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Experts: Azerbaijan military build-up for diplomatic, domestic advantage

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Rovshan Ismayilov
Publication Date 3 July 2007
Cite as EurasiaNet, Experts: Azerbaijan military build-up for diplomatic, domestic advantage, 3 July 2007, available at: [accessed 1 June 2016]
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Rovshan Ismayilov 7/03/07

As Azerbaijan's military spending reaches $1 billion, the country's leadership has revived rhetoric about using force to resolve the 19-year Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia. But for all the war worries sparked by bellicose statements, experts in Baku stress that they have more to do with diplomatic maneuvering and domestic politics than an actual desire to trade talks for tanks.

Over the past month, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has repeatedly indicated that Baku's patience with years of start-and-stop negotiations is running thin. The last such encounter, a June 10 tête – à – tête with Armenian President Robert Kocharian in St. Petersburg, did nothing to move peace talks forward. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. News agencies have reported Aliyev as attributing the failure of the talks to "Armenia's unconstructive and insincere position."

Instead, a new tact is being taken – at least in words. "We are close to the liberation of Karabakh. We are powerful enough to liberate our lands," Aliyev said during a July 2 police academy graduation ceremony in Baku. "Azerbaijan is the [most] powerful country in the region," he went on to say, APA news agency reported. "No one wants a new war again, [but] Azerbaijan is prepared [for] any military operations any time. It would be better if Armenia understands it and pull[s] out the troops from our territories."

Speaking at a Baku reception on June 25, Army Day, Defense Minister Safar Abiyev warned that if Armenia failed to do so, "[the] Azerbaijani Army will do it itself."

In Armenia, many interpret these statements as a sign that Azerbaijan is ready to use force to regain control of the disputed region and seven bordering territories occupied by ethnic Armenian troops. Azerbaijan's first National Security Concept, signed by Aliyev on May 24, emphasizes a need to improve the country's defensive capabilities in order to better respond to separatism and regional conflicts.

In Azerbaijan, however, some local observers contend that Aliyev's remarks have less to do with a rumbling toward war, and more to do with a strategic game plan.

The ability to outspend Armenia in an arms race is one of the few instruments that Baku could use to pressure Yerevan into making diplomatic concessions, specifically concerning Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, commented independent political analyst Rasim Musabekov. "And Aliyev is using this trump card vocally," he said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Much of Baku's current military spending, made possible by booming energy revenues, is related to reforms to align the Azerbaijani military more closely with North Atlantic Treaty Organization standards by the end of 2007. Speaking on June 25, Defense Minister Abiyev detailed programs ranging from the modernization of naval vessels to the creation of a training school for army sergeants. Azerbaijan also plans to start manufacturing its own military materiel, with trial samples expected by the end of 2007.

"[H]is statements mean that if somebody hopes that Azerbaijan will agree with the status quo that was imposed by force, they have to take into consideration current realities, too," said Musabekov, referring to Azerbaijan's de facto loss of Nagorno-Karabakh to separatists and Armenian forces in 1994. "Azerbaijan has many more resources to build-up its military than does Armenia."

One military expert, however, notes that the Azerbaijani build-up still does not give it a clear-cut superiority over Armenian forces. Hints about use of force have more to do with politics, commented Uzeir Jafarov. As occurred during the 2005 parliamentary election campaign, "[w]e will hear a lot of similar statements closer to the 2008 presidential elections," said Jafarov. No definitive signs exist that "would prove Azerbaijan is really preparing for war."

Meanwhile, a "good cop-bad cop" scenario appears to be emerging. A so-called "coordinated" difference on Karabakh has long existed between Azerbaijan's defense and foreign ministries. As the Defense Ministry talks about the military's willingness to resolve the 19-year conflict by force, the Foreign Ministry insists on the need to continue talks with Armenia.

A recent surprise mission to Armenia and Karabakh underlines that difference. Three days before Aliyev's speech to police graduates, Azerbaijani Ambassador to Russia Polad Bulbuloglu co-headed a cultural delegation that traveled to Karabakh to meet with de facto President Arkady Ghukassian and to visit the town of Shushi, which holds strong cultural symbolism for ethnic Azeris. The one-day trip also included a meeting with Armenian President Robert Kocharian in Yerevan. Armenia's ambassador to Russia, Armen Smbatian, was the other co-leader of the delegation.

According to Ambassador Bulbuloglu, "more productive and long-lasting mutual visits between the two countries" are intended, the Azerbaijani news agency APA reported.

Aliyev also met the delegation in Baku. Media outlets, however, have said little about his comments. The pro-government Trend news agency quoted Aliyev as telling the delegation that the Karabakh conflict "could only be solved on the basis of the principles of territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and inviolability of borders, with granting a high level of self-governance to Nagorno-Karabakh."

For now, at least officially, that language of diplomacy is the only one Yerevan maintains it can hear. According to local media reports, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said at a July 2 press conference in Yerevan that "Ilham Aliyev rattles the saber for internal use."

Editor's Note: Rovshan Ismayilov is a freelance journalist based in Baku.

Posted July 3, 2007 © Eurasianet

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