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Russia/Azerbaijan: Radar Deal: Win-Win Situation Or Fool's Bargain?

Moscow and Baku resolved a long-standing dispute recently when they reached an agreement clarifying the status of the Qabala radar station, a key military installation that Russia considers part of its strategic defense system. Armenia welcomed the deal as bearing potentially positive implications for the South Caucasus region. But analysts are questioning what prompted Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev to meet Russia's demands regarding Qabala.

Prague, 29 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev on 24-26 January paid a landmark state visit to Russia that resulted in the signing of no fewer than seven bilateral agreements, including one that settles a long-standing dispute over a strategic missile-tracking station.

The accords signed during the visit cover a number of issues ranging from economic cooperation to a joint struggle against tax evaders. But more importantly, Aliev's visit confirmed the bilateral rapprochement initiated when Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first state visit to Azerbaijan a year ago. Although no deal was signed during that first meeting, Putin's visit alone was generally seen as heralding a new stage in Russian-Azerbaijani relations after years of mutual mistrust.

In remarks made upon his return from Russia on 26 January, Aliyev said his three-day visit had given a "major impetus" to bilateral ties and expressed his satisfaction at what he described as the "high level of cooperation" that now exists between Moscow and Baku.

The most significant of the agreements was an accord granting Russia's armed forces the right to use the Qabala radar station for 10 years while the legal status of the Soviet-era facility is clarified.

Located some 350 kilometers northwest of Baku, the Qabala military installation is considered a key element of Moscow's missile-attack early-warning system. Capable of monitoring missile launches and air traffic as far as the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf, it is one of the few such early-warning systems remaining in the former Soviet Union.

The station was activated in the mid-1980s and remained de facto Russian property after the breakup of the Soviet Union. For more than a decade, Moscow and Baku were unable to reach a comprehensive agreement legalizing the status of the 300 Russian soldiers manning Qabala and confirming Azerbaijan's ownership rights over the installation.

Under the agreement signed last week, Russia is to pay a yearly rent of $7 million to Baku over the next 10 years. It also agrees to maintain the station and to pay Baku $31 million in retroactive fees for the use of Qabala between July 1997 and December 2001.

The agreement was hailed in both countries as the first bilateral defense agreement signed by the two countries since Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991.

Aliyev has described the deal as paving the way for a mutually profitable, "strategic" partnership with Russia.

But the Qabala accord left both Russian and Azerbaijani analysts speculating on what possible security compensation, if any, the experienced Azerbaijani leader got in return for the Qabala deal.

Rasim Musabekov is a Baku-based independent political expert and a former aide to late president Ebulfaz Elchibey. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said that, in his view, relations between the two countries have entered a new phase and that Russia's willingness to pay for the use of Qabala shows that it is no longer prepared to ignore Azerbaijan's interests.

"Without doubt, [Aliev's] visit had positive elements. What I mean is that Russia's relations with Azerbaijan are losing this nostalgic, imperialistic -- sometimes tainted with historic sentimentalism -- character they had before," Musabekov said. "We are now moving toward a situation where respective interests are getting closer. Russia now understands that it has to take Azerbaijan's interests into consideration if it wants something and that it can't achieve anything by means of pressure. This is a plus, definitely."

Areas where Aliyev would certainly like to see greater attention from Moscow include the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute that has been dividing Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia for the past 14 years.

Along with France and the United States, Russia co-chairs the so-called "Minsk Group" of nations tasked by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to mediate between Baku and Yerevan. But international efforts to bring both sides to a comprehensive peace treaty have so far yielded few results, and despite a number of face-to-face meetings between Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharian, the peace process remains at a stalemate.

Six Azerbaijani administrative districts bordering Karabakh have remained under military occupation since both sides agreed to a cease-fire in 1994, and Yerevan insists that ethnic Armenian troops will not withdraw until the enclave's future status is clarified. Azerbaijan, for its part, insists that Armenian troops must leave the country first and that Karabakh should not hope for anything beyond a large degree of autonomy.

In remarks made during a joint press conference with Aliev, Putin said there should be "neither winners nor losers" in the search for a lasting solution to the conflict.

Putin's statement prompted some gnashing of teeth in Baku, where many politicians question Moscow's ability to mediate in Nagorno-Karabakh. They argue that Russia helped Armenian troops assert control over Azerbaijan's territory in the early 1990s and that it is linked with Yerevan by a 1997 defense treaty.

Vafa Quluzade is Aliev's former foreign policy adviser and Azerbaijan's former chief negotiator at the Karabakh peace talks. Quluzade told our correspondent that Putin's latest comments on the Azerbaijani-Armenian territorial dispute left him unimpressed.

"For Russia, the main result [of Aliev's visit] is that it finally obtained the right to use the Qabala radar station. I would have expected that Azerbaijan get some kind of answer from Russia on Karabakh [in return]. However, Russia didn't say anything on this issue that made any sense. On the contrary, it expressed this absurd idea that there should be 'neither winners nor losers,'" Quluzade said. "Tell me, what would happen should we follow this principle? If Armenia is not to be considered the 'loser,' this means that it should continue holding Azerbaijan's occupied lands. Now, if Azerbaijan is also not to be considered the 'loser,' what should we do?"

Armenia -- which yesterday inaugurated a new defense agreement with Russia that paves the way for the creation of joint military units -- cautiously welcomed the latest developments in Russian-Azerbaijani relations. Asked by RFE/RL's Armenian Service to assess the outcome of Aliev's trip to Russia, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said: "We are still analyzing the information we are getting [regarding Aliev's visit], but on the whole I have to say that such developments should have a positive impact on the general atmosphere in our region, which I think is good for Armenia."

Many experts in Baku believe that Moscow, as in the past, is nurturing plans to use the Karabakh issue to counter Western influence in Azerbaijan and keep the South Caucasus within its sphere of influence.

But others point out that the new geopolitical environment that emerged from the September terrorist attacks in the U.S. may prompt Moscow to review its strategy and look for new ways to keep a foothold in the region.

Asked whether the recent Russian-Azerbaijani deal could possibly affect the strategic balance in the South Caucasus area, political analyst Musabekov said: "When examining this balance, one should not focus exclusively on relations between Russia and Azerbaijan. Rather, one should look at this balance in the broader context of relations between Russia and the West. There is no doubt that this balance is changing now. Nobody questions Russia's influence in the region. But nobody will let the Russians do whatever they want there. Nobody will let Russia close former Soviet republics located in the region to Western influence. There is no doubt about this either, and I think that Russia understands that perfectly. In other words, Russia will have exactly the regional influence its political and economic resources will allow it to have."

Since Aliyev took over from Elchibey in mid-1993, he has developed political, economic, and defense ties with the U.S. and with Turkey, Washington's main NATO ally in the region.

In addition to training Azerbaijani army officers and jet pilots, Turkey is also helping Baku upgrade some of its defense facilities, including military airfields.

Earlier in January, Turkish, Azerbaijani and Georgian officials finalized work on a tripartite security agreement aimed at enhancing cooperation in the fight against organized crime, terrorism, and at ensuring the security of a planned U.S.-sponsored crude oil pipeline linking Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

Some analysts believe that Russia, which for years has been competing with Turkey for influence in Southern Caucasus, is now ready to turn a blind eye to the cooperation between Ankara and Azerbaijan in return for strategic compensation. "Eurasia Net" CIS political affairs analyst Igor Torbakov on 24 January quoted an unidentified Baku-based analyst as saying that a deal on Qabala could be part of such an arrangement.

Most Russian media have suggested that, in addition to Moscow's accepting attitude toward the further development of Azerbaijani-Turkish defense ties, Aliyev may have agreed to lease the radar installation to Moscow in return for assurances that the Kremlin will support his successor -- or at least will refrain from interfering in Azerbaijan's domestic affairs as it has done in the past -- when his mandate expires in 2003.

The 78-year-old leader has made it clear that he would like his son Ilham to succeed him, and is looking at ways to leave him a country at peace with its neighbors. In this regard, a strategic partnership with Russia would certainly serve Aliev's dynastic plans.

Although he agrees that the so-called "succession issue" may have been an element of the recent Russian-Azerbaijani rapprochement, political analyst Musabekov cautioned against making any hasty conclusions.

"I would be very surprised if a politician as experienced as Aliyev would let himself be beguiled by whatever promise Putin may have made him. I think that Russia's attitude will depend on the situation that will prevail after Aliyev steps down," Musabekov said.

(RFE/RL Armenian Service's Hrach Melkumian contributed to this report.)