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Azerbaijan: Aliyev's Visit Marks New Chapter In U.S. Policy

  • Sonia Winter

Washington, 29 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The red carpet will not be rolled out for President Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan when he arrives in Washington today but U.S. officials say he will certainly get the "red carpet treatment" with all respect and honors due an esteemed head of state.

Aliyev's four-day working visit to the U.S. capital will be filled with more substance and less pomp and ceremony than a state visit. That means no red carpet when he arrives on a chartered plane from New York at a military airport outside Washington, a hub for traveling dignitaries. And no red carpet or gun salute when he goes to the White House Friday to lunch with President Bill Clinton.

But the red carpet treatment will be there figuratively and in other ways. Aliyev will stay at Blair House, reserved for honored guests of the White House. Some of the most powerful men and women in the U.S. government will come to meet him there.

His schedule is packed -- a reception Tuesday night hosted by the Azerbaijani embassy, a major public speech Wednesday, as well as a series of meetings with U.S. congressional leaders; Thursday, separate talks with the Secretaries for it will ask the U.S. Congress to revoke the prohibition, imposed to pressure Azerbaijan to lift its blockade against Armenia, on the grounds that it prevents the U.S. from being an even-handed mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.

Several congressmen say they endorse this view and will support the Administration. But the official says action is unlikely before the August recess of the legislature. The ban may be repealed in September, he said.

In a broad overview of U.S. policy in the region, the official said Azerbaijan is part of America's overall interest in promoting economic development in the Caucausus and Central Asia. Thus, he said the U.S. wants to encourage development of Caspian Sea resources, as well as U.S. business involvement in the exploration, production and Defense, Energy, and Commerce and on Friday the White House, and another separate meeting with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

In between Aliyev will also see international banking officials, representatives of major oil companies and other businesses and give carefully managed press interviews.

The press may not be all favorable. The Armenian American community in Washington plans to hold a demonstration tonight outside the hotel where the reception is being held to protest Aliyev's visit.

The Armenian National Committee accuses Aliyev of "brutal human rights abuses and dictatorial policies," and says his visit is being paid for by the American oil lobby.

American experts say the visit does mark a new chapter in U.S. relations with the Caucasus -- both in broad recognition of the region's importance and Azerbaijan's in particular. The country in the region that has drawn most U.S. attention until now has been Armenia.

Armenia's president Lev ter Petrossian has been to Washington twice -- officially in 1994 and again in 1995 on his own initiative. But Aliyev's Washington visit this week is the first ever by an Azerbaijani head of state.

A State Department official says it symbolizes the significance of Azerbaijan to the United States. It is the first time the U.S. has publicly demonstrated its interest in Azerbaijan in this way. And, even some American critics say this new focus clearly puts economic interests above all other traditional U.S. goals in the region, including human rights.

Azerbaijan's ambassador to the U.S. Hafiz Pashayev says his country understands that without oil, it could not command so much attention.

A White House official says development of Caspian sea energy resources is only one item on the U.S.-Azerbaijani agenda. He says the two sides also will discuss expanding bilateral economic relations and security cooperation, as well as negotiations to settle the dispute with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

A State Department official who did not wish to be named, told RFE/RL that this issue has captivated Clinton's attention and is "very high on the agenda."

The official said he does not expect a breakthrough because he said all three parties involved -- the Nagorno-Karabakh ethnic Armenians, the Armenians and the Azeris -- have reservations about the latest peace proposal. But the official said some progress might be possible.

Regarding bilateral economic ties, the official gave no details but said Aliyev will leave the U.S. a happy man.

One of Aliyev's key objectives - a repeal of 1992 legislation that bans U.S. aid to the government of Azerbaijan - is almost achieved. The State Department said last week that transportation of the oil and gas to western markets.

During his visit, Aliyev is expected to sign an agreement with the U.S. Export Import Bank that will help American companies get loans for doing business in his country. And the World Bank announced last week that it has approved $70 million in credit to help the Azerbaijani government's economic reform program.

One of the most complicated items on the U.S.-Azerbaijan agenda is the question of pipeline routes. The issue has become a reflection of big-power competition and political balance in the region.

The U.S. has long promoted the idea of multiple pipelines and routes that do not lead through Russia or Iran. Washington supports a proposal for one route going to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. The official said this will certainly be one of the items on the agenda of the Aliyev talks.

On hand to greet Aliyev today, as he steps from the plane, and when he leaves Washington at the weekend, will be James Collins, the State Department's top coordinator for aid to the newly independent states. But not for long. Collins expects to move to Moscow later this year as the new U.S. ambassador to Russia.

After Washington, Aliyev is scheduled to visit Houston, Texas where several major oil companies have their headquarters, and then travel to Chicago, Illinois for more business talk in the private sector. He plans to leave the United States on August 5th.