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Armenia: Yerevan May Be Losing A Diplomatic Battle

Armenia is bordered on the west by Turkey and the east by Azerbaijan -- two long-time enemies. Lately, Yerevan has chosen to fight these two hostile nations not on the battlefield, but diplomatically in Washington. But as RFE/RL senior correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports, it runs a great risk of losing those two wars.

Washington, 18 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Two events in Washington last week highlighted a chilling predicament for Armenia -- long-term U.S. relations with Turkey, and America's seemingly unquenchable thirst for oil, eventually could leave Armenia out in the cold.

Last Thursday (Sept 14), U.S. Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey) convened a hearing of a subcommittee of the House of Representatives' International Relations Committee. At the hearing, witnesses and committee members spoke out for and against a resolution that would require the U.S. government to declare that the Ottoman Empire committed genocide from 1915 to 1923 against Armenians living in Turkey.

The hearing was well attended, and speakers for both sides spoke passionately for their causes. Those who favored the resolution said it is time for the world to recognize the precursor of 20th-century genocide. They said the atrocities committed against Armenians emboldened future practitioners of genocide -- whether in Germany in the 1930s and 40s or Rwanda in the 1990s.

Opponents were equally eloquent. They noted that in 1923, Ataturk threw out the Ottoman leaders to establish a modern, Westernized, secular state of Turkey. Therefore, they said, there is no link with the country's current leadership and those who victimized Armenians.

Besides, the resolution's opponents said, Turkey has been a loyal member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for 40 years. And its position in the eastern Mediterranean Sea is crucial for maintaining a balance between the East and the West.

Three days before the congressional hearing, Heidar Aliev, the president of Azerbaijan, was in Washington to address a trade exposition of the United States-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce. Much of Aliev's speech seemed to be an effort to excuse the slowness of economic progress in Azerbaijan, a country that is rich in oil. This slowness Aliyev attributed directly to the dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, the enclave in Azerbaijan that is mostly populated by ethnic Armenians.

Aliyev complained that Armenian forces occupy about 20 percent of his land, that more than one million Azeris are refugees from these territories, and that what he called the undue influence of Armenian-Americans prompted the U.S. Congress to pass Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act in 1992. Section 907 forbids the U.S. to give any aid to Azerbaijan. The reason: An Azerbaijani blockade of Armenia.

The Azerbaijani president cited a map of his country showing that Armenia occupies territories that border all but a small part of Nagorno-Karabakh. He then indicated the path of an east-west rail route in southern Azerbaijan that runs through the Armenian-held territory.

"If there is talk of a blockade, the railway line coming from Azerbaijan along the Iranian border goes to Armenia. So in this map you can see that 130 kilometers of this railway line is under the occupation of Armenia."

Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Rouben Shugarian says Aliev's contention is preposterous. Shugarian notes that Azerbaijan has access to many other countries to the north, south and east -- particularly via the Caspian Sea.

Shugarian told RFE/RL that because Armenia is landlocked, it is therefore easy for Azerbaijan to blockade it from the east.

"Azerbaijan is having its border closed with Armenia, and it blockaded the humanitarian assistance that came from [the] United States to Armenia in 1992. It also blockaded any business activities Armenia had with third countries through the territory of Azerbaijan. It blockaded the cargo that was coming from Russia."

Shugarian says Azerbaijan's blockade of Armenia began before any military hostilities broke out between the two nations.

Armenia is fighting these continuing disputes with Turkey and Azerbaijan in Washington. And it is achieving some success. There are many Armenians in the populous U.S. states of New Jersey in the east and California in the west. Their influence helped to get Congress to pass Section 907.

But U.S. President Bill Clinton wants to repeal the bill and improve relations with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan would be the starting point of the proposed Baku-Ceyhan oil and natural gas pipeline that would move through Georgia to Turkey's Mediterranean coast to feed the West. No president is likely to want to jeopardize so great a source of oil.

And Thursday's congressional hearing also demonstrates the influence of Armenian-Americans in Washington. The resolution that was discussed at the event would be non-binding even if passed by the full Congress. But even if it were binding, the resolution probably would be vetoed by the president. No American president is likely to risk offending Turkey and its people by officially declaring the nation guilty of genocide.

Doug Bandow is a syndicated columnist for American newspapers and magazines, and an analyst on economic and diplomatic issues at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. Bandow says Armenia cannot win the diplomatic battle in Washington against Turkey.

Bandow says Turkey's strategic importance in NATO is too important for the U.S. to risk alienating the country and its people. He says he can conceive of no U.S. president or Congress ever taking that risk.

However, Bandow told RFE/RL that the country's chances of prevailing diplomatically over Azerbaijan are better, but not certain. He notes that Azerbaijan does not own all the Caspian oil, and that a pipeline to the West does not necessarily have to begin in Baku.

"I think this is one of those issues where you have to make the argument that Azerbaijan is not the only player. So if one sides with Armenia in the struggle, one really isn't ultimately losing a lot of oil. One may simply be kind of reshuffling the deck a bit."

But Bandow believes that U.S. interests -- that is, oil -- eventually will win out. And that would leave Armenia a loser on both the Turkish and Azerbaijani fronts.

Still, Shugarian, Armenia's deputy foreign minister, says there is genuine hope that his nation and Azerbaijan can settle their differences. He points to the recent meeting between Aliyev and Armenian President Robert Kocharian during the United Nations' Millennium Summit in New York during the week of September 3. He says 10 direct contacts between the two leaders have taken place over the past year.