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Armenia and Azerbaijan differ over Russian base pull-out

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Samvel Matirosyan and Alman Mir Ismail
Armenia and Azerbaijan are reacting differently to the Russian withdrawal from bases in Georgia. Politicians and pundits in Azerbaijan view the move as a potential security threat due in large part to Moscow's decision to transfer to Armenia a portion of the military hardware now in Georgia. Armenian experts, meanwhile, downplay the significance of the transfer, contending that it does not alter the existing strategic balance.

After years of wrangling, Russian and Georgian officials announced May 30 that the withdrawal of Russian troops and materiel from the Caucasus country would be completed by 2008. Russia's pull-out from its two remaining bases on Georgian territory -- in Batumi and Akhalkalaki -- began June 1 with the dispatch of a 15-car train from Batumi to Armenia, loaded with ammunition, various equipment and anti-aircraft weapons. Political analysts have spent the weeks since the announcement of the base-withdrawal deal speculating about its geopolitical ramifications. In particular, many have wondered whether the Russian move could influence negotiations to end the Armenian-Azerbaijani struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Moscow has mounted diplomatic offensive to dispel the notion that its actions could rearrange the geopolitical order in the Caucasus. "The withdrawal of part of Russian arms from Georgia to Armenia will not change the balance of forces in the Transcaucasus," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told journalists on June 14.

Russian defense officials insist that transferred arms and equipment will be kept in storage at Russia's 102nd base in Gyumri, in northern Armenia, stressing that the Armenian military will not have access to the weaponry. "We are going to closely keep the limits set up by the [amended 1999] treaty on conventional armaments in Europe," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said during a June 6 news conference, Rosbalt news agency reported. According to Ivanov, most of the military equipment and cargo now in Georgia will be shipped back to Russia from Black Sea port city of Batumi.

News of the withdrawal from Georgia initially was applauded in Azerbaijan, where official at first interpreted the move as a sign of declining Russian influence in the Caucasus. But approval quickly transformed into doubt following the announcement that a portion of the Russian arms and equipment would be shifted to Armenia. On May 23, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry sent a protest note to Moscow, demanding an explanation for the transfer. "From the point of view of the law, the transfer of arms from one base to the other is quite normal. It concerns Armenia and Russia. However, the South Caucasus requires demilitarization. Therefore, there is no need to keep in the region tanks and other heavy military equipment. We do not consider it necessary," Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov told journalists, Turan News Agency reported.

Speaking at a June 25 military academy graduation ceremony, President Ilham Aliyev indicated that the Russian move could help spur a regional arms race. He said that Azerbaijani defense spending would increase to $300 million in 2005, up from last year's level of $175 million, ANS television reported. "We had to take appropriate measures," Aliyev said, referring to the Russian transfer of materiel to Armenia. "We did so immediately and increased our military spending. Military spending will continue to increase in the future."

"Our army should be strong to solve the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over [the breakaway region of] Nagorno-Karabakh," Aliyev added.

Moscow's statements concerning the transfer do not appear to have fully reassured the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Alliance members have expressed carefully worded concern about the pull-out's impact on the regional balance. "We welcome the withdrawal of troops. However this step should not affect regional stability in the South Caucasus," NATO Assistant Secretary-General for Defense and Policy Planning John Colton said in Baku on June 27. The defense alliance plans to raise the issue with Moscow "in the near future," the Regnum news service reported Colton as saying.

Many Azerbaijani observers now believe that, in deciding to shift weaponry from Georgia to Armenia, Russia's primary intention was to strengthen Moscow's own geopolitical position in the region, and not to bolster Yerevan's strategic situation vis-à-vis Baku. A June 1 commentary published by the independent daily Zerkalo complained that "Russia demonstrates its unwillingness to significantly reduce its military presence in the South Caucasus region, including [along] the borders with Iran and Turkey." Nasib Nasibli, a political expert at the Foundation for Azerbaijan Studies, agreed. "This act by Russia is aimed at preserving their influence in the Caucasus."

According to the Russian-Georgian withdrawal agreement, at least 40 units of armored equipment, including 20 tanks, are to be removed from Georgia by September 1. The Azerbaijan-based Turan news agency published a report stating that up to 40 Russian tanks could be moved to Gyumri from Akhalkalaki. If such a report proves accurate, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry announced that Baku would consider implementing "corresponding measures." Earlier, Azerbaijani officials stated that they might reconsider the country's $7 million-per-year lease of the Gabala radar facility to Russia.

Analysts in Yerevan argue that Baku's concerns are misplaced. "[I]f we look at the Russian military presence in the South Caucasus. . ..the bases in Armenia practically decide nothing, while the radar station in Gabala, located on the territory of Аzerbaijan, appears to be of great strategic importance," said Hayk Demoyan, an regional political expert at the Caucasus Media Institute.

Rather than dwelling on the Russian equipment transfer, Armenia has tried to concentrate international attention on its expanding ties with NATO. On June 16, Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanyan presented Armenia's Individual Action Partnership Plan (IPAP) to the NATO Council. The country has since received assurances from US Ambassador to Armenia Robert Evans that the Russian transfer of arms and equipment will not preclude further cooperation between Yerevan and NATO.

The press service of the Defense Ministry in Yerevan has denied the existence of any agreement that would give Armenian military forces access to the arms and equipment at Russia's base in Gyumri. The Defense Ministry also insists that no plans or intentions exist concerning the potential transfer Russian military personnel to Armenia from Georgia.

Despite such assurances, the debate continues in Baku over what constitutes an appropriate response. Azerbaijani analysts suggest the most likely counter-move would be a strengthening of Baku's relationship with NATO. Some point out that on June 6, Turkey -- an Atlantic alliance member and Baku's closest ally -- announced plans to allocate $2.1 million to help the Azerbaijani military adopt NATO military standards.

In recent weeks, President Ilham Aliyev's administration has toned down its angry rhetoric concerning the equipment-transfer issue. Some observers suggest that Baku has come to the realization that it can not stop the transfer. Others say that, with potentially pivotal parliamentary elections scheduled for November, Aliyev is reluctant to risk a full-blown dispute with Russia. Bilateral ties have been strengthening since 2000, and Aliyev clearly wants to keep them cordial. "We are very satisfied with the standard of our relationship, one of strategic partnership that meets the interests of both Russia and Azerbaijan," Aliyev said at an economic conference in St. Petersburg on June 14.

Editor's Note: Samvel Martirosyan is a Yerevan-based journalist and political analyst. Alman Mir-Ismail is a freelance political analyst from Baku.

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