Nearly eight years ago, the U.S. Congress imposed economic and political sanctions against Azerbaijan. Congress accused the government in Baku of mounting a blockade against neighboring Armenia in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Heidar Aliev, the president of Azerbaijan, has come to Washington apparently hoping to persuade Congress to lift the sanctions. On Monday, Aliyev delivered an address to make his case. RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully attended and files this report.
Washington, 15 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- President Heidar Aliyev is in Washington to press for a end to U.S. economic sanctions against his country.
Aliyev meets today with U.S. President Bill Clinton, who supports lifting the sanctions imposed by Congress in 1992. In its seven years, the Clinton administration has pressed hard for free trade in general. And it has argued that continued sanctions conflict with the goal of an east-west energy corridor that would not run through either Russia or Iran.
On Monday, Aliyev delivered an address at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies in Washington. He appeared determined to make a strong case to Americans about the importance of resuming full political and economic relations with his country.
He said the Caucasus region cannot become either politically or economically stable until his nation and Armenia reach a peaceful settlement to their sometimes bloody conflict over the Azerbaijani enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
In fact, Aliyev said the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which began in 1988, has contributed to similar fighting in Georgia, in Moldova and, now, in Chechnya.
"Thus, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh was the basis -- or became the reason for -- the basis for the other conflicts in all the former Soviet area."
The Azerbaijani president again made his government's case for a settlement. He said Azerbaijan is prepared to give political and cultural autonomy to the predominantly Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, and to establish a transportation corridor through Azerbaijan linking Armenia and the enclave.
But he accused Russia of militarizing the region with its defense alliance with Armenia, and noted that Armenian troops control about 20 percent of Azerbaijan.
Outside the school, about a dozen protesters demanded that Aliyev go home and chanted slogans accusing him of being a murderer, a dictator, and a puppet of international oil interests.
"No deals with dictators! No deals with dictators! No deals with dictators! No deals with dictators!"
Congress imposed the sanctions against Azerbaijan because many members believed the government in Baku had imposed a blockade against Armenia. Azerbaijan has repeatedly denied the blockade, and Aliyev repeated that denial last night.
In Washington, the dispute over the sanctions has on one side an influential group of Americans of Armenian descent. On the other are powerful petroleum interests. In Monday's address, Aliyev stressed Azerbaijan's enormous wealth in natural resources, particularly petroleum. And he emphasized his country's long history of oil exploration and drilling. Aliyev drew laughter from the audience when he noted that the first oil well was drilled in Azerbaijan in 1848 -- three years before the first well was drilled in the U.S.
There has been some speculation over the nature of Aliev's visit to the U.S. He had long been expected to visit Iran in mid-February. But only recently did his office announce that Aliyev would be traveling instead to Washington and that the trip to Iran had been postponed.
It also was believed that Aliyev would go to Cleveland Clinic in the Midwestern U.S. state of Ohio for an examination of his medical progress after heart surgery there nearly a year ago. But Aliev's office emphatically denied those reports. And the Azerbaijani president appeared fit and energetic during Monday's appearance.
There also were reports from the Caucasus region that the sudden decision to travel to Washington indicated that he might have meet with Robert Kocharian to discuss Nagorno-Karabakh. These reports could not be confirmed.