By Armen Zakarian
A preparatory conference for a NATO-led military exercise in Azerbaijan got underway Tuesday in the absence of Armenian army officers who were expected to attempt to enter the host country later in the day on a flight from Istanbul.
The Armenian military, meanwhile, announced its intention to send a detachment of combat troops to the multinational wargames scheduled for next August. The move could create a further headache for the Azerbaijani leadership which is already under strong domestic pressure to prevent Armenian Defense Ministry officials from setting foot in Baku for the first time.
The two senior officers accompanied by an interpreter were due fly to Baku from Istanbul on Monday together with conference participants from Turkey and other NATO member states. But according to Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian, they missed the plane because of an unexpected delay in a Yerevan-Istanbul flight earlier on Monday.
An Armenian airline that operated the flight and officials at Yerevan’s Zvartnots international airport declined to comment on the delay.
“The guys are now at Istanbul airport. They are scheduled fly to Baku at around midnight,” Aghabekian told RFE/RL.
The Azerbaijani government, responding to an outcry from domestic nationalist groups, has refused to grant entry visas to members of the Armenian delegations beforehand, and it was still unclear whether they will get them at the Bina airport in Baku. An Azerbaijani TV station claimed that they were not allowed to board the Baku-bound plane because of not having the visas in their passports.
Members of an Azerbaijani pressure group favoring a hard line in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict picketed Bina late Monday in anticipation of the Armenians’ arrival, Azerbaijani media reported. The Karabakh Liberation Organization, backed by several opposition parties, has vowed to thwart their participation in the three-day conference, saying that it would be insulting for the victims of “Armenian aggression” in Karabakh.
Some leaders of the organization have warned that the Armenian officers will be taken hostage once they step on Azerbaijani territory — a threat shrugged off by Aghabekian. “I think that these are grandiose statements aimed at persuading the Armenian side to stay away from Baku,” he said.
Aghabekian reiterated that Armenia is adamant in intending to attending the drills held under NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program for non-member states and all related events preceding it. “We are going to announce that we will take part in the exercise with a contingent of both [combat] units and senior officers,” he said.
The prospect of an armed detachment of the Armenian Armed Forces practicing peace-keeping and other military tasks in the vicinity of Baku could be a serious embarrassment for the Azerbaijani authorities that have consistently refused to engage in any form of cooperation with Yerevan before an end to the Karabakh dispute. The Armenian military presence might also be exploited by opponents of the recently elected President Ilham Aliev who had repeatedly accused his late father and predecessor Heydar Aliev of pursuing a “defeatist” policy on Karabakh.
Under the NATO rules a participating country can not decide on the composition of multinational forces involved in a PfP exercise on its territory. Any other nation affiliated with the post-Cold War cooperation framework is free to join it.
The Baku-based newspaper “Ekho” quoted on Tuesday a source in the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry as saying that Armenia’s stubborn desire to join the “Cooperative Best Effort 2004” exercise is a ploy designed to damage Azerbaijan’s credibility in the West.
“We have simply played into their hands,” the unnamed official said. “We should now brace for the NATO leadership’s negative reaction addressed to the Azerbaijani authorities. Baku will now have to provide explanations to the alliance, and this incident will reflect on the country’s international image.”