BAKU -- Ministers from the 118 members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) have kicked off a gathering in Indonesia to mark the 50th anniversary of an idea that is still struggling to find its role in the post-Cold War world.
But the organization is welcoming two new members at its two-day meeting: the tiny Polynesian island of Fiji and the South Caucasus petrostate of Azerbaijan. With Baku signing up, Azerbaijan becomes only the second European country -- after Belarus -- with full membership of NAM. (Several others -- Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Ukraine, and Montenegro -- have observer status.)
Analysts and opposition figures note that Azerbaijan's move to join NAM comes with relations strained with the European Union due to Baku's human rights record, and could indicate a shift away from the West.
But Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Elxan Poluxov tells RFE/RL that the decision to join NAM does not contradict Baku's European integration ambitions, which have always been limited in scope.
"We have started the Euro-integration process and will continue it, but pursuing this integration process does not mean that we want to become a member of either NATO or any other organization," Poluxov says. "Integration does not mean becoming a member. Cooperation with both NATO and the European Union will continue. Azerbaijan adheres to its national interests in defining its foreign and domestic policies."
Opposition politicians are not so sure.
Azerbaijan opposition Popular Front Party head Ali Karimli argues that the move to join NAM is a definite policy shift, one that could undermine Azerbaijan's security by cutting it off from security guarantees offered by Turkey and NATO.
"It is no coincidence that the issue [joining NAM] became public after the EU parliament's critical resolution on Azerbaijan [adopted on May 12]," Karimli says. "Prior to that, Azerbaijan was conducting an unofficial cold war toward the West. State papers carry anti-Western articles. The political course away from the European integration process started one year ago and is coming to its logical conclusion with this decision."
The EU parliamentary resolution harshly criticizing the state of human rights in Azerbaijan was followed on May 20 by a statement from EU foreign-affairs chief Catherine Ashton condemning the conviction of two young political activists as politically motivated.
Baku's relations with the EU were also strained earlier this month when the parliamentary assembly of the EU's Eastern Partnership was formed and Azerbaijan's delegation spoke out against the exclusion of authoritarian Belarus.
Thomas de Waal, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment specializing in the Caucasus, says Baku has always kept the EU at arm's length. "Azerbaijan, I suppose, has always made it clear how it sees its relationship with the EU," de Waal says. "It doesn't see itself as a fully European power."
Baku has long pursued a policy of engaging with and even joining international organizations while at the same time remaining on the fringes. It is a member of the Russia-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) but has not joined the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). It is a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace program but last year declined to host scheduled joint military exercises with the United States, possibly due to pressure from Moscow.
Baku is also a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, but its human rights record and oppressive political environment are regularly criticized by both organizations.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Poluxov seems to indicate that Baku looks similarly at its role in NAM, stressing that the country can leave the bloc "any time it wishes."
Benefits Of Membership?
Observers in Baku are at something of a loss to understand the decision to join NAM, especially considering that the problem of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region is far from resolved.
"What will we gain?" asks Azerbaijani political scientist Vafa Quluzadeh. "If we join NATO, we know what we'll gain -- I know what we could gain from cooperation with Turkey. If we joined the Collective Security Treaty Organization, I could understand that it would be a surrender to Russia and a renunciation of our independence. But I do not understand NAM."
Founded in 1961, NAM has in recent years shifted its focus to economic-development issues, problems of globalization, and social injustice. It has frequently criticized the United States -- decrying the war in Iraq and U.S.-led efforts against the nuclear programs in NAM members Iran and North Korea. It strongly supports efforts to reform the UN Security Council to eliminate the privileged position of the permanent council members.
Earlier this month, NAM opened its Center for Human Rights and Cultural Diversity in Tehran, and the center plans to organize an international human rights conference later this year.
Baku's move to join NAM could signal a slight shift in regional relations away from Turkey and toward Iran, which is one of the most active NAM countries and which will take over the presidency of the bloc from Egypt in 2012.
Political scientist Hikmat Hajizadeh says joining NAM sends a conciliatory signal both to Moscow and Tehran.
"There is the possibility of a war over Iran. Or Russia might be jealous of Azerbaijan in terms of NATO," Hajizadeh says. "This is a message to both countries that we are a neutral country and there can be no danger to you via our territory."
RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report