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Azerbaijan Report: March 8, 2004

8 March 2004
Will Astana Keep Its Promise?
President Ilham Aliyev's visit to Kazakhstan has revealed certain problems in transportation of Kazakh oil through Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline that is to be put into operation in the second quarter of 2005, according to some observers. Kazakhstan does not agree with the proposed tariffs. Several years ago Azerbaijan made a $1 billion concession to Georgia in the tariff issue. But who will compromise this time?

According to commentator Ibrahim Mammedov of ANS private television channel, Baku would loses nothing by such a concession. He thinks it would be a better policy to reduce tariffs, and it would be wrong to view this as a concession. Even if it is a concession, then it is a useful one, because the lower the tariffs, the more oil will be transported through Azerbaijan and the more money it can earn. He said it would be sounder to attract more goods at lower prices and thus promote the Europe-Caucasus Transport Corridor (TRACECA) rather than to transport fewer goods at higher tariffs.

Rauf Mirgadirov of the independent newspaper "Zerkalo" agreed that the situation with Kazakhstan is somewhat different. Azerbaijan must transport as much more oil as possible by the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. But today Kazakhstan is demanding concessions not only from Baku, but from the other transit countries. The danger here is that the burden of concessions might finally fall on the Azeri side.

During President Aliyev's visit the Kazakh government pledged to provide the BTC with oil. The two sides signed a memorandum of understanding on the transportation of Kazakh oil through the BTC, but some experts still wonder whether Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev will keep his word this time.

According to Sanan Alizade, an expert on energy issues, Nazarbaev had reasons to repudiate his promise several times. It was mainly linked with Russia's pressure on him, he said, adding that this pressure is not one-sided. The foreign companies operating in Kazakhstan are likely to pressure Nazarbaev as well, demanding that some Kazakh oil be carried through the BTC.

But Khaleddin Ibrahimli, head of the Caucasus Research Center, says that President Aliyev's recent visit will not bring major changes in Azeri-Kazakhstan relations. There are no signs of a rapprochement between Azerbaijan and the Central Asian countries. It would be more correct to talk about relations between the two governments rather than the two countries, Ibrahimli said.

(Babek Bekir and Shahnaz Beilergizi)

Georgian President Calls for Common South Caucasus Market
Georgia and Azerbaijan are going to unite their efforts in the area of foreign policy, said Azeri president Ilham Aliyev after he met in Baku with his Georgian counterpart Mikhail Saakashvili on 4 March. Meanwhile, speaking about Saakashvili's visit, local newspapers often characterize the relations as a "strategic partnership," stressing the importance of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan export oil pipeline for the two neighboring countries. At the same time, before the visit the newspapers pointed to possible deterioration of bilateral relations after Eduard Shevardnadze's overthrow.

President Aliyev said that during the negotiations he and Saakashvili discussed unification of the two countries' foreign political efforts. Baku and Tbilisi will coordinate their attitudes toward international and regional issues. Saakashvili in turn expressed his intention to deepen economic relations. According to him, the two countries plan to eliminate economic barriers and equalize tax and tariff rates. Saakashvili said the two countries should establish a common market that would further develop into common South Caucasus market.

Interestingly, Ilham Aliyev pointed to similar features in the past activities of the two presidents. Although their current activities, some experts suggest, are very different. According to Rauf Mirgadirov of the newspaper "Zerkalo," Saakashvili has much wider resources for combatting corruption than Ilham Aliyev. He also has the support of Western governments. Ilham Aliyev's situation is somewhat different. He came to power as a follower of his father Heidar Aliyev's cause and with his father's team. As a result, there are no forces within the government that would support Aliev in his efforts against corruption, Mirgadirov concluded.

(Natig Zeinalov and Babek Bekir)

Investigation of Legal Cases Against Opposition Leaders Completed
The first five trials in connection with the post-election October mass riots in Baku ended on 4-5 March. The various courts sentenced 13 opposition activists to between three and seven years' imprisonment, while 26 more were sentenced to suspended terms and released.

In its statement, the opposition Musavat Party stated that all those convicted were sentenced "on fabricated charges and without presentation of inculpatory evidence," and that the courts passed sentence on the basis of testimony by "false victims and false witnesses." All appeals and evidence presented by the defense was ignored, Turan news agency reported.

The Committee for the Rights of Persons Arrested on 15-16 October also called the court verdicts "unfair," adding that the 15-16 October events cannot be viewed as mass disturbances. The committee intends to appeal the court decisions, as well as to approach the European Court.

Meanwhile, the investigation into the opposition leaders charged with organizing these disturbances has been completed and their cases have been submitted to the court.

(Natig Zeinalov) (Compiled and translated by Etibar Rasulov)