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Azerbaijan Report: March 29, 2004

29 March 2004
What Was Behind Ilham Aliyev's Visit to Uzbekistan?
President Ilham Aliyev, who mainly prefers to visit regional countries, paid an official visit to Uzbekistan on 23-24 March. The visits to Russia and Kazakhstan with strategic aims were easier to understand. But why did President Aliyev go to Uzbekistan, which has no special economic relations with Baku?

Officials said that Aliyev's visit to Uzbekistan is of great importance, pointing to the close economic relations between the two countries. But the paradox is that such statements are not ratified at the level of presidents. The trip was held in the friendly atmosphere of true partnership, according to reports from Tashkent. But after all this formality, Uzbek President Islam Karimov at a press conference accused some regional capitals, including Baku, of disregard for regional undertakings. Karimov called on the countries along the Silk Road to drop rhetoric and to seriously address their obligations to reduce transit tariffs. In particular, Karimov accused the Azerbaijani authorities of reneging on a transit agreement that granted certain privileges to Uzbekistan.

"While signing the Iranian contact we agreed to reduce the transit duties by 50 percent. But later because of greediness some of our Azeri friends cut the tariffs only by 25 percent," Karimov said.

President Aliyev admitted the existence of problems in the tariffs issue, but added that a solution does not depend on Azerbaijan alone.Nevertheless, the Azerbaijani government has been instructed to find a solution to the problem, Aliyev said.

The meeting between the Azerbaijani and Uzbek presidents also revealed the lack of large-scale economic cooperation. The agreement on the purchase of two planes in Uzbekistan can be considered as the most expensive contract of the visit. If so, then what did Azerbaijan gain from President Aliyev's visit?

Local experts offer varying responses to this question. Some point to the fact that no Western countries, including the United States, have extended invitations to President Aliyev, and argue that the visits to Central Asian countries are for show. Others suggest that the new president wants to widen the Europeans' range of comparison. In other words, President Aliyev, who does not like being compared with his Georgian counterpart Mikhail Saakashvili, would prefer to be collated with authoritarian Central Asian leaders.

According to Ilgar Mammedov, the Azerbaijani leadership, which is always viewed as a part of the Caucasian troika, would like mainly to be viewed in the context of Central Asia, rather than the Caucasus. Especially considering that in many respects the domestic situation in Azerbaijani contrasts unfavorably with neighboring Armenia and Georgia.

Commentator Rauf Mirgadirov of the independent newspaper "Zerkalo" noted that Ilham Aliyev is expected to visit neither Europe nor the United States during the first half of 2004. At best, he would visit the Brussels-based European Union headquarters, although this visit itself is questionable. Mirgadirov recalls that President Aliyev pledged that his first foreign visit after being elected would be to Turkey, but it was later postponed and will take place only next month. That, according to Mirgadirov, sheds light on the real reasons for Ilham Aliyev's trip to the Central Asia: the president visits those countries under compulsion, "for show."

Uzbek analyst Anvar Nazimov considers this visit as the continuation of old Soviet traditions. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, bureaucratic structure, old ties and traditions are yet to be extirpated. And these old-fashioned rites are still practiced when a new leader or a figure emerges in the post-Soviet area. Azeri expert Zafar Guliev agrees that Ilham Aliyev feels more comfortable among the leaders of Commonwealth of Independent States. Considering the similar autocratic atmosphere in these countries, Ilham Aliyev has no problems reaching an understanding with their leaders.

(Rovshen Aliev and Shahnaz Beilergizi)

The United States Favors Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement
"It seems to me that the opening of the border between Armenia and Turkey would benefit the peoples of both sides rather dramatically and rather quickly," said Richard Armitage, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, during a visit to Yerevan, from where he arrived in Baku on 25 March. His statement came as a response to President Ilham Aliyev, who after returning from an official visit to Uzbekistan said that if Turkey opens its borders with Armenia, a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem would become impossible, as in that case Baku would lose an important lever. "But it is no secret that the European Union and other influential countries are exerting serious pressure on Ankara to open its doors to Armenia," Aliyev noted. "If those interested countries want a peaceful solution to the conflict they should stop pressuring Turkey."

President Aliyev denied Armenia's statement regarding the achievement of certain agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh during the Key-West and Paris peace talks in 2001. "No agreement was signed during the Key West and Paris negotiations. The Armenian side knows this well, as I do," said President Aliyev and attributed the Armenian statement to internal process within this country.

During his visit to Baku, Armitage reiterated his support for the opening of Turkey's borders with Armenia, adding that he touched upon this matter during his meeting with the Azerbaijani president, but Aliyev opposed this idea.

According to Armitage, a settlement of the Azeri-Armenian conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be imposed from above by outside forces. "It has to be a lasting and durable solution, and it has to be something the two sides agree on," he said.

Commenting on the state of human rights after the 15 October presidential elections, Armitage noted that "the human rights situation is certainly not as good as it should be. But it is not a permanent situation and we have no doubt that it will change for the better."

(Natig Zeinalov and Shahnaz Beilergizi) (Compiled and translated by Etibar Rasulov)