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Medvedev Heads To Baku Amid Growing Tensions In South Caucasus

  • RFE/RL

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

Amid a colorful firework display, Azerbaijan raised a massive version of its national flag on September 1 that it claims is the world's largest, at 70 meters by 35 meters long and a whopping 350 kilograms.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, presiding over the unveiling of the $32 million National Flag Square in Baku, said he could foresee the day when the country's blue, red, and green flag would fly freely over all Azerbaijani territory -- including the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

"Our flag is our pride and our soul," Aliev told the crowd. "It will fly over Karabakh, Khankendi, and Shusha. And we all should work hard to bring this day closer and we are doing it. Long live Azerbaijan!"

It is in this atmosphere that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev travels today to what is arguably the most powerful of the three South Caucasus countries.

His two-day visit to oil-rich Azerbaijan won't be all smiles and handshakes. While Medvedev's trip formally revolves around a border agreement and water-sharing projects, knottier issues like energy strategy and perceived Russian favoritism in the region are also expected to be on the table.

Originally due in late September, the meeting was bumped forward by the Kremlin, now coming just ahead of a scheduled trip by Aliyev to the United States for the UN General Assembly and meetings with U.S. officials.

"Medvedev's visit is somewhat preventive, to keep Azerbaijan from having closer geopolitical relations with the West," Rasim Musabekov, a Baku-based political analyst, tells RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. "Russia will try to persuade Azerbaijan with promises or solving some problems. But I believe Azerbaijan will never fall under Russia's sole influence."

Open Sore

One of the problems Baku may be looking to Moscow to address is Azerbaijan's chronic dispute with neighboring Armenia. The two sides remain locked in a historical standoff over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-majority enclave located within Azerbaijani borders.

Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a brutal six-year war over the territory that ended only with a cease-fire in 1994. But Nagorno-Karabakh's final status remains unresolved, and the situation in and around the enclave remains volatile.

A day ahead of Medvedev's arrival, Azerbaijan announced a skirmish on the enclave's heavily guarded border had left three Armenian and two Azerbaijani soldiers dead. A similar clash took place in June, just days after Medvedev hosted peace talks between Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian, in St. Petersburg.

Few observers in the conspiracy-prone region see the timing of the attacks as a mere coincidence. (In addition to Medvedev's visit, today also marks Nagorno-Karabakh independence day, with a number of top Armenian politicians traveling to the enclave's capital, Stepanakert, for celebrations.)

Vafa Guluzadeh, a former presidential adviser on Azerbaijani foreign policy, says he believes Russia's Defense Ministry may have helped orchestrate the fighting in order to weaken Azerbaijani resolve during Medvedev's visit.

"They're orchestrating all the fighting on the cease-fire line. Maybe [the latest clash], coming just before Medvedev's visit to Azerbaijan, is a way of putting political or military pressure on the Azerbaijani side to be more flexible. Maybe it's a hint. [Russia] wants to say, 'We're able to continue our aggression. We're able to continue our occupation of Azerbaijani territory.'" Guluzadeh says. "They are the masters of all the warlords in the Armenian Army. That's why everything that's happening on the cease-fire line is the responsibility of the Russian Federation and its leadership."

Russia's Role

Russia has a long-standing regional allegiance with Armenia, and Medvedev's trip to Baku comes just two weeks after he and Sarkisian signed a deal extending Moscow's military presence in Armenia and pledging to ensure Armenian security.

That deal raised hackles in Azerbaijan, which has periodically threatened to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh impasse by force. Officials in Baku suggested with the treaty, Moscow was handing an unfair advantage to Armenia in a dispute where the Kremlin has sought to portray itself as a fair broker.

Russia has dismissed the notion that the renewed lease in any way changes the equation on Nagorno-Karabakh. (It also denies reports it is selling a powerful antiaircraft system to Azerbaijan.)

In fact, Moscow isn't holding all the cards as Aliyev and Medvedev gather for talks. Russia's lease on Azerbaijan's Qabala radar station, which covers all of Iran and most of the Middle East, is set to expire in 2012.

Elkhan Shahinoglu, the head of the Atlas Research Center, a Baku-based think tank, says it shouldn't be assumed the lease will be renewed.

"The Russian president signing the military agreement with Armenia changed the situation in the region," Shahinoglu says. "For example, we should think twice before extending the lease on the Qabala radar station -- should we do it after this anti-Azerbaijani pact or not?"

Hydrocarbon Clout

Azerbaijan's vast oil and gas reserves also give it considerable leverage in its dealings with Russia. Moscow is eager to cement its monopoly of supply lines to the West, and has sought to thwart European-backed projects like Nabucco, which is designed to circumvent Russian territory and rely on non-Russian suppliers -- including Azerbaijan.

Medvedev, during a trip to Baku last year, signed a deal that gave the Russian energy giant Gazprom first rights to Azerbaijani gas, and the Kremlin says an additional protocol to the deal will be signed during the Russian leader's current visit.

Shahinoglu concedes that Azerbaijan has been willing to play into the Kremlin's hands on certain energy and political matters. Baku -- unlike another South Caucasus neighbor, Georgia -- has never given Moscow cause for alarm by expressing serious interest in Western integration.

But at the same time, Azerbaijan's oil wealth gives it a degree of independence that neither Georgia nor Armenia can match. To date, Baku has maintained a skillful balance between Russia, its traditional ally Turkey, and newer allies in the West.

But Shahinoglu says Azerbaijan has too frequently given Moscow what it wanted -- something that should change if Russia continues to favor Armenia in its relations with the South Caucasus.

"Azerbaijan hasn't favored the Nabucco project because of Russia. Azerbaijan has never openly expressed its NATO aspirations because of Russia. Officials have always said the country is not striving for EU or NATO membership," Shahinoglu says. "I think this policy needs to be changed. Because if Russia openly supports Armenia militarily and politically, we need to reconsider our options."

written by Daisy Sindelar based on RFE/RL and agency reports

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