By Ruzanna Stepanian
Two senior officials from the Armenian Defense Ministry were due to arrive in Baku late Monday in their second attempt to participate in a NATO conference there which is seen as an affront to Azerbaijan by local nationalist groups.
Defense Ministry spokesman Seyran Shahsuvarian told RFE/RL that the two army officers boarded a Baku-bound plane in Tbilisi after being formally allowed to enter the country by the Azerbaijani embassy in Georgia’s capital. The Armenian mission in Tbilisi confirmed that they were issued on June 11 with a special “written permission” to attend the conference which will discuss preparations for a military exercise to be held in Azerbaijan in September under NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program.
Armenia has repeatedly stated its intention to take part in the exercise and, under the PfP rules, does not need Azerbaijan’s consent for doing that. It failed to send representatives to NATO’s first planning conference in Baku last January, accusing the Azerbaijani side of blocking their arrival via Istanbul.
Yerevan’s resolve to join the multinational war games in its arch-foe’s territory appears to have been unaffected by the brutal killing in Budapest on February 19 of an Armenian army officer by an Azerbaijani colleague. The two young lieutenants were attending a NATO-sponsored course at Hungary’s top military academy. The Armenian military has since pledged to pay greater attention to the security of its officers who come into contact with Azerbaijani servicemen as part of international exchange programs.
“I am ready to go there even if they kill me,” Colonel Murad Isakhanian, one of the two Armenian officers due to attend the NATO seminar, told RFE/RL from Tbilisi shortly before flying to Baku. “I am a military officer and must obey orders,” he added.
According to Shahsuvarian, responsibility for ensuring their security primarily lies with NATO.
In Baku, meanwhile, the hard-line Karabakh Liberation Organization again warned that the Armenian participation at the NATO conference is “inadmissible.” “We will not allow the arrival of the Armenian officers in Baku,” its leader, Akif Nagi, was quoted as saying over the weekend. “They must realize that they can not come to Baku because they represent an occupying country that has infringed on Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.”
But Azerbaijan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov argued earlier last week that by barring the Armenians from the conference his country would damage its relations with NATO.
(Photolur photo: Isakhanian, right, during a news conference in Yerevan in January.)