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Azerbaijan: Russia Seeks To Mollify Baku

Prague, 1 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- An exchange of letters last week between Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin suggests that Moscow is disturbed by statements of Azerbaijan's willingness to host U.S., Turkish, or NATO military bases on its territory.

During the past three months, state foreign policy advisor Vafa Guluzade, presidential advisor on military issues General Tofik Agaguseinov and Defense Minister Safar Abiev have all complained about Russia's military cooperation with Armenia.

They have noted in particular that the recent delivery to Russia's military base in Armenia of MiG-29 fighter aircraft and S-300 air defense systems, upsets the strategic military balance in the south Caucasus. They say this leaves Baku no option but to seek either a NATO or U.S. military presence or a formal defense alliance with Turkey.

True, Aliyev has underscored that such statements do not reflect formal Azerbaijani policy, while Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem has expressed concern at the possible repercussions of a further military buildup in the south Caucasus. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian has similarly objected that a Turkish military presence in Azerbaijan would seriously upset the military balance in the region.

Aliev's protests at the ongoing Russian-Armenian defense cooperation, which he said "contradict the letter and spirit of the agreement on friendship and cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan," were only one of a series of grievances he expressed in a 20 March letter to Yeltsin.

Aliyev also deplored the failure to clarify responsibility for previous shipments of Russian arms worth one thousand million dollars to Armenia.

In conclusion, Aliyev reaffirmed his commitment to maintaining the ceasefire that has held since May 1994 along the Line of Contact between Karabakh Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, and to seeking a peaceful solution of the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh, the enclave within Azerbaijan that is controlled by ethnic Armenians. He also assured Yeltsin of his desire for "friendly relations" with Russia.

In a response hand-delivered to Aliyev in Baku by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Leonid Drachevskii four days later, Yeltsin assured the Azerbaijani president that Russian-Armenian military cooperation is not, and never will be, directed against Azerbaijan. He also offered to provide Azerbaijan with the same weaponry as it has stationed in Armenia -- an offer that Aliyev said on Monday he has rejected.

Interfax quoted Aliyev as saying: "It is necessary to disarm, not to arm today, especially in the Caucasus where the situation is complex." That statement is clearly at odds with calls for a foreign military presence in Azerbaijan.

With regard to the Karabakh conflict, Yeltsin advocated direct talks between Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian, offering to host such talks in Moscow. The Armenian leadership, for its part, advocates direct talks between the Azerbaijani leadership and that of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

Then, in an apparent retreat from the most recent peace proposal put forward by the three co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group (of which Russia is one), Yeltsin wrote that Moscow will no longer insist on taking the most recent Minsk Group proposal that Azerbaijan and the NKR should form a "common state" as the basis for continuing the mediation process. Armenia and the NKR had endorsed that proposal, while Baku had categorically rejected it.

It is not clear whether Yeltsin's statement signals a modification of Russia's position on Karabakh, and thus by extension dissent within the Minsk Group. U.S. representatives of the Group recently told visiting NKR officials that the most recent draft peace proposal would not be amended to take into consideration Azerbaijan's rejection of the "common state" principle.

It is possible that the message Yeltsin sought to convey was that Moscow will not sacrifice its own strategic interests in Azerbaijan for the sake of Armenia, and is prepared to make concessions on various issues in return for a cooling in Azerbaijan's enthusiastically pro-NATO rhetoric.

The Azerbaijani leadership's failure to take a stance over last week's NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia could, in turn, mean that Azerbaijan is engaged in a reassessment of its strategic priorities, and is trying in the meantime to avoid offending either Moscow or the West.