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Azerbaijan: Aliyev Meets Clinton On Nagorno-Karabakh, Pipelines

Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev is using a pro-West strategy in his effort to persuade the U.S. Congress to lift 8-year-old economic sanctions against his country. RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully covered Aliev's trip to Washington, and explores whether this strategy can work.

Washington, 16 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijan's president, Heidar Aliev, came to Washington this week to press for greater involvement of the U.S., Russia and France in seeking a settlement of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Aliyev says Azerbaijan's position is misunderstood, particularly by the U.S. Congress, which imposed economic and political sanctions on his country in 1992.

The Azerbaijani president met with U.S. President Bill Clinton for 45 minutes at the White House on Tuesday. He said their talks on Nagorno-Karabakh were "very helpful and very useful" toward reaching a peaceful settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. He did not elaborate.

The two leaders also discussed joint development of oil and natural gas in the Caspian Sea region. This includes the planned construction of the Baku-Ceyhan petroleum line and the trans-Caspian line for natural gas. Both would be financed, at least in part, by foreign investors.

Aliyev gave no details of that discussion, except to say he and Clinton "shared the same views" on energy. The Clinton administration has made it known that it would prefer that the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline not go through Iran, Azerbaijan's southern neighbor.

But the U.S. sanctions against Azerbaijan are interfering with completing these two deals. Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, was passed in 1992. Most members of Congress believe, as they did eight years ago, that the government in Baku is at fault in the sometimes bloody dispute over the enclave in Azerbaijan whose population is mostly ethnic Armenian.

Aliyev presented his case in an address Monday, then before Clinton the following day. He argued -- as he has before -- that if any country can be accused of wrongdoing it is Armenia, which now controls about 20 percent of Azerbaijan and, by Aliev's estimate, has created 1 million Azerbaijani refugees.

On Monday, Aliyev stood by his offer of a transport route linking Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, and full autonomy for ethnic Armenians in the enclave. But he said independence is out of the question because there already is a sovereign nation of Armenia.

As for the U.S. sanctions against his country, Aliyev spoke stoically.

"Unfortunately, in a very fair and just country like America, in a fair Congress like you have, sometimes unfair bills are also adopted."

Aliyev came to Washington with a message that appears to be tuned especially for Western ears. In his address Monday, he noted that Azerbaijan had been under Russian or Soviet control for 200 years before independence -- and thus it now has a more Western outlook. He pointed to a map showing his country on the border between Europe and Asia -- and said it looks more to the West than the East.

The Azerbaijani president even spoke out on Wahhabism, a Saudi form of Islamic fundamentalism that has begun to spread to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"We have an extremely negative attitude towards Wahhabism. We think that this movement, this trend, is dangerous both for the North Caucasus and -- in general for our region."

And he went on the record as saying that after two centuries of Russian and Soviet domination, Azerbaijan now looks to the U.S. for its future.

"Very close, friendly relations and partnership relations have been established between the United States of America and Azerbaijan, and we have now very wide economic cooperation that brings the benefits to both sides. We consider America as our friend and as our strategic partner."

But it is unclear whether Aliev's new effort to be persuasive will succeed. His visit to the U.S. was only minimally covered by the American news media, so he cannot rely on winning popular support. And Congress has for seven years rejected Clinton's calls to lift the Section 907 sanctions.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank, says he doubts Congress will change its mind soon.

"Aliyev is widely perceived as either being part of the trend toward Central Asian autocrats that we see in that part of the world, or as a re-tread [superficially rehabilitated] communist apparatchik. Neither image plays very well with Congress or with influential groups in the United States. So he has a difficult task overcoming that."

Carpenter says Congress may some day lift the sanctions. But for now, he says, Aliev's personal history -- and the persuasive Armenian interest groups in America -- will ensure that they remain in place.