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Azerbaijan: Opposition Deplores Indecision Over NATO --> Robert Simmons in Baku (RFE/RL) The opposition Musavat party convened a roundtable discussion in Baku on March 17 focusing on Azerbaijan's protracted ambivalence with regard to NATO membership.

Participants reportedly noted that although Azerbaijan successfully completed last year implementation of the measures outlined in its Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) for the period 2005-07, it was only on March 7, 2008, that it signed a new accord on cooperation with NATO, and that was a continuation of the IPAP rather than an advance to Intensified Dialogue, the next state in cooperation. Musavat leader Isa Qambar warned at the roundtable that unless Baku stops equivocating, Armenia may join NATO first. Armenia, however, has made clear that it has no plans to seek NATO membership.

For several years, senior officials have said repeatedly that while Azerbaijan values, and derives considerable benefit from, the cooperation it embarked on with NATO in 1994 under the framework of the Partnership for Peace program, it has no plans at present to seek to join the alliance. Various explanations have been suggested for that reluctance, ranging from a tacit acknowledgment that despite huge increases in recent years in defense spending, to $1.2 billion in 2008, the Azerbaijani armed forces were still far from meeting NATO standards (to say nothing of Azerbaijan's lack of progress in establishing democratic institutions, reforming the judiciary, and safeguarding media freedom and human rights), to fear of antagonizing Russia or Iran. In February 2007, the online Azerbaijani daily quoted "informed diplomatic sources" as saying that for the previous six months, NATO special representative for the South Caucasus Robert Simmons and other senior NATO officials had been trying to persuade Baku to make a formal declaration of its intention to seek NATO membership, but without success.

In July 2007, the website quoted the head of Azerbaijan's representation at NATO, Kyamil Xasiyev, as saying that the second stage of the IPAP was at the drafting stage and should be formally adopted during an anticipated visit by Simmons to Baku in the fall. In an interview published in the June 27-July 3 issue (No. 24) of the Russian weekly "Voyenno-promyshlenny kurer," Simmons explained that the new IPAP comprises four sections: political issues and security policy; defense and military issues; public information and emergency civil planning; and information security. He also said that NATO set specific requirements to be met, including strengthening parliamentary control over the armed forces and, crucially, strengthening democratic institutions.

Simmons said in that interview that he anticipated that the new IPAP would be finalized by late October, and on October 11, reported that it would be signed in Brussels "within days." A NATO Parliamentary Assembly delegation that visited Azerbaijan in mid-September 2007 (just days before Simmons traveled to all three South Caucasus capitals) noted that "Azerbaijan is now ready to enter the second phase of IPAP implementation. The revised IPAP is currently under discussion with NATO. The NATO secretary-general was expected to visit Baku shortly after the [Parliamentary Assembly] delegation's visit. [Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar] Mammadyarov even mentioned the prospect of Azerbaijan moving to Membership Action Plan within two years."

That latter statement was surprising insofar as a Membership Action Plan -- the stage after Intensified Dialogue -- implies a firm commitment to ultimate NATO membership. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly delegation's report highlighted other obstacles to closer cooperation, including failure to end conscription, appoint a civilian as defense minister, or enhance civilian oversight over defense, security and intelligence issues; delay in adopting a military doctrine (which the parliament is reportedly to debate during the spring 2008 session, according to on February 5); the low-level (only 10-15 percent) of popular support for NATO membership; and, above all, the human rights situation, which was addressed in detail in a separate section of the report.

Meanwhile, assessments of the level of professionalism of Azerbaijan's armed forces continue to differ markedly. On December 1, the online daily quoted Lieutenant Colonel Eldar Sabiroglu, head of the Defense Ministry press service, as affirming that the armed forces meet NATO standards in all respects and are the most combat-ready in the entire South Caucasus.

But participants in a roundtable last month organized by the Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution offered a very different picture, according to on February 22. They claimed that in fact only one military brigade meets NATO requirements; that the Azerbaijani armed forces still function on the basis of Soviet-era legislation; that materiel is purchased primarily from Russia and Ukraine, rather from NATO member states; and that Turkey's offer to train military specialists has proven disappointing, with 50 percent of Azerbaijani graduates from Turkish military academies opting out of further service in the Azerbaijani armed forces and joining the Emergency Situations Ministry or the Customs Service instead.