"We regret that the principle of inclusiveness could not be upheld in this case," the press release stated, without elaborating. But Lieutenant-Colonel Ludger Terbrueggen, who is a spokesman for NATO military command, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service the same day that "the reason...is that Azerbaijan did not grant visas to soldiers and officers of Armenia."
Since January, Baku has sought repeatedly to thwart the planned Armenian presence at this year's Cooperative Best Effort maneuvers. Three Armenian military officers who tried to travel to Baku in early January first from Turkey and then from Georgia to attend a planning conference for the maneuvers were prevented from doing so. In June, members of the radical Karabakh Liberation Organization (QAT) picketed, and then forced their way into, a Baku hotel where two Armenian officers were attending a second planning conference in preparation for the exercises. Five of those QAT activists were arrested and sentenced in late August to between three and five years' imprisonment on charges of hooliganism, violating public order, and obstructing government officials. Those verdicts triggered protests from across the political spectrum, fueling public opposition to the Armenians' anticipated arrival.
In April, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev assured Deputy Commander of the U.S. European Command General Charles Wald that there were no obstacles to the Armenian participation in the September war games. Other visiting U.S. officials also sought to impress on Azerbaijan the importance of allowing the Armenian contingent to attend. But in recent weeks, the Azerbaijani government has made increasingly clear its hostility to the planned Armenian participation. On 27 July, the independent ANS TV quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov as saying that Baku has stipulated that only noncombat personnel -- military journalists, public-relations officials, and military doctors -- would be permitted to attend, and that the number of Armenian participants would be limited to three. (On 4 September, however, Armenian Deputy Defense Minister Major General Artur Aghabekian said seven Armenian officers would take part in the exercises, while the number denied visas by the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tbilisi was given as five.)
On 10 September, the Azerbaijani parliament adopted an appeal to NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to retract the invitation extended to the Armenian side, citing what it termed Armenia's aggression and policy of ethnic cleansing.
The opposition daily "Azadlig" on 10 September quoted Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov as saying that Azerbaijan would not grant visas to the Armenians. And on 10 September, the Azerbaijani parliament adopted an appeal to NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to retract the invitation extended to the Armenian side, citing what it termed Armenia's aggression and policy of ethnic cleansing. The parliamentarians argued that the presence in Baku of Armenian military personnel could aggravate tensions in the region. President Aliyev stated while visiting the Barda region on 11 September, "I do not want the Armenians to come to Azerbaijan."
In an apparent last-ditch effort to persuade Baku to abandon its obstructionist approach, de Hoop Scheffer summoned Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Mammadyarov and his Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian to Brussels on 13 September for talks. Oskanian subsequently praised the NATO decision to call off the exercises, adding at the same time that he regrets the "lost opportunity for regional cooperation."
Armenia hosted the NATO Cooperative Best Effort-2003 exercises, in which some 400 troops from 19 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Georgia, and Turkey practiced routine peacekeeping exercises. Azerbaijan declined to participate. In February 2004, a junior Azerbaijani officer attending a NATO-sponsored English language course in Budapest hacked a sleeping Armenian fellow student to death with an axe.
The full impact of Azerbaijan's violation of NATO's "principle of inclusiveness" and of NATO's ensuing decision to cancel the planned exercises is difficult to predict. The move is likely to corroborate many Azerbaijanis' conviction that NATO is guilty of double standards and bias toward Armenia. It may also give rise to a certain coolness between Brussels and Washington, in light of persistent rumors that the United States is considering Azerbaijan as a possible location for a rapid-reaction force. Certainly the prediction by one Western analyst that "Azerbaijan will enter NATO by 2005," which made headlines in the Azerbaijani press in July 2002, now seems somewhat overoptimistic.