reform and integration. You have set out on a bold reform course and you have made tremendous progress. That hard work has brought you closer to NATO membership.
Rasmussen was asked about statements by former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev that the 2008 war had stopped NATO expansion, and Rasmussen said that wasn't the case:
If the intension of the 2008 conflict was to interfere with NATO decisions on our open door policy, NATO decisions of enlargement, I can assure you that it has failed, because no third country has any right to interfere with NATO decisions, it’s for NATO to decide on our open door policy and we have stated over and over again and reinterpreted in Chicago that our door remains open. We stick to the principle that it is for its individual nation to decide its alliance affiliation itself. And we hope Russia will respect this principle as well.
However, Rasmussen also emphasized that the conduct of upcoming elections in Georgia would be closely watched by NATO and other Western partners, and would be treated as a litmus test for future cooperation. The notion of a litmus test has become the consensus Western position, but some visiting U.S. senators said that Georgia was already ready for a big new step in defense cooperation. Also visiting this week, Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham gave their strong support for giving weapons to Georgia, without mention of a litmus test of successful elections:
“We have fought for in the Congress and will continue to fight for defensive weapons from the United States to Georgia so the government can defend the people of Georgia and their freedom,” Senator Joe Lieberman told journalists in Tbilisi.
“Georgia needs defensive weapons and we will continue doing everything we can to make sure that those defensive weapons are provided to Georgia, because every nation should have the ability to have defensive weapons in order to defend themselves,” Senator John McCain said.