Azerbaijan Seems Ambivalent About NATO Membership
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.
Little Value In Russian Estimates On Chechen Resistance
Those figures, provided during a press conference in Grozny on March 19, contradict earlier statistics cited by the Russian military and Interior Ministry. They also differ from estimates from the Chechen resistance leadership, which admits that not all groups of fighters are still under its direct control.
Yedelev's figure of 37 militant bands is down from his estimate of just six weeks earlier: "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on February 2 published an interview with him in which he gave the same total -- 450 men -- but estimated the number of individual groups at 46.
Two months before that, the resistance website kavkazcenter.com cited Colonel General Nikolai Rogozhkin, commander of the Interior Ministry forces, as estimating the number of Chechen resistance fighters at between 800-1,000.
And in early November 2006, the commander of the Group of Federal Forces in the North Caucasus, Colonel General Yevgeny Baryayev, was cited by kommersant.ru as providing a figure of 700.
It can be expected that the number of resistance fighters is likely to vacillate as a result of combat losses, but there are no indications that the resistance is short of volunteers.
In April 2006, then-Chechen Republic Ichkeria Vice President Doku Umarov told RFE/RL's North Caucasus in a long interview that more young men seek to join the resistance than can be accepted into its ranks, in light of limited funding available. He said only the toughest candidates -- those who can withstand the bitter cold of the mountains in winter -- are accepted.
Umarov, who in line with the Chechen Republic Ichkeria Constitution adopted in March 1992 became president after the death in June 2006 of Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, repeated in a recent interview with the Ukrainian nationalist publication "Banderivets" that the number of would-be recruits constitutes "a huge problem for us" since "we cannot provide all of them with weapons."
He expanded on that point in an address to the Muslims of the Caucasus posted on March 5 on kavkazcenter.com, saying that "thousands of young men turn to us, asking us to give them the opportunity to participate in the jihad. Unfortunately, limited resources do not allow us to do so."
But whereas in 2006 Umarov expressed regret that those not accepted into the ranks of the resistance have no choice but to leave Chechnya, he said in the recent address that "many young Muslims, both in Ichkeria and in other regions of the Caucasus [and also in Russia] are organizing themselves into military jamaats and acting autonomously."
In other words, the days when the North Caucasus resistance -- and its offshoots in the Volga and Urals -- constituted a single unified force that reported to, and coordinated its activities with, the Chechen War Council, appear to be over.
The emergence of autonomous jamaats could also impel Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) to try to co-opt their less experienced members in a "false flag" recruitment with the aim of either infiltrating and destroying the Chechen War Council headed by Umarov, or tasking them with committing acts that could undermine the Chechen cause.
Nor is the emergence of autonomous jamaats the only factor likely to affect the ongoing low-level fighting. In his interview with "Banderivets," Umarov admitted that the killing in 2006 of both Sadulayev and radical field commander Shamil Basayev negatively affected the timing and nature of subsequent military operations. And, he said, as a result of those losses (and possibly also of the death of field commander Sultan Khadisov in September 2006), the resistance has decided to switch tactics.
Umarov spoke in greater detail of those changes in his recent address, explaining that "we have reorganized some military structures. Plans have been revised, tactics have been changed, communications and coordination between individual groups of modjaheds, and between fronts and sectors, have been strengthened. The past autumn and winter were given over to large-scale preparatory work.... The activities of the Volga and Urals fronts are taking off."
In short, the periodic estimates by Russian officers of the strength of the remaining resistance forces in Chechnya are largely irrelevant in light of the military flexibility and ideological commitment of the North Caucasus resistance, the influx of volunteer fighters, and the expansion of hostilities.
World Bank Urges 'Second Generation Reforms'
But Saumya Mitra advised that the country needs to embark on "second-generation reforms" if it wants to sustain its success.
Mitra's assessment came during a March 20 press conference in Yerevan, where he unveiled a study titled "Armenia As A Caucasian Tiger. Sustainable Economic Growth Maintenance Policies."
Mitra reportedly explained that the term "tiger" -- an apparent reference to the four Asian tigers -- Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan -- whose economies registered high growth rates and rapid industrialization from the early 1960s to the 1990s -- is currently applied to countries that have registered double-digit economic growth and a reduction in poverty for 10 successive years.
Mitra described as "impressive" the fact that Armenia's growth is not based on oil or any one single resource, but has been "fairly balanced."
At the same time, he stressed that in order to sustain that robust growth, the country needs to embark on "second-generation" structural and institutional reforms that would result in better governance, fair competition, and more developed financial services.
"Successful economies require conditions where any entrepreneur can enter a market and leave a market," he said. "Here there are some formal and informal barriers -- some put up by oligarchs, some put up by political and economic interests -- that prevent level and fair competition.
"The [state] competition commission is weak and not able to enforce adequate competition rules," he added.
That some areas of economic activity in Armenia are effectively monopolized by wealthy businessmen close to the government is a widely recognized fact. That holds true, in particular, for lucrative imports of fuel, wheat, sugar, and other commodities.
But Mitra made no mention of commodity imports, pointing instead to an equally serious lack of competition in civil aviation. He said the government has failed to liberalize it and is keeping air-transport prices artificially high in order to benefit the national airline, Armavia.
"Not many people realize that aviation services are actually quite expensive in Armenia, both for passengers and cargo freight," he said. "This is the result of special privileges for Armavia...for which the consumers of Armenia pay but the shareholders of Armenia benefit."
The World Bank study blames the de facto aviation monopoly for the fact that freight shipped by air to and from the landlocked country, blockaded by two of its neighbors, fell by more than two-thirds between 1997 and 2003.
Among other obstacles to Armenia's sustainable development identified by the study are the high cost and poor quality of telecommunications, as well as underdeveloped financial services such as bank lending and insurance.
The World Bank economists also pointed to serious problems with rule of law and to widespread corruption in the Armenian tax and customs agencies.