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Azerbaijan: Aliyev Defends His Record On Rights

Azeri President Ilham Aliyev (pictured) meets with George W. Bush on April 28 (file photo) (RFE/RL) Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, is in Washington this week for meetings with U.S. government officials, including President George W. Bush on April 28. Human rights groups have urged Bush to press Aliyev on his country's poor record on democratic reforms. But most attention is focused on Azerbaijan's energy wealth and Aliyev's potential role in the dispute over Iran's nuclear program. Today, Aliyev made a public appearance at the Washington offices of the Council on Foreign Relations, a policy research center, and took questions on a variety of issues in front of an audience of about 200.

WASHINGTON, April 26, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- On everyone's mind in Washington lately is Iran's stated determination to move ahead with its nuclear program, and America's stated determination to stop it.

Azerbaijan shares a nearly 300-kilometer border with Iran, and at the same time is an ally with the United States. So the question naturally arose at today's event what role, if any, Baku might play in the Iran crisis.

Aliyev said Azerbaijan has been an ally of the United States in Iraq from the very start. He even joked that his government sent soldiers to join the coalition, not merely drivers as Armenia did. But he said he can't help Washington in any hostile action against Iran.

"We have a bilateral agreement with Iran which clearly says that the territories of our countries cannot be used for any danger toward each other," Aliyev said. "So it's very clear, and therefore our relations are regulated by international treaties."

Pressed On Human Rights, Karabakh

Another concern in Washington is Azerbaijan's record on democratic reform. Human rights organizations give it a poor rating and have urged Bush to bring up the subject with Aliyev. They note that in early 2005, Bush dedicated his second presidential term to spreading democracy around the world.

Azerbaijan is prepared to allow ethnic Armenians to live prosperously and securely in Azerbaijan, Aliyev said, and all Azeris want in return is the land seized by Armenia.

Asked about his country's efforts on democratic development, Aliyev defended his record, saying his people enjoyed all the freedoms of any democracy.

He acknowledged that Azerbaijan is still working to improve its democratic institutions.

"Look at the neighborhood," Aliyev said. "I don't think that the level of democracy in Azerbaijan is lower than in any other neighboring country. There is a reality and there is a perception. When you concentrate on perception -- and some information not quite reflecting the reality -- then you have one impression. When you look [at] what the country is, how it develops, what people think, then maybe you have another [perception]."

Aliyev also was asked about his country's continuing dispute with neighboring Armenia over the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, and the large area of Azerbaijan that Armenia has occupied since their war in 1992.

The Nagorno-Karabakh army in training last year (Photolur)

Azerbaijan is prepared to allow ethnic Armenians to live prosperously and securely in Azerbaijan, Aliyev said, just as ethnic groups do in Europe. He said all Azeris want in return is the land seized by Armenia.

Aliyev said the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations under the mediation of the so-called Minsk Group -- France, Russia, and the United States -- at times are encouraging, at times frustrating. And he blamed Armenia for allowing the talks to drag on.

It's time for the Armenian government to begin acting more like diplomats and less like politicians, Aliyev said.

"Politicians think only about their political destiny, statesmen think about the future of the nation," he said. "I think it's time for Armenia's leadership to behave like statesmen, to think what will happen in five years, in 10 years, in 15 years if the conflict will not be resolved. [The] patience of the Azerbaijani people has limits."

An "Energy Nationalist"?

Any appearance by Aliyev would be meaningless without at least one question about energy and what's become known as "energy nationalism" -- promoting a national interest through energy policy.

Europe and Asia rely increasingly on the Russian monopoly Gazprom for gas. Russia made its energy influence felt in January by cutting off the gas supply to Ukraine in a disagreement over pricing.

The United States and Western Europe, meanwhile, are promoting the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline -- stretching from Azerbaijan to Turkey's southern coast -- to provide an alternative to Russian gas.

In the final question of Wednesday's event, Aliyev was asked if he was an "energy nationalist." The Azeri leader laughed and said he hadn't heard the term before.

"In Azerbaijan we have energy internationalism [laughter] because we have all the representatives from countries -- from the United States, from Britain, from other European countries -- who work with us since 1994 in a spirit of friendship and good will," Aliyev said. "And due to this cooperation, we managed to attract about, maybe, $70 billion in the oil and gas sector, and in total about $28 billion as investments."

Laughter aside, however, it remains to be seen whether Bush will ignore Azerbaijan's record on human rights and democratic reform as long as it remains a reliable provider of energy to the West.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Click on the image to view an enlarged map of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone

In February 1988, the local assembly in Stepanakert, the local capital of the Azerbaijani region of NAGORNO-KARABAKH, passed a resolution calling for unification of the predominantly ethnic-Armenian region with Armenia. There were reports of violence against local Azeris, followed by attacks against Armenians in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. In 1991-92, Azerbaijani forces launched an offensive against separatist forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the Armenians counterattacked and by 1993-94 had seized almost all of the region, as well as vast areas around it. About 600,000 Azeris were displaced and as many as 25,000 people were killed before a Russian-brokered cease-fire was imposed in May 1994.

CHRONOLOGY: For an annotated timeline of the fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988-94 and the long search for a permanent settlement to the conflict, click here.

Click on the icon to view images of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (Flash required)

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