During the Cold War, Moscow's efforts to expand its power to the eastern Mediterranean region and contrarily NATO's act to form new defense lines over its wing country Turkey, caused the two major actors of the war the United States and the Soviet Union to draw their field of struggle to the Turkey-Caucasus axis. While, the United States tried to take the Soviet Union under control with Turkey-Pakistan line during this Cold War, the former Soviet Union installed a big radar station in the Caucasus and thus developed an early warning system against possible missile attacks from Turkey and the Indian Ocean, finding the opportunity to determine every military movement in these regions.
Gabala Radar Station, which was installed to determine the ballistics missiles between continents, has the capacity to determine every move in the southern hemisphere. Being the major base of the Soviet Union in the region, the Daryal-type Gabala Radar Station's construction started in Azerbaijan's Gabala region (320 kilometers northwest of Baku) in 1978 and the station started its operations on Feb. 20, 1985.
In fact, there had been nine radar stations similar to Gabala in the Soviet Union's air defense system. Following the division of the Soviet Union, three of these stations -- at Murmansk, Pecoro and Irkuts -- remained within the borders of the Russian Federation, while 'Gabala' within Azerbaijan, 'Balkas' in Kazakhstan, 'Baranovichi' in Belarus, and 'Mukacheva' and 'Sivastopol' in Ukraine. Skrunde Station in Lithuania was closed following a Parliament decision in 1999 upon the pressure of the region's inhabitants. The $5 million cost stemming from the closure of the station was met by the United States. It is stressed that the Gabala station in Azerbaijan is unique in the world in terms of its technical characteristics.
Besides in the former Soviet Union member states, the Russian Federation had tapping bases in many regions of the world. However, realizing that he was far away from meeting the economic infrastructure of being an international power, Russian leader Vladimir Putin decided to shut down the military bases of 'Lourdes' in Cuba and 'Camran' in Vietnam on Oct. 17, despite the military's reactions. Russia proved that it had given up its global claims with this decision, based on both political and economic reasons. Russia wants to be a regional and/but efficient power since, while withdrawing from these bases, it showed that it was adamant to persevere its claims in its neighborhood by signing the Gabala Agreement in a period when Central Asian countries were signing agreements for bases with the United States.
Gabala Radar Station has a significant place in the Russian Federation's air defense and early warning systems. The station is also directly linked to the 'nuclear suitcase' of the president. Depriving Russia of such a station may turn the southern wing of the country's defense system both blind and deaf.
The Daryal-type station covers a 7,200 kilometer area in the southern hemisphere and can track ballistic missiles and every flying object in two or three seconds, and determine the coordinates, pace, route and the magnitude of the objects to one millimeter accuracy. In 1998, the commander of the station Victor Cotenco said in an interview with the Zercalo Daily that Gabala was a very powerful station and could monitor even a ball from 700,000 kilometer distance. Although the station had been planned according to 350 MW power, it could not operate at full capacity due to unfinished additional construction. The station has qualities which may cover Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, India, parts of China, Africa, Australia and some parts of the Indian and Atlantic oceans. The medium ranged and intercontinental ballistic missiles, which are launched from these regions, can be tracked more safely by this station when compared to satellites. For this reason, it is reported that the Tomahawk and Cruise missiles, which were launched from the U.S. ships and aircraft at the beginning of the Afghanistan operation, were spotted immediately by Russia thanks to Gabala base. On the other hand, the base was reported to have provided very useful information during the Iran-Iraq and Gulf Wars. After Azerbaijan gained its independence on Aug. 31, 1991, it expelled former Soviet soldiers and military bases but left the Gabala Radar Station to the Russian Federation. Despite the talks, which have been carried out for 10 years, the two parties are yet to reach an agreement on this issue. During this period, the base was under the control of the Russian Defense Ministry with 'no status.' Aliyev signed a declaration in 1996 and announced that the base belonged to Azerbaijan.
The Russian Federation always stressed that Gabala should carry the status of a military base for Russia, and offered long term military cooperation to Azerbaijan. Baku, however, insisted on a status of 'analytical information center,' rather than a 'military base.' Moscow asked Azerbaijan to lease Gabala base for 25 years but Azerbaijan said it would lease it for a maximum of five years. Russia had another offer, which foresaw the registration of the base as the common property of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Indeed, the definition of the station is meaningful only in terms of international law. In practice, Russia has always used the station as a military base. Although some Azerbaijani circles stress that Azerbaijan is the single country which does not host a Russian military base, it is possible to mention a de facto Russian military presence in Azerbaijan.
After Azerbaijan gained its independence, its problem with Russia stemming from the status of Gabala Radar Station was solved with the signing of the agreement on 'The Status and Utilization Principles of Gabala Analytical Information Center' by Azerbaijani President Haydar Aliyev and Russian President Vladimir Putin during Aliyev's visit to Moscow between Jan 24-26, 2002.
According to the agreement, Russia will pay $7 million to Azerbaijan every year in return for its utilization of the base. Besides, Russia has to pay extra $31 million (annual $6.2 million) to Azerbaijan for the period between July 4, 1997 and Dec 31, 2001. Russia will also pay an annual $5 million for the electricity utilization and $10 million for other services. Russia will pay total $161 million for a 10-year lease. This magnitude is very low when compared to Russia's similar agreements for its bases. The Russian and Azerbaijani presses noted that Russia was paying an annual $200 million for its Loudres base in Cuba, stressing that the payment for Gabala was ridiculously low.
In line with the agreement's proviso, the Russian Party will not use the information it obtains from Gabala station as a factor that would threaten Azerbaijan's independence or security, either directly or indirectly, and will not make agreements with third parties without the prior permission of Azerbaijan. Because, Russia is not using this information by itself, but is giving it to the countries with which it signed a Collective Security Agreement and Joint Air Defense System Agreement within the Commonwealth of Independent States, as well as Armenia. Azerbaijan is outside of these agreements. With the agreement signed between Azerbaijan and Russia, the latter pledges assistance to Baku on the modernization of the Azerbaijani Air Defense System, the training of Azerbaijani military staff in Moscow, and technical cooperation issues.
While the real estates of the Gabala Radar Station belonged to Azerbaijan, its technical equipment belonged to Russia, according to the agreement. The total number of personnel employed at the station will not exceed 1,500. The employees will be composed of Russians and Azerbaijanis. The number of Azerbaijani personnel is expected to be around 500.
Putin expressed his gratitude after the agreement, and said, 'The agreement text regarding the Gabala Radar Station is a very good sign and indicator that Russia and Azerbaijan can also agree on the other issues, such as the Caspian.' In a press conference he arranged prior to his return to Azerbaijan, Aliyev noted that his meetings with Putin had been very successful, adding that his visit produced remarkable consequences. 'I am very pleased with the outcome. I am returning to Baku with a great satisfaction,' said Aliyev. He defined the status of the Russian-Azerbaijani relations as a 'strategic partnership.'
Russia's use of the Gabala base, which is attributed strategic importance by Russia, led to many objections in the domestic politics of Azerbaijan. The objections met at points of ecological reasons and that the policies of proximity with the West may be damaged. Moreover, there is also the fear that the information gathered by the base may be transmitted to Armenia in the scope of a military cooperation agreement. The strategic importance of the base is very high for Azerbaijan. However, it is another discussion topic as to whether Azerbaijan, which receives no serious missile attack threats from its neighbors, needs such as an enormous military base.
The Azerbaijani Parliament set up a commission on May 5, 1992, for the first time, in order to investigate the ecological damage from the Gabala station. According to the report prepared by the commission, there were serious increases in the number of people living close to the station catching various blood, kidney and neurological diseases, sterility and cancer; while stillbirths and handicapped babies became a common situation, since the immunity systems of the people significantly weakened. It was also reported that the vegetation and animals in the region had been badly affected by the station.
The objections of Azerbaijani opposition and various environmentalist movements are frequently seen in the Azerbaijani press. Azerbaijani main opposition Musavat (equality) Party leader Isa Kamber said, 'It is very clear that Gabala creates serious problems in terms of ecology and public health. We see Gabala as a major threat to nature and our people.' Despite the objections, Azerbaijani Health Minister Eli Insanov said, 'The Gabala Investigation commission prepared its report and it was determined that the station was not dangerous to human health.' On the other hand, Putin stated that radar stations did not harm the environment, giving Russia's other stations in Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan stations as examples.
Gabala radar station is a significant trump card, which Azerbaijan wants to play against Armenia. Baku wanted to receive Moscow's support for the solution of Nagorno-Karabakh problem in return for Gabala at the bargains made with Russia, since Azerbaijan thinks that it made a great concession on the issue of Gabala, and the possible support expected from Russia in return for Gabala is the halting or reduction of Russia's military and political support to Yerevan. However, Putin said that the Nagorno-Karabakh problem should be solved through a formula, which contained no winners or losers. Putin's statement put forth the fact that Russia did not want to make such strategic objects a bargaining issue against third countries, such as Armenia.
The long-term agreement of Azerbaijan and Russian Federation on the Gabala station was interpreted as Azerbaijan becoming more distant from the proximity and integration process, which it sought with NATO after it gained independence. Foreign Minister Vilayet Guliyev gave an explanation on this issue, saying, 'Azerbaijan did not change its route towards NATO, and it will continue its studies for proximity with NATO.' Moreover, Guliyev emphasized that the leasing of Gabala to Russia should be considered as a leasing contract, rather than a military agreement between Azerbaijan and Russia.
Being able to control the Caspian and Middle East regions, which are the world's most prominent places in terms of energy resources, Gabala radar station is a base that is craved not only by Russia but also the United States. The operation in Afghanistan and the United States' attempts to settle in Central Asia increased the interest of the country in Gabala. The strategic importance of Gabala base led to rumors that there were other clients interested. According to some unconfirmed sources, Israel expressed its wish to install its own radar systems in Gabala if Russian personnel withdrew from the base.
Since Gabala radar station has the capacity to control a wide geographical area, including Turkey, and track every flying object within Turkish air space, this station is very important for Turkey, too. This situation can be well understood by the statement of Russian Air Force Commander Gen. Anatoli Kornukov, saying that Commonwealth of Independent States' air defense system had full control on Turkish air space.
Russia's activities of observation into Turkey are not a new incident since the radar systems of the former Soviet Union had observed Turkey intensively. However, there was no interruption in these observation activities after Azerbaijan declared its independence and the Russian Federation sustained the same activities. What's being done right now is legalizing Russia's activities with an agreement text. For this reason, the leasing of Gabala to Russia did not cause any change for Turkey. On the other hand, Azerbaijan provided a status for this real situation and neutralized Russia for the possible military bases to be established by Turkey on its soil.
Since neither the West nor Turkey seriously objected to Russia's long-term dominance on Gabala, hidden support and bargaining factors come to mind. This step of Azerbaijan was evaluated as a hush pay to the Russian Federation and as a strategic step taken with the aim of preventing Russia's future objection to possible NATO and Turkish military bases in Azerbaijan.
The issue came to the agenda of the official visit of Turkish Parliament speaker Omer Izgi to Baku on Feb. 7. Izgi said that Turkey had been informed on the issue before the signing of the agreement, but added that the leasing of Gabala station to Russia was a step against Turkey. Azerbaijani Parliament speaker Murtuz Eleskerov noted that Turkey might use the base in the future, stressing that they welcomed the idea of Turkish bases in Azerbaijan. Eleskerov also emphasized that the information to be obtained by Gabala might be shared with Turkey.
This characteristic of Gabala radar station, which is in an indispensable position in the Russian air defense system, enables Azerbaijan to play a strategic trump card. Azerbaijan has the opportunity to play this card in the solutions of the Karabakh and Caspian problems, as well as in neutralizing Russia in its efforts for military cooperation with NATO and Turkey.
It may be considered that this cooperation may decrease the tension in the Caucasus and lay the grounds for regional agreements, which Turkey may be involved in, although Azerbaijan's efforts for proximity with Russia in the aftermath of Sept. 11 are evaluated as a deviation from its policies, foreseeing an opening to the West.