By Armen Zakarian
Two senior Armenian army officers left for Baku on Monday to attend a conference that will discuss preparations for this summer’s NATO-led military exercise in Azerbaijan, braving what promises to be a hostile reception by their country’s arch-foe.
A statement by the Defense Ministry said they set out for the first-ever journey by Armenian military personnel to Azerbaijan despite its government’s alleged efforts to thwart their arrival along with Yerevan’s participation in the drills.
The officers accompanied by an interpreter ventured into the Azerbaijani capital after failing to obtain entry visas from the Azerbaijani embassy in Georgia. The Defense Ministry spokesman, Seyran Shahsuvarian, said late last week that they will try to get one at Baku airport.
There were no reports from Baku as of Monday evening on whether the Armenian officers, one of them in the rank of colonel, were actually allowed to enter the country and take part in the first of three preparatory conferences that will precede the exercise to be held as part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program.
Speaking to RFE/RL on Saturday, Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian warned that failure to let them in would not force the Armenian military to abandon its intention to participate in the PfP activity.
“The invitation was given to us not by the Azerbaijani side but by the commander of the exercise [representing NATO],” he said. “NATO is really interested in Armenia’s participation.”
Shahsuvarian said that Azerbaijan’s rejection of Armenian visa applications contravenes the PfP rules that allow all partner countries to send military personnel to any activity held under NATO’s cooperation framework for former members of the Communist bloc.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev said over the weekend that the Azerbaijani consulate in Tbilisi is simply “screening” the Armenian officers for evidence of their participation in the 1991-94 war for Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Azerbaijani leadership is facing strong pressure from domestic hard-line nationalist groups that are opposed to Armenian participation in the planned NATO maneuvers, saying it would legitimize the “Armenian aggression” against their country. Some of their activists have threatened to take the visiting Armenians hostage.