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Newly-approved Military Doctrine Reaffirms Baku’s Right to Use Force to Liberate Occupied Territories

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Six years after Baku began work on a military doctrine and three years after its National Security Doctrine required the elaboration of such a document but at a time when talks about the Karabakh conflict appear to have entered yet another lull, the Azerbaijani parliament on June 8th overwhelmingly approved, 110 to two with one abstention, an Azerbaijani military doctrine that reaffirms Azerbaijan’s right to use military force to liberate the occupied territories.

In addition, the newly approved doctrine enshrines in the military sector President Ilham Aliyev’s “balanced” foreign policy independent of any bloc, and allows for Azerbaijani forces to serve abroad and foreign troops to be based on Azerbaijani territory under exceptional circumstances.  But as both Defense Ministry officials and Milli Majlis deputies made clear, this document, which sketches out these principles in general terms, only provides broad guidelines and may be changed in response to shifts in the international environment.

The document first describes the chief threats to Azerbaijan.  Significantly, the only one that is specifically named is Armenia and its continued occupation of Azerbaijani territory, including Nagorno-Karabakh.  It says that Azerbaijan “has the right, using all necessary means, including force, to liberate the territories that have been seized and reestablish the territorial integrity” of the country.  Intriguingly in the context of the recent diplomatic dustups with France and Russia over parliamentarians of those two countries which had served as observers in the Karabakh “parliamentary elections,” it also specifies that any support by any other state directed at “the official recognition of the results of occupation will be interpreted [by Baku] as an act against the Azerbaijani Republic.”

In its discussion of the occupied territories, the doctrine says that “the main threat to the national security of Azerbaijan” includes acts of “ethnic cleansing” carried out by the Armenians and “the destruction of the social-economic infrastructure” of those territories.  As a result of Armenian actions, the document goes on, “national and international mechanisms” that protect the rights of residents do not work and consequently there are cases of “the illegal preparation and distribution of narcotics” and “trafficking in human persons,” as well as “the formation of illegal bases” which are involved in training “terrorists.” All these things, the doctrine says, represent “a serious danger not only for Azerbaijan but for the region as a whole.”

It then lists a number of other threats, but unlike the portion devoted to Armenia, this part of the document talks about them in only the most general terms.  They include forceful intervention in the internal affairs of Azerbaijan, efforts to destabilize its political or economic system, claims by neighbors against its territory, land or sea, the dispatch of armed groups into the territory of Azerbaijan, and the violation of “the regional balance.” In each case, some Milli Majlis deputies suggested during the debate on the document that Baku would do well to add more details, but this lack of specificity, the government said, not only is characteristic of such documents—something that is absolutely true—but also reflects Azerbaijan’s commitment to remain flexible.

The doctrine specifies that Azerbaijan does not intend to initiate military actions against anyone except in cases like that of the Armenian occupation where it is the victim of aggression.  It specifically excludes war as a tool of foreign policy, and except under “exceptional” but unspecified circumstances—other than with Azerbaijani government approval as in the case of the Gabala radar site—it does not permit Azerbaijanis to be based abroad or foreign countries to establish bases on Azerbaijani territory.

If the document identifies Armenia as an enemy state, it perhaps significantly does not identify any other country as an ally.  That disturbed some deputies who felt that it should mention Turkey given the closeness of ties between Baku and Ankara and others who felt that it was a mistake not to specify that Azerbaijan had made a “Euro-Atlanticist” choice, as the national security doctrine adopted three years ago did.  But government officials parried these objections by saying that the doctrine did not name any allies at all, thus retaining Baku’s freedom of action within a balanced foreign policy, and by pointing out that the doctrine does point to Baku’s willingness to engage with NATO on various projects, something it does not say about the Moscow-led Organization for the Treaty on Security Cooperation.

Besides these objections and complaints about the document’s “abstractness,” perhaps the most interesting critique during the parliamentary debate came from independent deputy Panah Huseyn who suggested that the doctrine’s greatest shortcoming was that it did not “presuppose the democratic development of the country.  History has shown many times,” he said, “that democratic countries usually win.” Milli Majlis Vice Speaker Ziyafat Alaskarov responded that the entire document was suffused by democratic sentiments and thus no specific mention was needed.

Because the government’s Yeni Azerbaijan Party has a preponderance of seats in the parliament, most of those taking part in the debate before the document was approved were enthusiastic in support of it.  Ganira Pashayeva, a deputy who often speaks on foreign policy, spoke for many when she said that “in the military doctrine are obvious the ever-growing authority and might of Azerbaijan,” adding that it shows the hopelessness of Armenia in thinking it can prolong the talks forever and pointing to the ultimate liberation of the occupied territories peacefully if possible or by military means if necessary.

But precisely because the document could have been approved so easily at any time, government spokesmen were at pains to discuss why it had taken so long to bring it forward for a vote.  Baku formed a working group in 2004 to come up with a doctrine, and in October 2007, the Azerbaijani government announced it was ready and had even been discussed with NATO.  And in subsequent years, government officials and Milli Majlis leaders announced that the military doctrine was to be brought up for a vote but each time the document was taken off the table.

It seems clear that it was brought up for a vote now to add weight and democratic legitimacy to statements by President Ilham Aliyev and other Azerbaijani leaders that if Armenia continues to try to play for time and refuses to negotiate under the terms of the renewed Madrid Principles of the OSCE Minsk Group, Azerbaijan is ready, willing and able to use force to end the occupation.  And consequently, Azerbaijan’s new military doctrine both by its content and the timing of its adoption is part of the complex, multi-level back and forth between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the occupied territories, “a stick” to go along with all “the carrots” Baku has suggested will be available if Yerevan agrees.

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