Author: Cingiz MAMMADOV Baku
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev last week paid his fifth visit to the NATO headquarters in Brussels. During his talks with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the sides discussed prospects for expanding bilateral cooperation and reached important agreements, including with respect to expanding the participation of Azerbaijan in the programmes of assistance to Afghanistan. The NATO academic co-director of the Azerbaijan programme of NATO's Defence Education Enhancement Programme (DEEP), expert Thomas Fedyszyn, shared his opinion on the outcome of this visit with R+.
- How would you describe the current relations between NATO and Azerbaijan in the light of the recent visit of President Ilham Aliyev to Brussels?
- Azerbaijan began its relations with NATO twenty years ago when the Alliance created the Partnership for Peace programme in 1994. At that time, Azerbaijan, which had only just become independent from the former Soviet Union, carefully searched for mechanisms for rapprochement with the West. The recent (fifth) visit of President Ilham Aliyev to the NATO headquarters marked a new, higher level of strategic cooperation between Baku and the Alliance. Azerbaijan has become a reliable partner, participating in the International Security Assistance Force of NATO (ISAF) in Afghanistan, as well as providing safe transit for most of the non-lethal NATO cargo to Afghanistan. In addition to its willingness to train Afghan security forces and implement other peacekeeping operations, Azerbaijan also cooperates with NATO in anti-terrorist operations. NATO offers of assistance in the area of democratic reforms and professional military education made Baku closer to Euro-Atlantic institutions. In general, relations between Azerbaijan and NATO can be characterized as stable, which are developing and improving. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen welcomed Azerbaijan for its "unwavering support" in Afghanistan and expressed hope for the further strengthening of this strategic cooperation.
- By the way, the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan should begin this year. What new is to be expected in this regard in cooperation between Azerbaijan and NATO? I would like to recall that after talks with the NATO secretary general, Ilham Aliyev announced Azerbaijan's intention to allocate another one million euros to the fund to support the Afghan National Army.
- Azerbaijan-NATO cooperation in Afghanistan is exemplary in all respects, and its continuation after 2014 is also very highly valued, particularly with regard to the training and funding of the Afghan National Army. This is particularly important given the fact that during this year, many countries will gradually reduce their support for Afghanistan. NATO has always considered security sector reform and energy security to be important, especially as Azerbaijan will become an important exporter of oil and gas for the European countries of NATO. Due to the specificity of the Alliance, the main factor determining the growth of bilateral relations is appropriate signals from Baku to Brussels. The more areas of cooperation are sought by Azerbaijan, the wider collaboration could be. My personal observation shows that many NATO members offered a wide range of services related to national security and are waiting for an appropriate response from members of the Partnership for Peace programme such as Azerbaijan.
- Could you tell us a little about the areas where Azerbaijan and NATO can strengthen cooperation?
- Upon completion of the programme on NATO participation in Afghanistan (ISAF), the issue of energy security in the South Caucasus is likely to be the next most important issue. This is a complex issue that concerns not only oil and gas production, but also their protection, storage and transportation through the South Caucasus to Europe. Of course, there is the question of providing the security of products due to the presence of terrorist groups on the northern and southern borders of Azerbaijan.
- Continuing the theme of energy and security, both of these issues are one of the most important areas of cooperation between Azerbaijan and the United States, as well as with NATO.
- Officially, bilateral relations between Washington and Baku began to develop in 1992 after Azerbaijan gained its independence. Much of this cooperation is implemented through NATO channels, primarily through initiatives related to military operational standards, peacekeeping operations, defence sector reforms and professional military education. However, US commitment to the strengthening of democracy and the formation of an open market economy also led to partnership between Washington and Azerbaijani companies. Major US economic interests revolve around the development of offshore oil production and telecommunications. Considering the importance of Azerbaijani oil and the proximity of regional powers (Iran and Russia), the United States will attach strategic importance to its relations with Baku. The development of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, which will provide about 10 % of the growth in natural gas needs in Europe, received crucial support from the United States. Americans trust Azerbaijan because it is a truly independent state in a strategically important and potentially unstable part of the world.
- How would you assess the military and political situation in the South Caucasus? How real is the threat of a new war in the region? Can anything prevent further Azerbaijan-NATO cooperation?
- A serious threat to security and stability in the South Caucasus is the continuing "frozen conflict" over Nagornyy Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The OSCE Minsk Group, chaired by the United States, France and Russia, was appointed as an intermediary organization in solving this problem. Although Russia has attained a significant political influence on Yerevan through military and economic support for the Armenian government, there are no special reasons to expect hostilities to resume in the region soon. This is partly due to the willingness of both leaders to resuscitate the dialogue to resolve the conflict, as well as the improvement of the military capabilities of Azerbaijan. That is to say both parties recognize that they will lose more from war rather than from the continuation (possibly unsuccessful) of negotiations. This situation should not be an obstacle to Azerbaijan-NATO cooperation, and its settlement will open many new collaborative opportunities, each of which concerns the architecture of regional security.
* The views expressed in this interview are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the United States.
Dr Thomas Fedyszyn is a national security affairs professor at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, USA. When he was a naval officer, he completed two terms in the NATO headquarters in Brussels. Currently, Fedyszyn is an academic co-director of the Azerbaijan programme of NATO's Defence Education Enhancement Programme (DEEP).