By Harry Tamrazian in Prague and Anna Saghabalian
In a move hailed by Armenia, NATO announced on Monday a last-minute cancellation of multinational military exercises in Azerbaijan in response to Baku’s refusal to allow Armenian servicemen to participate in them.
The decision, taken by the supreme commander of allied forces in Europe, U.S. General James Jones, came after five officers of the Armenian Armed Forces were denied entry visas by the Azerbaijani embassy in the Georgian capital Tbilisi.
“The reason for it is that Azerbaijan did not give visas to soldiers and officers of Armenia,” a spokesman for the NATO military headquarters near Brussels, Lieutenant-Colonel Ludger Terbrueggen, told RFE/RL. He could not say whether the two-week maneuvers, which had had been scheduled to start later on Monday, might still take place within the framework of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program if the Azerbaijani government agrees to an Armenian participation in them.
News of the exercise cancellation, hugely embarrassing for Azerbaijan, coincided with a meeting in Brussels between NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and the visiting Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian. Oskanian praised the decision taken by the NATO leadership, according to his press office. He at the same time regretted “the loss of an opportunity for regional cooperation.”
PfP events, largely involving peace-keeping exercises, are organized and led by NATO commanders. Under the terms of the program, a host country not affiliated with the alliance can not prevent any other partner state invited by NATO organizers from sending troops to its soil.
“We regret that the principle of inclusiveness could not be upheld in this case, leading to the cancellation of the exercise,” NATO said in a separate statement.
Armenia, which hosted such exercises in June 2003, has been persistently seeking to participate, even symbolically, in the Azerbaijan war games to the dismay of the Azerbaijani leadership and public which regard it as the “aggressor” party in the unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The regime of President Ilham Aliev has faced mounting pressure from domestic nationalist groups portraying any Armenian military presence as an affront to their nation.
Hundreds of people have attended street protests in Baku over the past week against the expected arrival of Armenian officers. The Azerbaijani media have joined in the chorus of condemnations by running blank pages and suspending broadcasts to get the message across.
On Friday, Azerbaijan’s parliament adopted a message sent to de Hoop Scheffer denouncing the initial inclusion of Armenian soldiers. Its position was endorsed by Aliev the next day. “I do not want Armenian servicemen to arrive in Baku, and Azerbaijan will take necessary measures for it,” he told reporters bluntly.
However, de Hoop Scheffer was quoted by an Armenian Foreign Ministry statement as telling Oskanian that Baku’s stance is “unacceptable” because it runs counter to its PfP commitments.
The PfP exercises codenamed Cooperative Best Effort 2004 were due to bring together hundreds of troops from two dozen countries, including the United States. Most of the participants appeared to have already arrived at their venue near the Azerbaijani capital.
The cancelled drills were preceded by several planning conferences. One of them held last June was attended by two officials from the Armenian Defense Ministry. Their presence in Baku sparked violent protests by a hard-line Azerbaijani group opposed to any concessions on Karabakh.
Several of its activists pushed through police cordons, broke glass doors and stormed into the conference hall in a local hotel. They were arrested and sentenced to between three and five years last month.
In Yerevan, meanwhile, news of the Baku-bound Armenian officers’ early return home was greeted with relief by some people interviewed on the streets. “The Azeris’ refusal to let them in was wrong,” said one middle-aged woman. “But the security of our guys would not have been ensured there. So I’m glad that they did not go.”
“If they did such a thing in Hungary, imagine what they would do on their soil,” she added in reference to last February’s gruesome murder of an Armenian army lieutenant by a fellow Azerbaijani officer attending a NATO course in Budapest.
“What they did only harmed themselves, not us,” said one man.
Incidentally, the rumpus over the NATO exercises comes amid renewed signs of progress in Armenian-Azerbaijani talks on Karabakh. Aliev and President Robert Kocharian will meet next week in Kazakhstan for what the Azerbaijani leader described on Saturday as make-or-break talks.
“A lot depends on the meeting in Astana,” Aliev said, according to AFP. “It could bring clarity to the question of where we are, whether we are getting closer to an agreement or whether we are going in the opposite direction. Now there is a chance to determine the road map for achieving an agreement.”