Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov visited Baku on July 25 to discuss the extension of the Gabala radar station’s lease and sign a new agreement on its further exploitation.
The Gabala Radar Station is the main part of Russia’s alert system in case of missile attack and is located near the town of Gabala in Azerbaijan. It is one of the nine radar stations built in the USSR.
Its detection range is around 8,000 km, which is enough to detect missile launched from the water area of the Indian Ocean; the station keeps a close watch over the territories of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, India and all the Middle East countries.
After Azerbaijan gained independence and the Radar Station was transferred into Azeri possession, Russia continued its exploitation but as a renter paying $14 million per year.
The Baku-Moscow agreement defined the status of the station as an information-analytical center in Azerbaijani possession leased to Russia for 10 years’ term expiring in 2012, with the right of prolongation.
Quite recently news spread that Azerbaijan is planning to raise the rent for the exploitation of the Radar Station in Gabala now that the agreement is approaching its expiration date.
“Russia is interested in extending the lease. We are willing to consider that partnership, but the terms have to be revised. They have to pay more,” stated Araz Azimov, Azerbaijan’s deputy foreign minister, who is also the Azerbaijani president’s personal representative on the Karabakh issue settlement.
A number of political analysts believe the issue of extending Russian presence in Azerbaijan is connected with international peacekeepers’ deployment in the Karabakh conflict zone. Back in 2007 Russia offered to lease it to Washington instead of deploying anti-aircraft defence systems in Eastern Europe
The Gabala issue frequently becomes a subject of domestic political disputes in the Azerbaijani parliament; and not only for political reasons, but also out of ecological concerns.
Among the problematic issues raised is the fact that the station occupies some 210 hectares of land, plus a territory of 30 hectares adjacent to it is in fact a waste dump. Some 400 hectares of forest was logged while laying high-voltage lines supplying the station with electric power. The level of underground waters dropped drastically as a consequence of drilling 16 artesian water wells to supply water for the cooling system of the stations’ electronic devices. The cooling system uses around 300-400 cubic meters of water per hour, after which the used water is simply dumped into the river without any filtering. The surrounding forests are now dying because of the decreased level of groundwater.
“We have prepared our suggestions on the radar station, and moreover, we have expanded the them, offering to modernize the station. A field group will be formed within the next few days to be sent to Baku and work on the technical issues with their Azeri colleagues for two weeks,” stated Serdyokov after his negotiations with President Ilham Aliyev and Defense Minister Safar Abiyev.
The Russian defense minister also pointed out that after mid-August he will discuss in detail every point of the agreement on extending the use of the Gabala station with his Azeri counterpart.
However, prior to the negotiations, the Azerbaijani defense minister reminded that his country’s authorities have “certain claims to Russia”.
Abiyev said that Baku has concerns over Russia supplying arms and armament to Armenia. “We are seriously concerned over that issue. I hope it will soon be resolved and that Azerbaijan’s occupied territories will be liberated without the participation of our armed forces,” he stressed.
Analysts believe that Russia does not really have military demand for a long-term operation of the Gabala station, as the new radar station in the North Caucasian town of Armavir has the same capacity of detecting missiles in southern and south-western directions. This station comprises of two sectors, one of which was put into operation in 2009 and is responsible for the south-western direction.
The second sector will be launched by the end of 2012, says military expert Vladimir Yevseyev, head of the Russia-based Center for Socio-Political Studies. “After the launch of the second sector in Armavir, there will be no acute need for the station in Gabala,” he says, arguing that the Armavir station is more accurate and requires less electric power.
“If the rent for Gabala is raised then from an economic perspective its operation is pointless,” he says.
The decision on the extended operation of the Gabala station by Russia is believed to be purely political and out of Russia’s need to ensure its presence in Azerbaijan.