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Caucuses: Debate In U.S. On Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh Meets With Mixed Response

Washington, 26 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Two events in Washington this week indicate that Azerbiajan is gaining support in the U.S. Congress and Armenia is losing favor in the U.S. State Department.

In separate RFE/RL interviews Wednesday, the Azerbaijani and Armenian ambassadors to the U.S. gave their reaction to unusually harsh criticism of Armenia by State Department spokesman James Rubin and a significant vote in a Senate committee for proposed legislation on the Caucasus and Central Asia. Not surprisingly, their perceptions differed widely from one another.

Armenia's Ambassador Rouben Shugarian said his country is extremely upset at the vote in the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee approving the so-called "Silk Road Strategy Act," -- a bill that would extend to the eight countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia equally the same U.S. economic, political and security benefits long enjoyed by Russia, Ukraine and Central Europe.

The legislation, among other things would authorize U.S. assistance to all eight former Soviet republics, effectively lifting a six-year-old ban on economic aid to the government of Azerbaijan.

The aid ban was imposed in Section 907 of the 1992 Freedom Support Act until such time as Azerbaijan lifts a blockade against Armenia.

Shugarian said that repealing 907 would be "a free gift" to Azerbaijan and that Armenia cannot benefit from any U.S.-promoted economic cooperation in the region while the blockade is in place isolating the country. "It is quite ridiculous," he said, adding that his country sees the proposed bill as "the By-pass-Armenia-Act."

Shugarian said also that lifting the aid ban without getting anything in return from Azerbaijan will harden that country's position in peace negotiations on Nagorno-Karabakh, the separatist province in Azerbaijan, inhabited mostly by ethnic Armenians who want independence or a union with Armenia.

He said that "if Azerbaijan gets a free gift, it will toughen its position and the peace process will go nowhere."

Shugarian said he believes that lifting 907 would also damage America's position as a mediator in the peace process.

The U.S. ,with France and Russia, is one of the three co-chairs of the so-called Minsk Group of 11 countries of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is trying to mediate a 1994 cease-fire into a lasting peace settlement.

"The U.S. should be an honest broker, you cannot give a free gift to one of the parties to the conflict," he said, adding that Armenia will do all it can to influence U.S. legislators to change their minds before the Silkroad Strategy bill becomes law.

It still has a long legislative road to travel and could undergo many changes before final passage.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote was along partisan lines10 to 8 in favor, with the Democratic minority voting against in a partisan bloc.

Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-Maryland) said that lifting the aid ban would be seen as legitimizing President Heydar Aliyev's repressive rule in Azerbaijan.

"Coming before the October presidential election in Azerbaijan, it would be the worst possible timing," he said, adding that without 907, Azerbaijan will have no incentive to lift its blockade against Armenia.

Supporters of the proposed legislation said U.S. policy in the Caucasus has failed to stabilize the region and it is time to adopt a new approach.

The main sponsor of the bill, Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) said the Caucasus and Central Asia with their huge energy reserves are immensely important to the U.S. and the Silkroad Strategy bill will help strengthen their independence and separate identities and develop their economies.

The Senate committee vote sends the bill to the full Senate and a similar bill in the House of Representatives must go through the same procedure. If approved in both chambers of Congress, the two versions will be unified in conference and sent to President Bill Clinton to be signed into law. The House has taken no action at all yet, and legislative experts say the Senate is not likely to schedule a floor debate until after the summer recess, sometime in the fall.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan's Ambassador Hafiz Pashayev takes the exact opposite view of his Armenian counterpart.

He told our correspondent that Section 907 has tilted the U.S. towards Armenia and lessened Washington's objectivity as a mediator. Repealing the 907 ban, Pashayev said would make the U.S. a more impartial and objective negotiator and "it will give the U.S. more leverage in the peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan."

Pashayev says it would send, in his words "a very good message to hardliners on the Armenian side that Armenia should come to agreement...with Azerbaijan because from our side we already made concessions and we accepted the Minsk Group peace proposal with its step-by-step approach."

But he refused to accept the word blockade, saying the fighting has stopped but Azerbaijan and Armenia are still in a state of war and have, as he put it "interrupted trade."

Pashayev said that Azerbaijan, with one fifth of its territory under Armenian control and more than one million refugees, is eager to make progress on a peace settlement. But he said Armenia is not ready.

Pashayev cited two factors, saying Azerbaijan is an independent country, able and willing to make concessions in the peace process. But he said his government "does not feel Armenia is acting as an independent country," adding that Russia has influence over Armenia.

Some Washington experts say Russia has no interest in stabilizing the region and is actively stirring up trouble to make Russian territory the best option for lucrative Caspian oil pipeline routes.

The other element, Pashayev said is that Armenians believe their military conquest in Azerbaijan gives them leverage to insist on getting all the political concessions they want.

He said Armenia must stop insisting on annexation or full independence for Nagorno-Karabakh. Pashayev stressed that Azerbaijan is unyielding on giving up its territory. "Maybe we lost the battle, but not the war," he said.

The U.S. State Department is on Azerbaijan's side on the question of annexation, with a strong statement rejecting threatening comments made in Yerevan last week that Armenia may lose patience with the peace process in a couple of years and annex the neighboring Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh province.

Rubin said this is "unacceptable" and "very disturbing," although the Armenian government has denied making any such statement.

Ambassador Shugarian repeated the denial in the RFE/RL interview Wednesday, saying comments by Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian were taken out of context and garbled in translation by western reporters.

Shugarian said Armenia believes Nagorno-Karabakh has the right to become independent or choose to join with Armenia. but is not pursuing this goal at this time and would not forcibly annex the province.

"Everybody, including Armenia, rules out the possibility of changing the borders by use of force," he said.

Shugarian said Armenia is offering a new approach to negotiations, expressing a willingness to talk directly to Nagorno-Karabakh representatives as well as Azerbaijanis, provided all sides come to the table with no pre-conditions except to agree not to pursue their ultimate aims.

In Shugarian's words: "We should start negotiations right away with no pre-conditions...Armenia will not call for independence or reunification with Nagorno- Karabakh, and we expect Azerbaijan not to call for autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan. We should abandon these two extremes and start negotiations until we find a compromise in between."