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Congress Complicating Caucasus Conflicts, Official Suggests

  • Kevin Foley

Washington, July 31 (RFE/RL) -- Diplomacy and economic carrots will work better than U.S. Congressional resolutions that include financial sticks in resolving ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union, a State Department official says.

John Herbst, the State Department's deputy coordinator for the former Soviet states, says Congressional efforts to reward Armenia and punish Azerbaijan are foiling U.S. foreign policy efforts in the region.

He told the House of Representatives International Relations Committee on Tuesday that Azerbaijan is lagging in making political reforms.

"In Azerbaijan, old ways die hard and much work remains before old thinking is fully overcome," Herbst said. He contended that U.S. economic assistance can play an important role in influencing Azerbaijan's development.

"Unfortunately," Herbst added, "our ability to encourage Azerbaijan's democratic and economic development has been sharply limited since 1992."

At that time, Congress passed legislation called the Freedom Support Act, which severely restricted U.S. aid to Azerbaijan. This legislation has "extracted a sharp toll in American ability to influence Azerbaijan's progress in ways we have already seen yielding tangible results in neighboring Georgia and Armenia," he said.

Herbst's admonition is not likely to have an effect in the immediate future. The U.S. Senate has already passed its version of the fiscal 1997 foreign aid bill that includes $95 million in aid for Armenia but no specific amount for Azerbaijan.

The House of Representatives is still working on its version of the foreign aid bill. It only includes $85 million for Armenia, but it also includes provisions that would limit aid to Azerbaijan to humanitarian relief. It also includes a provision that would for the first time provide aid to ethnic Armenians in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

That is a provision opposed by the State Department and Azerbaijan.

Both chambers of Congress will have to work out the differences in their foreign aid legislation before a final measure is voted on again by the House and Senate and sent to the president for his signature.

While the provision of aid for Nagorno-Karabakh is well-intentioned, Herbst said it "would actually exacerbate the problem by seeking to create artificial ratios for assistance to the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and injecting political issues relating to the status of the disputed region."

Ethnic Armenians dominate the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and the dispute over control has led to war. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is trying to negotiate a settlement. The State Department says Congressional measures that favor Armenia at the expense of Azerbaijan make diplomacy's work much more difficult.

Armenian Americans are a wealthy, well-organized and powerful lobby in the U.S. Congress for Armenian interests. Armenian causes enjoy the support of many influential U.S. politicians, including former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, who is the likely Republican Party nominee for president in 1996.