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Azerbaijan: Russia Worries About U.S. Gift Of Boats

  • Michael Lelyveld

Russian State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov has warned about the presence of "alien ships" on the Caspian Sea. His concern seems to be that the United States will gain a foothold because of two boats that are being given to Azerbaijan for its border patrol. RFE/RL correspondent Michael Lelyveld says the incident may highlight greater problems with arguments over terrorist threats.

Boston, 14 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russian nationalists appear to be worried that the United States will use the threat of terrorism in Central Asia and the Caucasus to establish a naval presence in the Caspian Sea.

On Tuesday, the speaker of Russia's State Duma, Gennady Seleznyov, raised the Caspian issue during a meeting in Moscow with Iranian Ambassador Mehdi Safari. According to reports by ITAR-TASS and the Iranian official news agency IRNA, the two sides agreed that "vessels with military equipment should be barred" from the Caspian as concern rises about terrorism on both sides of the waterway.

Seleznyov was quoted as saying, "we do not to want to see alien ships in the Caspian. There is a need to achieve a consensus decision as soon as possible."

Seleznyov was apparently referring to two patrol boats which the U.S. government is reportedly providing to Azerbaijan. This week at a conference in Washington, Steven Sestanovich, adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on the Newly Independent States, referred to the patrol boats as part of aid to Azerbaijan to fight terrorism and strengthen its borders.

A State Department official in Washington, who was checking the reports, downplayed any reason for concern about the patrol craft. The official told RFE/RL, "we've been working with a number of countries to help them increase their border security. It's probably just related to that." There seems to be no question that the boats are to be manned by Azerbaijani personnel, not Americans.

But the reactions of Russia and Iran may have numerous causes. Both nations seem particularly sensitive to the potential for encroachment because of their recent failure to agree on a legal division of the Caspian Sea. Seleznyov may be eager to argue that Iran should reach an accommodation with Russia over the division issue, raising the specter of foreign interference in the absence of a unified front.

Russia's concern over "alien ships" seems to echo its objections to a proposal last year by former Azerbaijani presidential adviser Vafa Quluzade for a NATO presence in Azerbaijan. Russia may feel erosion of its power in the oil-rich Caspian region due to a meeting last week of the security structure known GUUAM, consisting of Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova. Romania reportedly showed interest this week in joining the group.

Since July, Azerbaijan also has been wary of border problems in the Caspian because of unverified incidents involving both Russia and Iran. Reports last month that Iran's leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered a buildup of forces on the Azerbaijani border including 34 patrol boats now appear to have been falsified. Concerns about Russian fishing trawlers in Azerbaijani waters last month also seem to have been overblown.

But the alarms raised by Azerbaijani news reports have been difficult to defuse. Russia added to the concerns by blocking truck traffic for weeks on the Azerbaijani border, while repeatedly accusing Azerbaijan of giving medical treatment to Chechen rebels.

But more than anything, the Russian reaction to U.S. aid for Azerbaijan's border security seems to show the wide range of effects from threats that have been broadly branded as "terrorism." The label has been stretched to cover insurgencies across a wide arc from Chechnya to Central Asia, despite the difficulty of proving that all the problems come from the same source.

Russia has tried to link the war in Chechnya with fighting in the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan, when it has suited its purposes. The strategy has helped to ensure there will be little sympathy for Chechen rebels among authorities elsewhere in the CIS. But that approach has so far failed with Iran, which has repeatedly objected to Russian actions in Chechnya and has sent aid to refugees there. By raising fears over "alien ships," Seleznyov may hope to create a new common cause.

In the past week, the United States appears to have joined in the concerns about regional security by funding a joint exercise in Kazakhstan involving troops from nine nations, including Russia and four other CIS states.

But so far, there have been no reports of terrorist threats to Caspian maritime borders. The concerns have come from other shoreline nations. By aiding Azerbaijan's ability to patrol its waters, the United States may be trying to do little more than to strengthen the country's statehood. The greatest danger may be in Seleznyov's interpretation that two boats donated to Azerbaijan will create a militarization of the Caspian by "alien ships."

Beyond that, there is the risk that arguments over terrorism will be spread in an ever-widening circle to fit any problem that authorities perceive. It started with Chechnya and has now made its way into the Caspian, but it seems unlikely that all of the region's problems will respond to the same call.