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Azerbaijan: Putin Tries To Overcome Years Of Mistrust

Russian President Vladimir Putin has begun a trip to Azerbaijan, in the first official visit to the country by a Russian head of state since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch examines the disputes that have separated Russia and Azerbaijan in the past decade and looks at the visit's implications for the region.

Prague, 10 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived yesterday (9 January) in Azerbaijan on a landmark two-day state visit to the oil-rich former Soviet republic.

Talks between Putin and Azerbaijani president Heidar Aliyev were to include a wide range of political, security and economic issues, notably cooperation in the energy sector, economic borders in the Caspian Sea, and Azerbaijan's conflict with Armenia.

The two leaders yesterday signed a joint document, the Baku Declaration, which Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliyev says will define the general trends of cooperation for the next 10 years.

Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reports that by signing the document, both presidents agree "to bring relations between Russia and Azerbaijan to a higher level of strategic cooperation." No other details were available.

In statements yesterday, both presidents noted the importance of good bilateral relations:

"We attach great importance to the development of our relations with Azerbaijan and it seems to me that we have every opportunity [to develop these relations]. With the agreement of the president of Azerbaijan, we can open a new chapter in the relations between Russia and Azerbaijan."

Aliyev said:

"We've found mutual agreement on all questions that we discussed and this brings me great satisfaction as an important result of the Russian president's visit."

Putin's state visit -- the first of a Russian president since the collapse of the Soviet Union -- is widely seen as an attempt to restore confidence between the two countries after years of mutual mistrust.

Putin's foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko said yesterday that both countries understand the diplomatic pause in contacts was a mistake.

Azerbaijan looks at Russia with suspicion. Officials say Moscow is the main obstacle to stability in the region and supplied arms and ammunition to Armenian separatists in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave between 1993 and 1996. Aliyev has accused Moscow of backing repeated attempts by his political opponents to overthrow his regime.

Russia denies the charges and accuses Azerbaijan of drifting toward NATO and the West. Moscow also sees the GUUAM -- an economic forum that groups Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova -- as an attempt to undermine the CIS.

Talking to reporters ahead of Putin's arrival, Guliyev said the Nagorno-Karabakh issue will be one of the key issues on the presidents' agenda. Along with the United States and France, Russia co-chairs the so-called Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) set up to help negotiate a peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Guliyev says Russia, as co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, is able to influence processes in the region and also has more chance to influence Armenia than other states.

More than 30,000 people died in the armed conflict that erupted after the mainly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh enclave tried to break away from Azerbaijan in 1988. Despite a ceasefire signed in 1994, peace talks are at a stalemate and Armenian forces still occupy an estimated 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory.

Putin and Aliyev are also expected to discuss security issues. Among those accompanying the Russian president are Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov, and the commander-in-chief of Russia's border guards, Konstantin Totsky.

The presence of Viktor Kazantsev, Putin's representative in the Northern Caucasus, suggests that both presidents will also discuss the situation in Chechnya. Russia has repeatedly accused Azerbaijan of supplying aid to the Chechen separatists.

Putin and Aliyev are also expected to discuss the future of the Russian-manned Gabala radar station, Moscow's only remaining military facility in Azerbaijan. But officials from both countries say that no agreement on this issue will be signed during the visit.

Also high on Putin's agenda is bilateral economic cooperation.

Russia's leading private oil company Lukoil and Azerbaijan's SOCAR state oil company yesterday (9 January) signed a $250 million contract to develop a partially offshore block comprising the Govsany and Zykh deposits in the southern part of the Apsheron peninsula.

The block, which has been producing oil for more than 30 years, has estimated reserves of 20 million tons.

Although Lukoil is a member of an international consortium set up in 1994 to develop three major offshore oil fields, Russia has been overshadowed by the U.S., Turkey, Japan, and France in the development of Azerbaijan's vast hydrocarbon resources.

Russia and Azerbaijan are also at odds over a projected oil pipeline linking Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. The 1,700-km-long line would deprive Moscow of substantial profits in transit fees.

Baku-Ceyhan is a direct threat to an already existing pipeline running from Baku to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk and known as the "Northern route."

Speculation over the future of Baku-Ceyhan has been raised recently in Turkey after two Washington-based research groups reportedly close to U.S. President-elect George W. Bush openly criticized the project.

Moscow is also opposed to a projected underwater pipeline that would ship natural gas from Turkmenistan to Turkey, through Azerbaijan.

Nine years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Caspian legal status remains undefined and is still regulated by two treaties signed in 1921 and 1940 between Iran and the Soviet Union.

The five riparian states -- Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran -- have been unable to agree on a way to divide the sea waters and hydrocarbon resources.

Russia and Azerbaijan strongly disagree over Moscow's proposal of dividing only the seabed into national sectors.

Azerbaijan is facing growing pressure from Russia to side with Moscow's dividing formula, while Iran -- which wants not only the Caspian seabed but also its waters to be evenly divided into national sectors -- exerts similar pressure on Baku from the south.

Both Iran and Russia have been using natural gas and electricity supplies as a means to force Baku's hand.

Meeting last month with Viktor Kalyuzhny, Russia's special envoy to the Caspian Sea region, Aliyev expressed hopes that Putin's visit would end up with the two countries clarifying their positions on this issue.

Both presidents agreed yesterday that the Caspian legal dispute should be solved only on a consensual basis by all five bordering states, but apparently failed to reach a more comprehensive agreement on the issue.

Putin's state visit is being scrutinized in Georgia. In an interview with Russia's Interfax news agency, Georgian Foreign Minister Iralki Menagarishvili said future relations between Russia and all three southern Caucasus states will, to a great extent, depend on the outcome of Putin's talks with Aliev.