Robert Simmons noted during a visit to Baku last week that Azerbaijan's leaders have never stated unequivocally that they either wish to join the alliance (as neighboring Georgia has done), or that they have no intention of doing so (as Armenia has done).
It is not clear whether that ambivalence reflects unwillingness to exacerbate relations with Russia, or a tacit acknowledgment that Azerbaijan's armed forces are still very far from meeting NATO standards, or reluctance to implement the related broader reforms required of potential NATO members.
Path Of Integration
In an extensive interview published on February 3 in the online daily zerkalo.az, Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov sought to clarify Azerbaijan's policy with regard to NATO.
Noting that Azerbaijan "has chosen the path of Euro-Atlantic integration," Azimov explained that Baku signed up as a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace program in 1994 (one year after that program was launched), but does not regard that participation "exclusively as a bridge to NATO membership."
He added that Azerbaijan will "soon" complete implementation of the two-year Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) it signed in 2005, and embarked in 1996 (far earlier than its two South Caucasus neighbors) on the NATO Planning and Review Program (PARP).
At the same time. Azimov stressed that while Azerbaijan values cooperation with NATO, "joining NATO is not an end in itself, but simply one possible element of a country's security."
He also pointed out that there is a considerable discrepancy in the level of effectiveness of the armed forces of the various NATO members, and that of all the countries that have joined the alliance in the two rounds of expansion since 1997, only Poland has "bridged the gap" and reached the average European level of military effectiveness.
For that reason, Azimov argued, Baku should continue to develop and expand its existing partnership with NATO, rather than formally announce its desire for membership and "try to break down a door that is still closed." He said that he does not consider Azerbaijan ready at present to join NATO.
A NATO delegation that visited Baku in February to evaluate Azerbaijan's progress in implementing the IPAP offered a different slant, however.
Reporting on that visit, zerkalo.az on February 16 quoted unnamed "informed diplomatic sources" as saying that Simmons and other senior NATO officials had been trying for the previous six months to persuade Azerbaijan to make a formal declaration of its aspiration to join NATO.
Those sources said Simmons expressed his frustration at his inability to secure such a commitment during a visit to Baku in October 2006, and as expressing the hope that President Ilham Aliyev's visit to Brussels in early November would bring clarity Baku's intentions.
The precise details of Aliyev's talks with NATO were not made public, however. On March 6, zerkalo.az again quoted unnamed "informed diplomatic sources," this time as saying that Azerbaijan is now ready to announce its desire to join the alliance.
Benefits Of Ambiguity
Leaving aside the reliability of such leaks, there are several possible reasons -- geopolitical, domestic political, and technical-logistical -- for Azerbaijan's apparent reluctance to declare unambiguously its desire to join NATO.
The first of these was expounded by commentator Rauf Mirkadyrov. Writing in zerkalo.az on March 6, he pointed out that the time lag between formally requesting consideration as a possible NATO member and acceptance as such is between three to five years at minimum, and that during that time, NATO cannot offer any security guarantees to aspiring members.
That, Mirkadyrov said, is a serious consideration for Azerbaijan, which is surrounded on three sides by "unfriendly states": Russia, Iran, and Armenia. Of those three, Russia not only could try to "punish" Azerbaijan for its stated NATO aspirations, but could co-opt Armenia in any such bid. And Turkey, regarded as Azerbaijan's traditional ally, could prove reluctant to alienate Moscow by siding with Baku.
A second possible deterrent is the unresolved Karabakh conflict. Azimov admitted that he does not see "any chance" for a country engaged in such a territorial conflict to accede to NATO. In addition, a formal statement of intent to join NATO entails not only military but sweeping political reforms that many more conservative members of Azerbaijan's entrenched political elite may perceive as a threat to their interests.
Finally, both the United States and Turkey have for years engaged in direct bilateral military cooperation with Azerbaijan. The equipment, funding, and expertise provided within the framework of that cooperation serves to enhance the effectiveness of Azerbaijan's armed forces without incurring the risk of antagonizing Russia and Iran, which a formal expression of intent to join NATO would inevitably do.
Such political considerations are overshadowed, however, by purely defense-related questions centering on raising the efficiency of Azerbaijan's armed forces.
Azimov quoted President Aliyev as having told NATO officials in November 2006 that the system of military education has already been upgraded to meet NATO standards, and that analogous improvements are being implemented in management and military construction.
Slow Reform Process
But military experts quoted on February 22 by the independent online daily echo-az.com characterized the general pace of reforms as "very slow," and questioned the extent and effectiveness of those changes that have been implemented during the current two-year NATO IPAP.
Rauf Rajabov further pointed out that Azerbaijan still has not adopted either a National Security Concept or a military doctrine, despite President Ilham Aliyev's orders in early 2005 to begin work on them, and that the Defense Ministry is not required to submit an annual report of its activities to parliament.
As for the possible appointment of a civilian as defense minister, Azimov said NATO does not insist on this in Azerbaijan's case, and that it would be totally inappropriate for a country that, like Azerbaijan, is currently "waging a war." Azimov did, however, confirm media reports that a civilian could be named to a deputy ministerial post in the very near future.
Which way is Azerbaijan's military heading? (Trend)Many observers both in Baku and abroad, however, consider that the main problem confronting Azerbaijan's armed forces is not choosing between a civilian or a professional soldier as defense minister, but in replacing corrupt, brutal, and inefficient commanders of individual military units.
Over the past two years, the Azerbaijani media have reported several high-profile corruption cases involving the extortion of bribes by commanding officers to exempt draftees from military service or to allow them leave of absence.
Brutal treatment of conscripts by officers and NCOs is believed to have led to the desertion in recent months of several young soldiers stationed on the Line of Contact that separates Armenian and Azerbaijani forces east of Nagorno-Karabakh. At least three young servicemen were taken prisoner by Armenian forces after leaving their units, and one has reportedly formally requested not to be handed back to his commanding officer.
Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiyev admitted on March 9 that "some mistakes" have arisen in relations between officers and servicemen, but at the same time he denied that any Azerbaijani servicemen have deliberately surrendered to Armenian forces, day.az reported.
Azerbaijan's military prosecutor, Lieutenant General Hanlar Veliyev, for his part told day.az on February 28 that "the problem of desertion from the Azerbaijani armed forces no longer exists." Veliyev likewise denied claims by human rights organizations that there has been an increase in the number of suicides among servicemen, and he claimed that in 2006 the incidence of "violations connected with breaches of discipline" declined.
One month earlier, the same website quoted Veliyev as saying that in 2006 the overall number of crimes in the armed forces fell by between 15 and 17 percent.
But Alekper Mammadov, director of the Azerbaijani Center for Democratic Control over the Armed Forces, expressed skepticism, telling day.az on February 5 that while the overall situation may have improved slightly, he still believes that the military leadership as a whole and Veliyev personally have a vested interest in downplaying the full extent of crime and disciplinary problems within the armed forces.