On September 13, 2004, at 4:20PM Mediamax released news entitled: “Urgent! NATO SACEUR called off the exercises in Azerbaijan because of Baku’s refusal to receive Armenian officers”.
A few days before, Azerbaijani Embassy in Tbilisi refused to give entry permissions to 5 Armenian officers for taking part in Cooperative Best Effort-2004 exercises.
Representative of NATO Headquarters in Brussels said in a telephone interview with Mediamax that NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), U.S. General James Jones made a decision to call off exercises “in connection with Azerbaijan’s refusal to give entry visas to Armenian officers which is a violation of the fundamental principle of holding exercises under PfP according to which they must be open for all NATO partner-states.”
[5 years later, in January 2009, General Jones would be appointed National Security Adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama and would hold this post until November 2010].
“Contradicts Azerbaijan’s statements”
One month later, on October 13, 2004, the U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns said in the exclusive interview with Mediamax that “we were impressed with Yerevan’s hosting of Cooperative Best Effort-2003 exercises, not least because it included Turkish officers and invited Azerbaijan’s participation despite tensions with those nations.”
“We support the decision by NATO authorities to cancel the CBE-2004 and deeply regret Baku’s decision not to issue visas to the Armenian participants. We do not believe the decision is consistent with Azerbaijan’s repeated desire to cooperate with NATO and work towards a closer partnership with NATO,” Nicholas Burns said.
The reason for Burns’ straightforwardness was understandable. In April 2004, Deputy U.S. EUCOM Commander, General Charles Wald said in Yerevan that Nicholas Burns was personally engaged in solving the issues of Armenian servicemen’s participation in Cooperative Best Effort-2004.
Moreover, General Wald said that “Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has assured me that the Armenian servicemen can take part in the Cooperative Best Effort-2004 exercises”.
Azeri radical organizations launched a campaign against the participation of Armenian servicemen in CBE 2004 exercises already in autumn 2003.
In Armenia some forces were against the participation of Turkish servicemen in Cooperative Best Effort 2003 held in Armenia. The Armenian leadership, however, made it clear that the political decision had been made and nobody was going to change it.
On December 21, 2002, Armenian President Robert Kocharian said that “emotionally I am not delighted with the possible participation of Turkish contingent in CBE 2003 exercises.” “However, as a president I understand that the correctly built relations with NATO are more important for the country,” he noted.
In January 2004, shortly before the beginning of the CBE 2004 military exercises planning conference Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev made a statement, which, at first sight, testified that Baku had reconciled to the inevitability of Armenian delegation’s visit.
“We can take decisive steps but we must also think about the future. What dividends will Azerbaijan get from these actions?” said Guliev, pointing out that if the Azerbaijani side did not admit the Armenian delegation it would harm the country’s relations with NATO. The minister also called on the Azeri people “to accept such visits with understanding otherwise the Armenian propagandistic machine will make use of this situation.”
However, after the exercises were canceled, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry issued a statement, which, in particular, said:
“Under conditions of the continued occupation of 20% of Azerbaijani territories by Armenia and the existence of more than 1 mln refugees and migrants the Armenian leadership pursues more and more harsh and non-constructive policy. Under such conditions the participation of the Armenian servicemen in the military exercises in the territory of the country would be impossible for Azerbaijan.”
The first incident
On January 13, 2004 on demand of the Azerbaijani consular authorities the corresponding Turkish services did not let Armenian officers on the plane heading from Istanbul to Baku. Before that, the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tbilisi without any comments refused granting entry permissions to the Armenian officers.
“After the Armenian officers had been denied permissions in the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tbilisi NATO leadership contacted Azeri Defense Minister who assured that Armenian servicemen would be able to get them right in Baku airport. Only after it our delegation left for Istanbul in order to reach Baku from there,” Head of the department of foreign affairs and international military cooperation of Armenian Defense Ministry, Major-General Mikael Melkonian said.
On April 26, 2004 Deputy U.S. EUCOM Commander, General Charles Wald arrived in Yerevan and informed that he had personally discussed this problem with Azerbaijani president. “Ilham Aliyev has personally assured me that the Armenian servicemen will not have problems,” he said.
In March the Armenian Parliament ratified a multilateral PfP Status of Forces Agreement (PfP SOFA). Thus, this time the Armenian servicemen could even not appeal for entry visas and permissions in order to take part in NATO’s multinational exercises on the territory of Azerbaijan. However, the decision to turn to Azerbaijani Embassy in Tbilisi was again made at NATO’s request.
On September 9, just some days before the beginning of the exercises General Wald was in Baku and discussed the issue of Armenian servicemen’s participation in CBE-04 with Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev.
It was interesting that the representatives of Azerbaijan’s closest ally - Turkey repeatedly called on Baku not to put obstacles in the way of the Armenian servicemen. Several days before the cancellation of the exercises Turkish Ambassador to Azerbaijan Ahmet Unal Cevikoz said that “blocking the participation of the Armenian servicemen in NATO’s exercises in Baku is not advantageous for Azerbaijan’s further cooperation with the Alliance.”
“Azerbaijan has assumed a number of commitments under NATO’s PfP program, one of which is the creation of conditions for the participation of the representatives of NATO member and partner states in the Alliance’s events,” the Turkish diplomat said.
[In 2008, shortly before Abdullah Gul’s visit to Yerevan, Ahmet Cevikoz visited Yerevan as a special envoy of the President of Turkey].
Still in November 2003, director of NATO PfP program Partnership Coordination Cell, Turkish Major General Rifki Durusoy said in the interview with Mediamax that “not a single NATO partner-state can block the participation of the other partner-state in the exercises held within the framework of PfP program.”