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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE GREAT GAME: Aliyev Inches Azerbaijan Nearer NATO




When President Heidar Aliyev returned to power five years ago, he was seen as a pro-Moscow man who ousted Azerbaijan's democratic president, the former dissident Abulfaz Elchibey.


One of Aliyev's first deeds was to bring Azerbaijan into the Commonwealth of Independent States, the organization that succeeded the Soviet Union, binding the newly independent republics into Moscow's sphere of influence.


At roughly the same time, Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia did the same.


Bowing to Russian military pressure after losing Abkhazia, he also brought his strife-torn country into the CIS. It seemed Russian hegemony in the Trans-Caucasus was secured once again.


Yet Aliyev and Shevardnadze, despite their backgrounds of loyal service to Moscow, have shown a dogged resistance to Moscow's jackboot.


Both had to make concessions when weak. Georgia agreed to the presence of Russian military bases on its soil for 25 years and is only now taking over responsibility for policing its own borders.


Azerbaijan had to give Russia big chunks of its oil contracts. But Aliyev refused to reverse one of the great achievements of the previous government f the removal of Russian bases from Azerbaijan.


The Popular Front leaders who were in power for a brief year from 1992-93 say they did it more by improvisation than anything, literally paying individual Russian officers to go home and giving them the money to buy flats in Russia. A large number of men took the money and simply quit.


Today there remains a single radar station manned by Russians. Former Defense Minister Pavel Grachev once voiced plans to upgrade it to a full Russian base, but Aliyev has not allowed that.


His outburst to NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana last week in fact revealed the real Aliyev. He slammed Russia for keeping bases in Georgia and Armenia, saying it was a danger for the region and incompatible with the countries' independence.


He blames Russia for siding with Armenia in the war over Nagorny Karabakh and supplying it with weapons and military assistance, all while pretending to be mediating a peaceful solution to the war.


Solana made no reaction, just busily took notes. His job is diplomacy, but he must secretly agree.


He was on a tour of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, his second to the region and part of the Partnership for Peace program which takes in all the former Soviet countries. He says the Caucasus region is very important for European security, and linked military security to Western-led economic development in the region. There are now Western interests to defend in the Caucasus.


The level of cooperation of the Caucasus countries is largely restricted by money, but Azerbaijan's troops have taken part in joint exercises and Georgia has been hosting a U.S. flagship at the port of Poti on the Black Sea. Those two countries at least really want to boost the relationship.


Armenia is a bit more standoffish, as is Russia, which has warned NATO to keep its hands off former Soviet countries. NATO in return is watching Russia's concentration of forces in the region, which violates the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty.


I would never write off the strength of Russia's influence here but I cannot help thinking that once Azerbaijan is oil rich, say in 2010, it will be buying NATO planes and radar systems and may one day become the NATO outpost that Turkey is today.