Washington, 31 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev spent most of his first full day in Washington yesterday lobbying the U.S. Congress for the repeal of a ban on U.S. economic assistance to his government.
He is making his first official visit to Washington this week, and he wasted no time in going to the source of U.S. aid to the emerging nations of the former Soviet Union -- the U.S. Congress.
When the Congress approved a longterm economic assistance program for the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it added a provision to the law prohibiting direct U.S. aid to Azerbaijan until it lifts its economic blockade of Armenia. The law allows the U.S. Government to provide only humanitarian relief.
Armenia, in contrast, received more than $80 million in U.S. aid last year and is due to receive the same amount in the next financial year.
During a speech Wednesday at Georgetown University in Washington, Aliyev called the ban on aid to Azerbaijan unjust and a hindrance to Azerbaijan's political and economic reform.
After the speech, he went to Congress to make his case with some of the most influential members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. His list of visits included House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-New York), House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina).
There was no immediate report on the substance of his talks with the members of Congress. There is, however, bipartisan support in Washington for Azerbaijan's position. In a speech last week, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott called for improved U.S. ties with Azerbaijan and said the congressional ban should be lifted. President Bill Clinton's Administration has asked Congress to lift the ban.
Aliyev will see Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Friday.
Congressman Lee Hamilton (D-Indiana), the senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, agrees it is time to reconsider the ban on aid. Congressman Peter King (R-New York) has introduced legislation that would repeal the law. In the Senate, Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), the chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee responsible for the Caucasus, has taken the lead in calling for what he terms a more balanced U.S. policy in the region.
American oil companies that want to participate in the development of Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea oil have also become more vocal in their support for Azerbaijan in recent weeks. When he leaves Washington, Aliyev will meet with oil company executives in Houston in the oil-producing state of Texas.
Azerbaijan and its supporters, however, must contend with the powerful Armenian American political lobby in Washington, which has so far helped persuade Congress to keep the ban in place.
Azerbaijan and Armenia are in conflict over the predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan. In his speech, Aliyev traced the source of the dispute to what he called Armenian aggression.
Since 1988, ethnic Armenians have taken control of the disputed territory, and following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenian forces have occupied seven Azerbaijani provinces. A ceasefire is in place and international mediators are trying to work out a final settlement.
Aliyev says Azerbaijan wants peace. He says the unsettled conflict is the biggest obstacle to development in the south Caucasus. The president says his country is willing to grant what he calls the highest degree of autonomy to Nagorno-Karabakh. But he also flatly stated that the territory can never be independent. Aliyev says Azerbaijan cannot agree to the creation of what he called a second Armenian republic within his country.
He also said all occupied territory must be returned to Azerbaijan, and Aliyev disputed the contention that Azerbaijan is blockading Armenia. He said most of the rail line that connects Armenia with the rest of the Caucasus is under Armenian control.
Azerbaijan, said Aliyev, is in the process of building a stable democratic state based upon the rule of law. He asserted that Azerbaijan will always be a secular, multi-national state where human rights are guaranteed.