By Emil Danielyan
Angry nationalists clashed with Azerbaijani police on Tuesday as they protested against the presence of two Armenian army officers at an international conference in Baku organized by NATO.
Reports from the Azerbaijani capital said the police used force to break up the protest staged by a hard-line pressure group which is opposed to any concessions to the Armenians in the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The conference was briefly interrupted when several protesters managed to burst into a hotel auditorium where it was discussing preparations for a NATO-led military exercise to be held in Azerbaijan this September. The intruders were overpowered and detained by the police deployed in and around the hotel.
None of the conference participants, including Colonel Murad Isakhanian and Senior Lieutenant Aram Hovannisian of the Armenian Defense Ministry, were reportedly hurt in the incident. The two officers arrived in Baku on a flight from Tbilisi the previous night.
The Turan news agency quoted the organizer of the protest, Akif Nagi of the Karabakh Liberation Organization, as saying that the police made 12 arrests. It also reported that the hotel called Europe remained surrounded by security forces even after the dispersal of the crowd of “more than a hundred people.” The conference was attended by military representatives of 10 NATO member states and 11 participants of the U.S.-led alliance’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program.
The Defense Ministry in Yerevan was quick to express concern at the incident and warn that it might recall its representatives before the end of the conference. A statement by the ministry spokesman, Colonel Seyran Shahsuvarian, said Azerbaijani security agencies and the U.S. embassy in Baku are taking “additional security measures.”
“Consultations are currently going on between Armenian representatives, exercise organizers and Azerbaijani defense ministry officials regarding the further work of the planning conference,” Shahsuvarian said. “The Armenian side will continue its participation in the conference if the Azerbaijani authorities assume full responsibility for ensuring the security of the Armenian officers.”
Nagi has said that military and other government officials from Armenia must not be allowed to set foot on Azerbaijani soil because “they represent an occupying country that has infringed on Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.” But in a statement to the local media on Monday, Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov argued that under the PfP rules the Azerbaijani government could not block their participation in the conference. “Azerbaijan’s relations with NATO must not be hostage to our problems with Armenia,” Azimov said.
The Armenian military already tried unsuccessfully to attend NATO’s first planning conference in Baku last January. It blamed the flop on Azerbaijani obstruction at the time.
Azimov’s statement suggests that President Ilham Aliev’s regime has come to terms with the prospect of Armenian participation at the September exercise which will take place within the PfP framework. Azerbaijan boycotted similar war games hosted by Armenia in June 2003 in line with its policy of minimizing any direct contacts with its arch-foe before a settlement of the Karabakh dispute.
The Armenian leadership, on the other hand, has made it clear that it would like to send not only staff officers but also a small unit of combat troops to Azerbaijan, something which would be highly sensitive given the de facto state of war between the two South Caucasus neighbors. Visiting Yerevan in late April, the deputy commander of the U.S. forces in Europe, General Charles Wald, welcomed Armenian participation at the upcoming NATO-led drills.