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PostPosted: Mon Sep 12, 2005 4:39 pm    Post subject: A US BASE FOR AZERBAIJAN? Reply with quote


Alman Mir Ismail 9/12/05

As the Azerbaijani parliamentary election campaign gathers pace, local media speculation is building about the possible establishment of a US military facility in Azerbaijan.

Both US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Reno Harnish and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev have firmly dismissed the possibility that the US would open a permanent military base on Azerbaijani territory. "I have said this before, and I repeat: ‘Azerbaijan will not host American military bases on its territory," the president said on August 19 while visiting the Agsu, Gabala and Oguz regions. Harnish has similarly denied that Washington has made Aliyev any official request for bases. "[W]e are not going to locate our military bases in the territory of Azerbaijan," the US ambassador told Azerbaijani journalists on August 26, the Russian-language newspaper Zerkalo reported Harnish as saying.

But as the Pentagon prepares to withdraw troops from Uzbekistan at the request of the Uzbek government, speculation has mounted that US forces could relocate to Azerbaijan. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has visited Azerbaijan three times in the past year, and, despite a denial by US Ambassador Harnish, local media continue to report that the Pentagon chief plans a return trip in the near future. A Pentagon spokesperson said Rumsfeld’s travel plans were generally not released in advance due to security considerations. Like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan has also been rumored as a potential home for a US base. Those reports were fanned by Russian media and were strenuously denied by both US and Turkmen officials. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

President Aliyev’s denials notwithstanding, the speculation about a future US base in Azerbaijan could prove damaging to the government’s interests, noted one prominent political scientist. "Raising the issue about American military bases in Azerbaijan comes at a bad time, because the pro-Russian and pro-Iranians voters will be unhappy about it and will vote against the ruling party [Yeni Azerbaijan Party]," said Professor Musa Gasimli, an expert on American politics at Baku State University. "Such timing is [also] bad for America’s national interests in the region."

Already, the debate is colored by strong political overtones. Opposition leader Isa Gambar, chairman of the Musavat Party, recently spoke out strongly in favor of the opening of US military bases in Azerbaijan, saying that as "a member of the anti-terror coalition, [Azerbaijan] must carry out its commitments as a coalition member," the newspaper Ayna reported on September 1. "Given that the US wants to secure its presence in this territory, Azerbaijan should be positive about this issue."

Nonetheless, Azerbaijan’s laws and international agreements make the establishment of such an installation unlikely. In 2004 the Azerbaijani parliament, adopted a law that bans the establishment of a foreign military base on Azerbaijan’s territory. During a trip to Iran this January, Aliyev also signed a non-aggression agreement – a document believed to carry particular significance given ongoing tensions between Washington and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Some Azerbaijani news sources have instead focused their sights on alleged plans for a temporary, mobile installation. Citing an unnamed diplomatic source, the APA news agency recently reported that while a force similar to the former US air base at Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan may not be in the offing for Azerbaijan, "a structure" with no "concrete purpose" could be opened to defend Washington’s "various strategic interests, including the interest to protect the main oil pipeline [Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline]."

While Washington has not commented on such speculation, one mobile force is already planned for Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. In August, the Pentagon announced that it will allocate $130 million to provide training for a Caspian Guard over the next six years. The force will be responsible for intercepting drug and weapons trafficking on the Caspian Sea, as well as fighting international terrorists and the spread of weapons of mass destruction in the region.

As part of the program, the United States hopes to build a command and control center in Azerbaijan as well as sites to oversee related maritime and air security operations, an August 10 Stars and Stripes report cited Army Lt. Col. Scott Sweetser, a Caspian Guard Initiative coordinator, as saying.

In recent months, the United States has exerted pressure on Aliyev’s government to hold free-and-fair parliamentary elections on November 6. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Some local experts believe the US government would be willing to scale back its scrutiny of the Aliyev administration’s conduct during the election period, in return for a commitment to accept an American strategic presence in the country. Vafa Guluzadeh, a former presidential advisor on foreign affairs, recently told the newspaper Sherg that the question of a US base should be seen as affecting the parliamentary elections one way or another.

Sulheddin Akber, the deputy chairman of the opposition Musavat Party, dismissed any possibility that a military base could be used as part of a quid pro quo involving the US stance toward Azerbaijan’s election. "The United States did not give up on its principles" in Uzbekistan, where strong criticism of the Uzbek response to the June 2005 protest in Andijan was followed by Tashkent’s demand that the US withdraw from the air base in Karshi-Khanabad in southern Uzbekistan, Akber noted. "From this point of view, America will not sacrifice its democratic demands [in Azerbaijan] for the sake of bases that are still to be built."

For now, Washington shows no sign of diminishing its scrutiny of Azerbaijan’s preparations for the November 6 ballot. The vote is widely viewed as a critical test of the Aliyev administration’s commitment to democratic reforms. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In early September, Senator Richard Lugar (Republican-Indiana), the influential chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Barak Obama (Democrat-Illinois) were the latest in a series of high-profile US visitors to Azerbaijan to observe voting preparations. The visit, Lugar told journalists in Baku on August 31, convinced the congressmen that "fair and free polls will be held."

Editor’s Note: Alman Mir Ismail is a pseudonym freelance political analyst in Baku.

Posted September 12, 2005 © Eurasianet
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