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Azerbaijan: Relations With U.S. Enter A New Phase

(RFE/RL) The working visit to Washington last week by Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov came at a very significant time for both countries and could represent something of a turning point in bilateral relations. Following a sweeping reevaluation of U.S. policy, those relations have been subject to a dynamic, yet subtle shift in recent months, driven by a set of external developments ranging from the impact of the so-called colored revolutions in several former Soviet states to a new emphasis on democratization --> as the strategic priority of the second Bush Administration.

The shift in U.S.-Azerbaijani relations has also been dictated by internal considerations, further exacerbated by Azerbaijan's looming parliamentary elections set for 6 November. Set against the wave of democratic change in Georgia, Ukraine, and most recently, in Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan faces new pressure to ensure a free and fair election. And it is this need to meet heightened democratic standards that is the new determinant in the U.S. approach to Azerbaijan.

Pressure For Fair Elections

The necessity for improved electoral credentials in Azerbaijan has been repeatedly stressed in recent months by the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and was reiterated during last month's visits to Baku by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and current Deputy Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky.

But Washington's insistence on democratization in Azerbaijan is not merely an end in itself, but stems from a broader American recognition of democratization as essential to domestic stability and regional security. It also reflects a new tool in the global war on terror, although it remains to be seen if this "muscular Wilsonian" approach will yield better results. For Azerbaijan, this priority for democratic elections has sharply raised the threshold for the regime of President Ilham Aliyev. But preparations for the election have fallen far short of the shared expectations of the international community and the Azerbaijani opposition. Specifically, Azerbaijan's electoral reforms remain incomplete, with shortfalls in both the composition of electoral commissions and the planned monitoring of the ballot (See "RFE/RL Caucasus Report.").

American disappointment with election preparations to date was also a central message in Mammadyarov's talks with his American hosts. This is also a lesson for others, however. For neighboring Armenia, which will be facing its own elections within the next two years, and even for Georgia, whose Rose Revolution was rewarded by an American presidential visit and by U.S. help in pressuring Russia to withdraw its troops from the country, but which has since created a Central Election Commission wholly dominated by supporters of the ruling party, there are significantly higher standards and greater expectations.

Military Base?

In addition, Mammadyarov's visit was largely overshadowed by speculation about an imminent agreement for a new U.S. military base in the country. This speculation has been largely fueled by the recent demand by Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov to close the U.S. and coalition air base at Karshi-Khanabad within six months. The loss of the use of the base in Uzbekistan is viewed by some experts as an immediate setback to the U.S. military's operational capabilities in nearby Afghanistan and, as the thinking holds, necessitates the opening of new air base in Azerbaijan.

While this view is correct in recognizing the importance of the South Caucasus air corridor as a "lifeline" between coalition forces in Afghanistan and bases in Europe, it is flawed by a superficial understanding of the nature of the U.S. military mission and presence in Azerbaijan, as well as by the practical limitation of aircraft needing to refuel en route from Azerbaijan to Afghanistan. Despite reports predicting a "new" U.S. military engagement in Azerbaijan, in reality, there has been a significant American military mission there for at least three years, comprised of two components.

The first component was the creation of the "Caspian Guard," an initiative involving both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan focusing on maritime and border security in the Caspian Sea. The Caspian Guard initiative incorporates defensive mission areas, including the surveillance of Caspian airspace, borders, and shipping. It encourages greater coordination and cooperation in counter-proliferation efforts by Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

This effort was further bolstered by a $20 million program launched in July 2004 and implemented by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency to train the Azerbaijan Maritime Border Guard. Additional training and combined exercises were also provided by U.S. Navy SEALS to Azerbaijan's 41st Special Warfare Naval Unit in June 2004.

The second component was the establishment of several "Cooperative Security Locations," tactical facilities with pre-positioned stock that provide contingency access but, unlike a traditional base, have little or no permanent U.S. military presence. These locations are designed to increase the mobility of U.S. military forces and, most importantly, facilitate counter-proliferation missions along Azerbaijan's southern border with Iran and northern borders with Georgia and Daghestan.

Forward Operating Sites

In line with the U.S. military need to project military power rapidly, the U.S. presence in Azerbaijan may be further expanded from the existing Cooperative Security Locations to Forward Operating Sites, host-country "warm sites" endowed with a limited military presence and capable of hosting rotational forces. These forward operating sites can also serve as centers for bilateral and regional training.

Thus, while the utility of a permanent, traditional military base in Azerbaijan is seriously limited, the expansion of the forward stationing of forces is likely. (Azerbaijani presidential aide Novruz Mamedov's recent statement to Interfax that Azerbaijan will not host "U.S. military bases" may draw a fine semantic line between "bases" in the traditional sense and forward operating sites.) Yet even the military relationship is in the final analysis contingent on Azerbaijan's ability to meet the new, more stringent U.S. standards of democracy and free elections.

The steadfast refusal by the Azerbaijani authorities to amend the composition of election commissions and their reluctance to permit the marking of voters to preclude multiple voting cast doubt on President Aliyev's repeated assertions that the ballot will indeed be free, fair, and transparent.

For weekly news and analysis from the Caucasus, subscribe to "RFE/RL Caucasus Report."

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