BY NANORE BARSOUMIAN
From the Armenian Weekly
Azerbaijan is hoping to finalize a deal with the U.S. Export-Import Bank, a U.S. government agency, to finance a multi-million dollar satellite financing project. The loan will afford Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technologies the needed funds to purchase an advanced satellite, ground control equipment, and secure the necessary training. A U.S. supplier, Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital) of Dulles, Va., has been contracted for the project. Armenian entities fear the new satellite’s use will extend to military applications, threatening neighboring Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic.
Azerbaijan’s Communication Ministry claims the satellite, dubbed Azerspace, will be used for the purpose of commercial telecommunications by one of its agencies, the International Relations and Accounting Center. It says the satellite will provide telecommunications and broadcasting services for the Republic of Azerbaijan, with its leftover capacities servicing customers in Africa and Central Asia.
However, Armenian entities have expressed concern over its possible military use. Azerbaijan’s government has not shied away from aggressive language and outright threats of war while discussing Karabakh, going as far as calling Armenia’s capital Yerevan an ancient Azeri city.
Because the loan amount will exceed $100 million, Ex-Im Bank needs approval from Congress. In January, the bank’s president, Fred Hochberg, addressed a letter to Senate President Joseph Biden summing up the transaction description and explanation of the bank’s financing plan. According to reports, Azerbaijan has already apportioned about $25 million to the satellite; the bank will cover the remaining $96 million for manufacturing expenses, in addition to funds for related costs.
Recent threats by Azerbaijan against Armenia reached a new high when Baku announced it would shoot down civilian aircrafts flying from Armenia to the newly renovated airport of Stepanakert in Karabakh. The airport is due to reopen on May 9. The director of Azerbaijan’s Civil Aviation Administration, Arif Mammadov, said the Azerbaijani government had not authorized such flights to Karabakh. “We notified that the airspace over Karabakh is closed. The law on aviation envisages the physical destruction of airplanes landing in that territory,” he reportedly told APA news agency.
U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza called this threat “unacceptable,” but fell short of calling on Baku to withdraw its warning. Meanwhile, Armenia’s President Serge Sarkisian said he would be on the first civilian flight to Karabakh.
Two weeks later, on April 1, the spokesman for the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry, Elkhan Polukhov, reportedly said, “Azerbaijan did not and will not use force against civil facilities, unlike Armenia, which has earned notoriety for terror and war against the civilian population.” Nonetheless, it is hard to dismiss a threat of that magnitude, hurled along with other threats of a resumption of war.
Azerbaijan’s attempts at intimidation certainly substantiate concerns from Armenian entities that the Azerspace satellite will have military applications if Azeri aggression escalates. Border incidents have not subsided, with Azeri snipers targeting Armenian soldiers. Most recently, Azerbaijan claimed that Armenian snipers killed an infant child. On March 9, Armenia’s Defense Ministry issued a press release denying the news, adding that the “the scribblers of the Azerbaijani disinformation” were merely attempting to “save the image of the country” and diverting attention from the March 5 killing of an Armenian soldier by an Azeri sniper. It further noted that “Armenia and Karabagh have repeatedly expressed their positive attitude to the appeals of the international community to terminate the actions of the snipers on the Armenian-Azerbaijani contact line, while Azerbaijan continues to carry out its provocative actions by the means of its snipers.”
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, speaking on the occasion of Novruz, said he had no doubt Azerbaijan would “restore its territorial integrity.” He did not rule out the use of force, noting the country “is paying serious attention to army building.”
“The ever-strengthening Azerbaijan is absolutely confident that this issue can be resolved in any manner… There isn’t and can’t be any other option. The Azerbaijani people and state will never tolerate a second Armenian state on their historical lands. Nagorno-Karabagh will never be granted independence,” said Aliyev.
The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) has sent a letter to the president of Ex-Im Bank and consulted with U.S. legislators regarding the Armenian American community’s concerns and objections regarding the Azerspace Satellite Project and its potential military use. Sources close to Armenian authorities report that officials in Yerevan have also raised concerns on this matter with the U.S. government. Azerbaijan has said that it plans to launch the satellite between July and Aug. 2012.
The Armenian Weekly has contacted both Ex-Im Bank and Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Communication and IT for comments. Neither has responded.