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Azerbaijan: Officials' Resignations Hint At Karabakh Discord

Three officials in the government of Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, including the foreign minister, have resigned. RFE/RL correspondent Mark Baker reports that the resignations may hint at stresses over Baku's policy on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Prague, 27 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- No public statements have been made on why Foreign Minister Tofig Zulfigarov and presidential adviser Eldar Namazov decided to step down on Monday. But correspondents say almost certainly at issue is President Heidar Aliev's recent negotiations with the Armenian government over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, the mostly Armenian enclave located within Azerbaijani territory.

A presidential statement yesterday confirmed that Zulfigarov would be leaving his post and would be replaced by Vilayat Guliyev, a writer with relatively little foreign policy expertise.

Ten days ago, another presidential foreign policy adviser, Vafa Guluzade, said he was stepping down. Guluzade in the past had been active on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

The opposition Civil Solidarity party said Guluzade's resignation was proof that Aliyev was set to make what it called "dubious concessions" on Karabakh in talks with Yerevan.

The resignations follow a series of meetings -- stretching over several months -- between Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharian on Nagorno-Karabakh. While little is known about the substance of the talks, reports say the two sides are making progress in resolving the status of the enclave.

Nagorno-Karabakh is the most serious issue between Caucasus rivals Azerbaijan and Armenia. The enclave broke away from Azerbaijan nearly ten years ago. A ceasefire was signed in 1994 after years of violence that left more than 30,000 people dead.

The U.S., Russia and major European powers have been strongly urging both sides to resolve the issue. The U.S., in particular, is pushing both to sign a peace agreement at next month's summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Istanbul.

There has been no official comment on why the officials left their jobs. But Azerbaijan's independent newspapers yesterday were quick to link the actions to Karabakh.

The newspaper "525" said the resignations signal genuine disagreement over Nagorno-Karabakh within Aliev's government. The paper said "the president who used to suppress his opponents now has a new problem: his own people refuse to work with him."

The opposition "Azadlig" newspaper, closely associated with the Popular Front, implied the resignations were only a ploy by Aliyev to put pressure on the U.S. not to force a solution for Karabakh. The paper said the moves were designed to show that any solution on the enclave that is not in the interest of the Azeri people could lead to instability. The paper says the U.S., for one, would never risk instability to force an unpopular solution.

The resignations coincide with the arrival yesterday in Baku of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. Talbott, in talks with Aliev, was expected to press Baku to reach agreement on Karabakh.

Correspondents say that popular opposition to Aliyev's Karabakh policy appears to be gaining ground. About 5,000 people earlier this month gathered at a racetrack outside the capital to condemn the president's apparent willingness to grant concessions to Armenia on the enclave.

Rally participants adopted a 16-point resolution urging, among other things, that Russia be barred as one of the main sponsors of peace talks. The participants argued Russia is biased toward Armenia. They also insisted that Armenia be formally condemned as the "aggressor" in the Karabakh dispute.

Last week, the Democratic Congress that links 10 or so opposition parties agreed to create a working group to revive the hard-line National Resistance Movement. The movement was initially created in 1994 to protest the ceasefire in Karabakh.

Any decision on such a contentious issue as Karabakh is bound to generate powerful strains within Azerbaijani society and in the government. Analysts say regardless of whether the recent series of resignations are genuine, the individuals involved are probably relieved to be away from the Karabakh issue. They will probably be happy to see Aliyev alone bear the responsibility if he is seen as yielding on Karabakh.

(Liz Fuller of Newsline and Mirza Michaeli of the Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report.)

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.