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Azerbaijan: Misleading Reports In Russian Press On Azerbaijan

Russian reporting on events concerning Azerbaijan this week have raised suspicions about possible motives. Following an inaccurate story on President Heidar Aliev's health, a U.S. oil company has also denied a Russian report about its "withdrawal" from a Caspian project that has been a strategic goal for Baku. RFE/RL correspondent Michael Lelyveld reports.

Boston, 29 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev's visit to the United States resulted this week in two troubling stories for his country, both of which appear to have been promoted by the Russian press.

On Monday, the Internet-based Russian magazine carried a false report that Aliyev had died, capping two weeks of speculation about his stay at the Cleveland Clinic hospital in the midwestern United States. Aliyev flew to Cleveland on September 12 after meetings in Washington, where participants described him as having a cold.

Aliyev has previously received medical treatment during his travels to the United States. In April 1999, he ended a similar visit to Washington with a trip to the Cleveland hospital for heart bypass surgery. Last February, the president followed yet another Washington meeting with a stay in Cleveland for a cataract operation.

In each case, nervous Azerbaijani officials tried to draw a curtain of secrecy around the elderly president's condition, giving rise to rumors and making matters worse. The latest episode prompted Aliyev to call Azerbaijan's ANS television for an interview in which he hinted that he had contracted pneumonia. On Tuesday, carried a Reuters news agency report citing the inaccuracy of Russian media rumors, without mentioning that the website itself was to blame.

The ITAR-TASS news agency finally put the bogus story to rest, quoting the secretary of Russia's Security Council, Sergei Ivanov, saying, "I officially declare that reports by some Russian media about the health of the Azerbaijani president do not correspond to reality."

But the Russian report on Aliev's alleged death was not the only one that raised suspicions. On Monday, the Russian news agency Interfax reported that the U.S. oil company ExxonMobil had refused to participate with other firms in building the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. Interfax quoted the president of the Azerbaijani state oil company SOCAR as saying that the "withdrawal" would not harm the project to pipe Caspian oil to Turkey, which competes with Russia's preferred route to the port of Novorossiisk.

It was not clear, however, that the story reflected any actual decision that had been made by ExxonMobil. On Wednesday, a spokesman for the company in the United States told RFE/RL, "There isn't a decision. It's pending, and we're talking with the (Azerbaijani) government and other parties about it." In any event, a "withdrawal" from the Baku-Ceyhan project would have been difficult because ExxonMobil had never made a decision to join the pipeline consortium in the first place.

The story of ExxonMobil's reluctance to help build the pipeline appears to have grown since September 11, when the U.S.-based Dow Jones news service reported that the company was keeping its "options open" on Caspian export routes. The report quoted Terry Koonce, president of ExxonMobil Production Company, as saying that the firm was not yet "entirely convinced" that the route would be economically viable.

Speaking in Washington, President Aliyev called on the company to change its position. On September 20, SOCAR's Natig Aliyev said ExxonMobil was "hesitating," adding that the company would suffer if it did not join the project. Days later, the hesitation appears to have been transformed into a withdrawal through little more than a repetition of Natig Aliev's statement. The ExxonMobil spokesman in the United States said Wednesday that there has been no change in the company's position since Koonce made his original statement in Washington over two weeks ago.

But Russian news agencies have been aggravating the uncertainties about Azerbaijan at a time of concern about Kremlin strategies for the press. Reports of a secret budget for press operations have been accompanied by moves to force Russia's oligarchs to turn over their media holdings, presumably to allow greater state control. The Russian reports on Azerbaijan also come at a sensitive time during President Aliev's absence in the days before parliamentary elections.