NATO and Azerbaijan

An Interview with Robert Simmons
NATO Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia

March 8, 2008
Baku, Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan in the World: How would You rate the current level of relations between NATO and Azerbaijan?

Simmons: Our relations are quite good now.  We are quite satisfied with the IPAP [Individual Partnership Action Plan], the second round of which has developed quite positively, and we have had a good political dialogue on issues of common interest.

AIW: What are the core of the relations between Azerbaijan and NATO?  What are the main directions of cooperation?

Simmons: I would say, there are three.  The first is the IPAP and mutual cooperation in the common goals it sets out.  The second is the political dialogue, because IPAP provides an opportunity for that, both via your permanent mission in Brussels and during frequent visits by ministers and senior officials from Azerbaijan to NATO.  And the third is Azerbaijan’s contributions to NATO missions, as for instance in Afghanistan.  

AIW: What role do You see NATO playing in the conflict resolution between Azerbaijan and Armenia at any stage of the negotiation process, today or tomorrow? 

Simmons: At present, we believe that the Minsk Group Co-Chairs should take the lead, and it would be not correct for any other groups to involve themselves in.  That is the negotiating process, and we support that.  As that process goes forward, if there is potentially a role for NATO, that is something we could look at.  But there must be first an agreement among the parties, and the decision by the UN Security Council that something that NATO can contribute with could be made.  Those are, of course, hypothetical questions, for at the moment they are not really on the table.         

AIW: How do You assess the commitment of Azerbaijani government to the Euro-Atlantic integration?

Simmons: Azerbaijani government has clearly a broad commitment to the Euro-Atlantic integration.  Baku is working very extensively with both NATO within IPAP, and the European Union within its Neighborhood Program.  Whether the Azerbaijanis want to take it to the next step and become a formal candidate for membership is a decision for them to take.  For the moment, I don’t have the sense that that is the decision they want to make, but obviously, we will be prepared to discuss that with them when they want to move in that direction.   

AIW: How do You rate the evolution of Azerbaijan-NATO cooperation within the first stage of IPAP and what do you envisage at the second stage? 

Simmons: First, in the first stage of IPAP, we had some very tentative goals in defense reform.  What has impressed me both during that first stage and, importantly, in key details in the second stage is how the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry has expanded their goals into much more concrete and detailed work.  Second, we have expanded our cooperation with other ministries as well on the basis of some specific goals.  Border security is particularly important, and I have always been impressed by the work officials here have done in dealing with issues like terrorism, energy protection, and other things like that.  All of this has been very good.  The third dimension, which didn’t even exist in the first round, involves Azerbaijan’s new civil emergency planning ministry.  NATO has long had an expertise in that area, and now we have a partner with the new civil emergency planning ministry.  And obviously, that opens a whole new chapter in the IPAP which didn’t exist – not because we disagreed, but because you didn’t have a ministry.        

AIW:  How do You see the relationship between NATO and Azerbaijan developing after the second stage of IPAP?  What are the next steps?

Simmons: Well, IPAP is a progressive and continuing document.  I don’t think we should always see steps ahead.  I think what we should see is that we are moving forward on the goals, meeting successes and setting new goals into the future.  I think we have done that very effectively, and we have to continue to do that.  As I said, if at some stage your government wants to move towards intensified dialogue, that is something to discuss; but I don’t think that should in any way call into question the good cooperation we have now.   

AIW: What impact do You see the independence of Kosovo having on security dynamics in the South Caucasus region?

Simmons: I believe that Kosovo is a unique case.  You must look back at the long and very complicated history of the break-up of Yugoslavia, at Serbia’s dealings with Kosovo and all the rest of it.  One should not draw any lessons from Kosovo and its independence for conflicts in the South Caucasus or anywhere else.  Kosovo is a unique case, tied to a very unique situation of the former Yugoslavia, and that is the way it should remain.               

AIW: How do You assess the expected withdrawal of Azerbaijan’s 34-soldier contribution to the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo? 

Simmons: Well, we welcome the contribution they made in the past.  We accept the fact that given the changed circumstances, for its own reasons, Azerbaijan had a look at the issue again.  And we understand that, and we appreciate that.  But what should be emphasized is that it is critical that no one view this as calling into question [UN Security Council] Resolution 1244, which we all agree is the basis for the KFOR mission. 

AIW: Azerbaijan has always presented itself as a model for the post-Soviet Muslim countries in Central Asia.  What lessons do You think these countries may draw from Azerbaijan’s experience?  

Simmons: Well, I personally don’t believe that the Islamic element is that big a factor.  Obviously, you have an Islamic background, but I think what is more critical of the difference is how you have emerged from the former Soviet Union – both your good relations with Russia and your independence, and the fact that you can balance those.  And that is a very important lesson for the countries in Central Asia, who also emerged from the Soviet Union and need to understand that you can have good relations with NATO while maintaining good relations with Russia.  I think, frankly, that is more important than the Islamic element because, while I respect the Islamic faith of your citizens and citizens in Central Asia, that is not a big issue in policy.
AIW: What are the ways in which NATO-Azerbaijan cooperation may contribute to the European energy security?

Simmons: There are several aspects to that.  One is a great deal of expertise you have in energy, and that is very important; you have off-shore platforms, you have pipelines, you have sea transportation across the Caspian, and you have significant infrastructure that needs to be protected.  Second, you have built up some good capabilities for protecting them, and I think those are lessons that you can share with NATO countries and with other partners.  And finally, we see this as an important part of political dialogue.  When President Aliyev was in Brussels two years ago, he devoted a key part of his speech to that issue, and I believe the Allies found his remarks extremely eloquent and instructive.               

AIW: What issues of direct or indirect relevance to Azerbaijan are expected to be discussed at the forthcoming Bucharest summit? 

Simmons: First is your participation in Afghanistan.  You contribute troops to Afghanistan and also want to expand your contribution to other areas of cooperation.  We are very interested in this comprehensive approach, and I think you have some very good lessons connected with that.  Second is participation in the political dialogue about the conflict there so that a consensus can be maintained.  That is always difficult when people are being killed.  It is essential to understand that peace in Afghanistan is important not only for the security of Afghanistan itself, but for the whole Euro-Atlantic area.  And I think Azerbaijan recognizes that, and it is important that you share that experience.  Third is energy security and the new challenges of the 21st century, including non-proliferation.  Iran will be discussed, and I know that your government and particularly your president have important views to share on that, and we hope that he does so.  And fourth, as I already said, Azerbaijan has a key lesson of a country that balances good relations with Russia and good relations with the West.  And I think that sharing that experience with other partners and showing that these are not inconsistent goals is an important thing you can do.   

AIW: NATO has normally sought to offer incentives to Russia as the Alliance has expanded eastward.  Are You thinking of any additional ones as NATO, for the first time, explores inclusion of post-USSR states like Georgia and Ukraine?  

Simmons: Well, I have to say that I don’t entirely understand some of the current Russian rhetoric on this.  First, we said when the whole process began that we didn’t see Russia as a threat, and we didn’t threaten Russia.  That policy hasn’t changed.  But suddenly Russia is trying to create a sense of a threat, which frankly doesn’t exist.  Second, we made commitments that would apply to any new Ally – that we will not station large numbers of conventional forces permanently on the territories of new Allies.  Those would apply to the existing new Allies, and to any new Allies.  That is an important commitment from us to Russia.  I also think the notion of whether the country was or wasn’t in the Soviet Union is irrelevant.  What is relevant is the OSCE principle that every country has the choice and the right to make the choice of whether to belong or not to belong to an alliance.  Russia should not see these steps as directed against it, and again, I find it difficult to understand why this rhetoric is suddenly coming back in the Russian lexicon.            

AIW: What effect would the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine have on Azerbaijan? 

Simmons: You have very good relations with both of them; you belong to GUAM.  Every indication that I have heard is that in the GUAM context, you support their territorial integrity and their activities.  So, I presume you would support their membership.  If it gives you an incentive to move forward on membership, that is for you to decide, as I said before.  But I presume that you would support their moving forward, that your own balanced policy we discussed before will continue, and I would not see that their membership should either complicate or improve it.    

AIW: Looking back at the evolution of the partnership institution and the role it has played, do you believe it has been a success?

Simmons: Absolutely!  I’ve even written an article about it because I was involved in all three critical stages.  I served in NATO HQ in the US delegation in the early 1990s when we set up the partnership.  I was in Washington when we expanded this.  And now I play a role in directing it.  And I can say in all honesty that this is one of the things I am most proud of.  When with the end of the Cold War, we reached out to countries that had been part of the Warsaw Pact, part of the former Soviet Union and said that we want you to be our partners and even some of you to even join the Alliance, we made an important commitment, not only demonstrating to everyone that NATO was not a threat but also that NATO wanted all of Europe to be whole and free and have the promise of belonging to these security institutions.  I think we have been remarkably successful at that, and I am certainly proud of the role I have played in this.