TODAY.AZ / Politics

Sabina Freizer: "US should think of Nagorno Karabakh conflict settlement"

27 April 2006 [08:09] - TODAY.AZ
"Energy and security issues are likely to dominate the 28 April meeting of President Bush and President Ilham Aliyev. It will be Aliyev's first visit since becoming Head of the oil-rich state bordering both Russia and Iran; and Teheran's nuclear ambitions are undoubtedly one of the main reasons Aliyev has been invited to the White House."

As APA reports, International Crises Group Caucasus project leader Sabina Freizer has told that while expressing her attitude to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's visit to the US. Sabina Freizer stated that if the U.S. is keen to protect its energy and security interests, the main issue on the table should be the unresolved conflict in Nagorno Karabakh. For more than a decade, only a shaky cease-fire has kept Armenia and Azerbaijan from resuming their full-scale fighting over the small mountainous territory wedged between them and Iran. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and soon to be completed Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, which Washington sees as critical to the West’s energy security, pass within 30 miles of this flashpoint.

In the past months, President Aliyev has intensified his bellicose rhetoric, threatening to withdraw from peace talks and to militarily recapture all territories currently occupied by Armenian backed forces. He doubled the 2005 military budget to $600 million in 2006, over 16% of Azerbaijan’s total budget. He has also pledged to make military spending equal to the entire state budget of Armenia, and, propped up by oil revenues, the Azeri leader’s threat is very real.

In Washington President Aliyev should be told clearly that a military resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is unacceptable.

Instead, the US Government should – while making clear that it will be pressing Armenia equally strongly - push Azerbaijan to accept now the principles of a comprehensive peace deal which would include the renunciation of the use of force, the incremental withdrawal of Armenian-backed forces from all occupied territories around Nagorno Karabakh, the safe and voluntary return of all displaced persons, the reopening of all transport and trade routes closed as a result to the conflict, and a guarantee that the people of Nagorno Karabakh will be given the right to self-determination based on a referendum to be held after clear conditions are met.

This is close to what the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe proposed in February, but there was little international pressure on Armenia and Azerbaijan to encourage them to sign the deal. As a first step President Aliyev should allow people-to-people contacts between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides.

Until now, the Bush Administration has claimed to have a three-dimensional approach to Azerbaijan, focusing on security, energy, and freedom through reform. President Aliyev was not granted an earlier visit to the White House because the 2003 presidential elections were considered to be seriously flawed and were followed by a violent crackdown on the opposition. The 2005 Azerbaijani Parliamentary Elections were another disappointment, which should have precluded an invitation to Aliyev less than six months after they were held. Some of the three dimensions are clearly more important than others.

Even as democratic reform was lagging, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld traveled to Baku three times in 2003-2005. Most observers in Baku consider these visits to be cementing the relationships that could ease the way for the possible deployment of American troops in Azerbaijan to be used in actions against Iran. Today’s invitation may be part of the Bush Administration’s attempts to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran. Interestingly, however, Aliyev is preparing to welcome Iranian President Ahmadinejad in Baku in May, the second such meeting in Azerbaijan after the two countries signed a non aggression pact last year.

According to Sabina Freizer, if US wants to ensure Azerbaijan's long-term support of its policies towards Iran, and overall regional security, its best bet is to first focus on securing a peaceful resolution of the existing Nagorno Karabakh conflict. While the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unresolved, Azerbaijan can ill afford to undermine its improving relations with Tehran. At the same time, if Azerbaijan makes good on its threat to take military action against Nagorno-Karabakh, close to Iran's northern borders, it will undermine U.S. energy and security interests and cause the flight of foreign investment from Azerbaijan. The volatile South Caucasus region, plagued also by unresolved conflicts in Georgia, risks being completely destabilized, dragging into the fight neighboring Russia, Turkey and Iran. This perilous scenario is worth talking to Aliyev about as much as the threats of a nuclear Iran.


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