Sunday, June 26, 2005

An Arms Race in the South Caucasus?

Agence France Press (AFP) reports that the Azerbaijani military budget has increased by 70 per cent this year to $300 million, largely as a result of increased oil revenues. The largest of the three South Caucasus republics inauguarated a multi-billion oil pipeline from Baku to the Turkish port of Ceyhan last month. AFP says the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline will bring in as much as $160 billion into the impoverished country over the next 30 years.

The Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev, has made no secret of the fact that if ongoing negotiations with neighboring Armenia to resolve the conflict over the territory of Nagorno Karabagh, mainly inhabited by ethnic Armenians, within Azerbaijan come to nothing, then the Azerbaijani military will resume hostilities to take it back by force.
"The adversary must know that the Azerbaijani army can mobilize at any moment and liberate the occupied territories," Aliyev said. "Spending on the country's defense force will grow continuously."
The conflict that erupted between the two neighboring states towards the end of the former Soviet Union turned into fullscale war in 1991. Over 20,000 died and as many as a million were forced to flee their homes in both republics until a ceasefire was signed in May 1994. Progress is reported in a new round of negotiations currently being mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group.

Nevertheless, all three South Caucasus republics have recently increased spending on the military -- rising to $104 million in Armenia and a whopping $180 million in the Republic of Georgia. Although Georgian spending is less than the total expenditure on the military in Azerbaijan, it is worth noting that it stood at just $23 million five years ago. Of course, Georgia has its own problems with separatist regions but at the same time, has also set its sights on integration into NATO as well as Europe.

Interestingly, the Georgian Defense Minister, Irakli Okruashvili, has just visited the United States where he met with the US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. It's also worth noting that the 2005 US Defense Authorization Bill has money earmarked for non-proliferation. The Bill envisages spending $10 million in Georgia to establish a pilot project to promote "non-weapons-related employment for scientists, engineers, and technicians formerly engaged in activities to develop weapons of mass destruction in the Caucasus and Central Asia."

Meanwhile, an arms race is obviously developing between Armenia and Azerbaijan and although international organizations such as the Council of Europe and European Union have warned the latter about any resumption of hostilities, military build-ups are always worrying especially as its an escalation that probably does not favor Armenia. Of course, Russia is also reported to be relocating old military equipment from Georgia to Armenia as pressure for it to remove its bases from the former increases.

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