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Do you see the South Caucasus as a region where the US and Russia are fighting or cooperating?

In the South Caucasus, like elsewhere in the post-Soviet space, I see Russia striving to reassert its standing as the dominant power. This attempt, though, is frustrated by the consolidation of fully sovereign and independent national states in the region. Notably Azerbaijan and Georgia are pursuing independent foreign policies which – as such – have often disappointed the Kremlin over the last decade. Their choice to join the path of integration into the Euro-Atlantic institutions (NATO and EU) and develop closer relations with the US and the European countries is challenging Moscow’s resolve for a return of the whole area under the Russian centralized control. However, by quitting the CST in 1999, Baku and Tbilisi clearly rejected to be part of any Russian sphere of influence; while Armenia’s strong ties to Moscow and membership in CSTO are mostly due to the “mechanics” of the still unsolved conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Therefore, the major challenge for the Euro-Atlantic community and institutions is to preserve a high and increasing level of relations with partner countries in the South Caucasus. The outcome of the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008 has undoubtedly shaken both dialogue and cooperation, above all in political terms. Afterwards, the “reset button” of the Obama’s Administration about Russia raised further concerns around the US policy in the region. As for Azerbaijan, even the US support to the Turkish-Armenia détente was a source of suspicion on the intentions of the new administration in Washington. However, the most recent developments suggest an improvement in relations. The official visits to Azerbaijan of the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates (who handed over an Obama’s personal letter to President Aliyev), and then of the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, were aimed at restoring mutual trust between Baku and Washington. In this domain, the newly appointed US ambassador in Azerbaijan, Matthew Bryza, will certainly play an essential role.

What kind of a role can NATO play to help establish stability in the South Caucasus? Can we see a more active role of NATO in our region and a closer cooperation with regional republics despite Russian-Georgian war?

After more than twenty years of gruesome conflicts and ethnic rivalries, time has come to open a new chapter in the history of the region. All the sources of mistrust and antagonism should be left behind, in favor of a regional context based on a broad and genuine cooperation. To this end, security and stability are the fundamental premises and NATO, in this respect, is already playing a strategic role in support of sovereignty and statehood of South Caucasus’ countries. In the framework of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program and of the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP), Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia are being provided with bilateral assistance and instruments for a comprehensive agenda of structural reforms aimed at developing their means and capabilities in the field of security and defense. Moreover, NATO is engaged in conflict prevention and in the overall stabilization process in the South Caucasus in the same way as in the Western Balkans. Promoting inter-state dialogue and cooperation is thus a NATO core task in the region and for this purpose it relies on the work of the Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, Robert Simmons, and on multilateral frameworks like the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Such a primary role in the South Caucasus, per se, is no way against Russian interests. Yet, if Moscow does keep viewing NATO as a “danger” (just to mention its latest military doctrine), rather than a partner and security multiplier, increasing responsibilities of NATO in the region will not be welcomed by the Kremlin. If this will be the case, NATO should not back down, while at the same time pursuing any attempt to cooperate with Moscow wherever possible.  

If the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh is a major obstacle toward regional stability, why the Western countries seem not to pay much attention on it? Do you expect a new war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh or still believe in its resolution by peaceful means?

Today, the attention of the West, especially the US, is focused for the most part on the war in Afghanistan, the stabilization in Iraq, the Iranian nuclear proliferation threat, and in general on the numerous and troublesome issues crossing the Greater Middle East. At the same time, the Euro-Atlantic community has always been actively involved in the over-heating question of Nagorno-Karabakh. As a matter of fact, the driving forces in the OSCE Minsk Group have been so far the US and France more than Russia. To testify such engagement is the adoption of the OSCE Madrid principles, the negotiation platform pledging Armenia and Azerbaijan to a peaceful settlement of the dispute. On the other hand, although not directly involved, NATO has never failed to support the diplomatic efforts within OSCE by means of the Special Representative Simmons, who keeps on following closely how negotiations are evolving. More recently, also the EU took a more significant stance in the framework of the Eastern dimension of the European Neighborhood Policy. The European Parliament ratified a resolution named “The need for an EU Strategy for the South Caucasus”, advocating the prompt withdrawal of the Armenian troops from all the Azerbaijanis regions surrounding Karabakh. Therefore, it is mostly thanks to the Western efforts that today a viable peace process is under way. At this point, the responsibility to reach an agreement rests only upon Armenia and Azerbaijan. The negative outcome of the last round of talks held on July 16-17 in Kazakhstan shows that the two sides are still far from a final understanding. To this end, a greater spirit of compromise is required, bearing in mind that compromises are neither a win-win nor a zero-sum game, entailing renounces and sacrifices for all the stakeholders. In any case, the benefits of a compromise would overwhelm the related costs for the people of both Armenia and Azerbaijan in terms of political, socio-economic, and human development. The status quo is in fact curbing the potential of the whole region and remains the best option only for those who still get power and leverage from it. However, the status quo is always better than a new war. In similar circumstances, all the achievements of the past twenty years will be put at serious risk.

Azerbaijani authorities do not speak officially about membership in NATO as a future purpose, but at the same time they seem committed to enhance bilateral cooperation. How would you estimate the current level of Azerbaijan-NATO relations and what can it bring to Azerbaijan?

According to the National Security Concept of Azerbaijan, the integration into the Euro-Atlantic security system is among the main objectives of the foreign and defense policy of the country. The same official document does not pose explicit limits to the extent of such integration, thus encompassing the possibility of a future NATO and EU membership. So far, Azerbaijani leadership has preferred not to assume a clear-cut position on the subject not only for a choice of political convenience related to Russia. It is also a matter of identity. Most of the establishment within the country comes from the Soviet era and remnants of the Soviet Union’s culture and mindset are still exerting a significant influence in current affairs. Many high officials, notably among the militaries, feel often uneasy vis-à-vis NATO’s political and technical standards, and end up holding back the reform process in the security and defense sector, which is the very core purpose of dialogue and cooperation with NATO. For this reason, the outcome of the Azerbaijan-NATO partnership has been hitherto substandard with regard to the overall reorganization of the Armed Forces, involving their structure, professionalism, training, education, defense planning, and budgeting. Such a situation does not match with the Azerbaijani level of ambition as a security provider in the regional and international stage. Baku has joined all the NATO’s main peace-keeping and stabilization missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, as well as contributed to the US-led multinational coalition in Iraq. Its commitment in combating terrorism is also testified by the participation at the NATO Partnership Action Plan against Terrorism (PAPT). Yet, the fact that the Azerbaijani army has not reached so far combat capabilities for crisis management operations is illustrative of a continuing delay in the transformation process of its military instrument from the inherited Soviet-fashioned forces into effective, modern, rapidly deployable, and self-sustainable units. Therefore, enhancing and streamlining cooperation with NATO remains a priority and a major national interest for Azerbaijan, regardless the membership issue. In any case, talks about membership today are premature, since Azerbaijan has still a long way to go before meeting all the requirements to join NATO as well as the EU. Last but not least, in fact, shortfalls in the democratic institution building – which is the key premise of cooperation between Azerbaijan and the Euro-Atlantic institutions – seem to be increasing over the past few years, and not only as far as the question of the civilian control over the military is concerned.

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