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Caucasus Report: February 16, 2004

16 February 2004, Volume 7, Number 7

AZERBAIJAN, RUSSIA FORMALIZE MODUS VIVENDI. From 5 to 7 February, Ilham Aliyev traveled to Moscow for his second official foreign visit since his inauguration as president of Azerbaijan three months earlier. The "Moscow Declaration" that Aliyev and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, signed following their talks on 6 February reaffirms and expands upon commitments made in both the Friendship and Cooperation Treaty of July 1997 and the "Baku Declaration on Principles of Security and Cooperation in the Caucasus" signed during Putin's visit to Baku three years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 July 1997 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 11 January 2001).

Common to all three documents is a commitment to develop bilateral relations on the basis of mutual trust, strategic partnership, and cooperation; to refrain from supporting separatist movements; to respect each other's borders and territorial integrity; to work for a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; not to participate in any activities of a political, financial, or military nature aimed against each other, either directly or through a third party; to combat terrorism; and to promote regional cooperation.

But while the wording of the three documents is similar, the circumstances in which they were signed were very different. In 1997, former Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev was still in robust health and was being actively courted by the U.S., which sought to strengthen its position in the South Caucasus by, among other things, promoting the planned Baku-Ceyhan export pipeline for Azerbaijan's Caspian oil. For that reason, at least initially, Baku honored the 1997 treaty more in the breach than the observance. Just one month after signing it, Aliyev traveled to the U.S. where he was lionized for his "long and distinguished career in public service" and presided over the signing of several major contracts with U.S. oil giants to develop Caspian oil fields. A couple of months after that Aliyev, together with the presidents of Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, announced the GUAM alignment, the primary objectives of which were to promote and provide security for the export of Azerbaijan's Caspian oil via Georgia (i.e. bypassing Russia). In the late 1990s, Aliyev's longtime security adviser, Vafa Guluzade, raised on several occasions the possibility of Azerbaijan hosting either a NATO or a U.S. military base.

By the time of Putin's visit to Baku in January 2001, however, the situation had changed. At that juncture, Aliyev was 77 and his health was beginning to fail. Observers in Baku had begun to speculate that his most urgent priority was to ensure that his son Ilham, then deputy head of the state oil company SOCAR, succeeded him as president, and that he would seek Russia's backing for that plan and agree to whatever reciprocal concessions Moscow demanded.

For whatever reasons, Putin's visit indeed marked the beginning of a new and less antagonistic phase in bilateral relations. Azerbaijani First Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov commented in an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 17 January 2001 that "for the first time in many years we were aware of a relaxed approach [neprinuzhdennost], openness, and trust from the Russian side."

In 2002, a major bone of contention in bilateral relations was removed with the signing of a 10-year agreement on the lease by Russia of the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan. Returning from the visit to Moscow during which that agreement was signed, President Aliyev admitted to "a feeling of tremendous satisfaction," without explaining what had prompted it (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 31 January 2002).

With the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline already under construction, Azerbaijani officials have sent mixed signals over the past 12 months regarding the country's geopolitical priorities, reaffirming their commitment to eventual membership of NATO and the EU while at the same time stressing the importance attached to relations with Russia. But in interviews on the eve of his trip to Moscow last week, Ilham Aliyev said that as yet his country is unprepared to join either organization, and declined to specify even an approximate timeframe for doing so. Equally important, Baku has consistently played down media speculation that it might host a U.S. military base. (To construe the paragraph of the "Moscow Declaration" on the mutual commitment not to abjure activities of a military nature directed against each other as precluding the presence of U.S. troops on Azerbaijani soil would, however, presuppose a parallel commitment by Moscow to close its military base in Armenia.)

President Aliyev was quoted by "Izvestiya" on 4 February as saying that there is not a single contentious issue clouding his country's relations with Russia. The online newspaper, for its part, reported that the Azerbaijani leadership no longer even objects to the continued presence in Moscow of former President Ayaz Mutalibov, whom the late president regarded as a foe. Mutalibov has allegedly signaled his desire to return to Baku and work as a member of Aliyev's team, "Vremya novostei" reported on 29 January.

It remains unclear whether Ilham Aliyev has decided for the moment to keep all his options open and to try to continue his father's balancing act between Russia and the U.S., whether he seeks to demonstrate his independence by ignoring increasing Western pressure over human-rights issues in the wake of the October presidential ballot, or whether indeed he may at some point agree to host a U.S. rapid reaction force on the condition that Washington in future turn a blind eye to human-rights abuses in Azerbaijan as it largely does in Uzbekistan.

As for Moscow's approach, it may be that resigned to the fact that Baku is unlikely to make the major strategic concession of joining the CIS Collective Security Treaty, the Russian leadership is nonetheless willing to intensify mutually beneficial cooperation in other spheres, including military and economic. Bilateral trade increased by 38.2 percent during the first 11 months of last year, according to ITAR-TASS on 6 February, and President Aliyev said during his talks with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov that he would like that figure to double this year. Aliyev also solicited Russian investment in Azerbaijan, particularly in the energy sector, and invited Russian companies to participate in the privatization and modernization of plants engaged in producing machinery for the oil sector. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER UNDER FIRE. During its winter session last month, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted on 27 January a resolution on Azerbaijan that contained the wording "the Nagorno-Karabakh problem and other occupied territories." That formulation, which implies recognition of the legality of Azerbaijani claims to hegemony over the unrecognized republic, met with widespread consternation and condemnation in Armenia. Noting that the word "other" was removed from a parallel PACE resolution on Armenia, both opposition and pro-government parliament deputies in the Armenian PACE delegation blamed Armenian Foreign Ministry for the failure to ensure its removal from the resolution on Azerbaijan.

Armenian Public Television on 3 February quoted Artashes Geghamian, chairman of the opposition National Unity Party, as pointing out that 75 PACE delegates voted in favor of the Azerbaijani resolution that contained the offending formulation. Geghamian produced what he said was a list of delegates compiled by the Foreign Ministry indicating which would vote in Armenia's favor. He argued that Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian should resign in light of his failure to secure support for the Armenian position. The previous day, Deputy Parliament Speaker Tigran Torosian, who represents Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia, explained that some foreign ministries, including those of Russia, Ukraine, and Germany, had informed the Armenian embassies in those countries that their legislators would support the Armenian position, but that those assurances subsequently proved wrong. Torosian said he would raise the issue with Oskanian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 2 February.

Other opposition politicians have seized upon the pro-Azerbaijani formulation as a pretext to launch a broader attack on the foreign policy of "complementarity" of which Oskanian is the architect. That policy seeks to dilute Armenia's traditional pro-Russian orientation by establishing cordial and mutually beneficial relations with the maximum number of states. Speaking at a 5 February parliament briefing, Hmayak Hovhannisian (a member of Geghamian's National Unity faction) argued that Oskanian's complementarity policy has brought Armenia to total international isolation, Noyan Tapan reported. Hovhannisian expressed particular concern that the Russian delegates failed to support the Armenian position.

Oskanian, for his part, counterattacked by accusing opposition members of Armenia's PACE delegation of harming the country's interests by repeatedly demanding that the assembly insist that the Armenian authorities schedule a referendum of confidence in President Robert Kocharian. The Constitutional Court raised the possibility of such a plebiscite when it rejected April 2003 opposition appeals to annul the February-March parliamentary ballot on the grounds that the outcome was rigged to secure a second term for Kocharian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 22 April and 1 December 2003). Speaking on Armenian television shortly after the PACE vote, Oskanian deplored the opposition demands as "washing dirty linen in public," and suggested that the composition of the PACE delegation be changed. Torosian responded to that proposal by saying that cabinet ministers do not have the right to interfere in the parliament's affairs.

In an interview published in the independent daily "Aravot" on 5 February, Oskanian repeated that the opposition's demands were "wrong," "politicized," and could jeopardize a favorable solution to the Karabakh problem. "I believe that parliament deputies representing Armenia abroad must...distinguish national interests from domestic political issues," he said, adding that "I am still indignant." He also rejected the charge that Armenia's diplomats failed in their lobbying efforts to secure support from foreign deputies.

At a press conference on 4 February, Oskanian similarly rejected the argument that the wording of the Strasbourg resolution demonstrated the failure of his complementarity policy, Noyan Tapan reported on 5 February. Oskanian again argued that it was the opposition deputies' untimely demands that precipitated the passage of the unfavorably worded resolution on Azerbaijan. He signaled that he will raise with parliament the possibility of changing the composition of Armenia's PACE delegation, while acknowledging that it is for parliament deputies themselves to decide on that issue. (Liz Fuller)

FORMER ARMENIAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE FORECASTS EARLY ELECTIONS. Aram Karapetian, who finished fourth in last year's presidential election with just under 3 percent of the vote, added on 11 February to the ambiguity of his political line, predicting the downfall of Armenia's present leadership while at the same distancing himself from the mainstream opposition. Karapetian said regime change is "inevitable," but was vague about what might threaten President Robert Kocharian's firm grip on power. He added that his Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party, which was formally registered last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2004) "is beginning to prepare for pre-term presidential and parliamentary elections in Armenia."

Karapetian urged Kocharian to follow the example of his predecessor, Levon Ter-Petrossian, and to quit before a destabilization of the political situation. "That would be the best scenario for Armenia's progress," he said. The country's two main opposition forces, led by presidential election runner-ups Stepan Demirchian and Artashes Geghamian, hope to force Kocharian's resignation by pressurizing the authorities into holding a "referendum of confidence" in him. Demirchian's Artarutiun bloc and Geghamian's National Unity Party announced a joint boycott of parliament sessions in early February to protest the authorities' strong opposition to such a vote. Their leaders have since been meeting with supporters in regions outside Yerevan in a bid to mobilize public support for their demands.

Karapetian, who fiercely attacked the authorities in Demirchian-led rallies last spring, made it clear that he will not join the latest opposition offensive because he believes Armenia needs a "consolidation" of its leading political parties. "We are a new opposition," he said, adding that his party will support government policies that are in line with its program.

A politically inexperienced scholar who spent much of the past decade in Moscow, Karapetian was unknown to most Armenians before the start of the 2003 presidential race. He quickly made his name and attracted a substantial following with tough antigovernment rhetoric. He endorsed Demirchian for the 5 March runoff with Kocharian and was a major speaker at the ensuing opposition rallies in Yerevan. However, he has changed course since then and is now trying to cast himself as an independent figure who is better placed to run the country than any other opposition politician. (Armen Zakarian)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "I am not Shevardnadze, I cannot conduct Byzantine politics, saying one thing, thinking another, and doing something else." -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, speaking on 11 February during a visit to Moscow (quoted by Interfax).

"Dialogue constitutes a confidence-building measure as well as a demonstration of goodwill." -- UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) head Harri Holkeri, addressing the UN Security Council on 6 February (quoted in "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 13 February 2004).