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Caucasus Report: August 26, 1999

26 August 1999, Volume 2, Number 34

Great Expectations. On 22 August, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan met at a lake-side chateau near Geneva for the second time in just over five weeks for confidential talks aimed at seeking to overcome the differences between the conflict sides over the optimum approach to resolving the Karabakh conflict.

As after the previous talks on 16 July, few details were initially released of the specific topics discussed. But observers said it was clear that reticence stemmed from a mutual desire to preserve and build on an atmosphere of incipient trust, rather than to conceal the magnitude of the differences between the two sides. Consequently, the two presidents focused on specific areas where they had reached agreement. They told journalists that the defense ministers of the two countries will meet in the near future to discuss ways to prevent further violations of the ceasefire that has been in effect since 1994. They affirmed their intention to meet again soon, without specifying a date. (The Baltic/Black Sea summit in Yalta on 10-11 September has been named as a possible venue.) And as in July, they termed the meeting useful, constructive, and a badly needed step towards a definitive solution of the conflict. In addition, Azerbaijan's Heidar Aliyev again told journalists that both he and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian agree that the conflict must be resolved peacefully and on the basis of mutual compromise.

From subsequent statements by the two presidents and other senior officials present at the Geneva talks, it seems that the contentious issue of Karabakh's future status vis-a-vis the central Azerbaijani government was discussed, as was the need to resume peace talks in a broader format. On his return to Yerevan on 23 August, Kocharian told journalists that he and Aliyev also agreed that their foreign ministers should attempt to galvanize the stalled OSCE Minsk Group peace process, with the full participation in those talks of Karabakh officials. Kocharian refused, however, to disclose any details of the discussions on Karabakh's future status, which he said amounted to no more than an exchange of opinions. He did, however, confirm observers' impression that the two sides are making a concerted effort to avoid offending each other, which in itself, he said, is a positive achievement. And he added that he and Aliyev have come to understand each other better as a result of the two Geneva meetings.

Kocharian cautioned, however, that the conflict resolution process is "complicated," and that "one should not expect results with lightning speed." But a protracted negotiating process conducted in secrecy is likely to increase the risk both of leaks of confidential details and of domestic political unhappiness in both countries. Already some Azerbaijani observers have interpreted Aliev's use of the term "compromise" as implying that he is prepared to retreat from his previous insistence that the future status of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic must not exceed "the broadest possible autonomy" within Azerbaijan. (Both Armenia and Karabakh favor as a basis for negotiations the formula "more than conventional autonomy but less than outright independence," which reflects the disputed enclave's present ambiguous status.) In an attempt to quash such alarmist inferences, Azerbaijan's State Foreign Policy Advisor Vafa Guluzade, who was present for part of the Aliev-Kocharian talks, told Turan on 24 August that both sides are seeking a compromise that will preserve Azerbaijan's territorial integrity.

Interviewed by Turan, Azerbaijan Popular Front Party chairman and former President Abulfaz Elchibey argued that Aliyev has no right to keep secret the details of his talks with Kocharian. Elchibey claimed to have details of a new draft peace agreement under which, he said, Armenian forces would be withdrawn from seven occupied districts of Azerbaijan adjacent to Karabakh, but the strategic Lachin corridor that constitutes the sole overland link between the enclave and Armenia would not be returned to Azerbaijan's control. Elchibey predicted that the Azerbaijani people would not accept such an arrangement, and that Aliyev could be ousted if he agreed to sign such a settlement.

The Democratic Congress, which unites the dozen most influential Azerbaijani opposition parties, issued a statement on 26 August rejecting outright the concept of a "common state" comprising both Azerbaijan and Karabakh. That concept featured in the most recent draft peace plan proposed by the OSCE Minsk Group. The Azerbaijani leadership initially rejected that formula, but Aliyev said after last weekend's Geneva talks that the plan in toto remains on the table.

Nor are misgivings and suspicion confined to Azerbaijan. The Armenian paper "Iravunk," which is published by the opposition Union for Constitutional Rights, claimed on 24 August that "Kocharian has already agreed that the territory of the NKR should be reduced to that of the [pre-war] Autonomous Oblast and its overland link with Armenia should be minimal by including the Lachin corridor only." But even Lachin, "Iravunk" claims, would not be under full Armenian control. "There are facts indicating that at least a tentative variant of settling the [Karabakh] issue has already been found."

The paper further argues that the Armenian president has no right to engage "behind-the-scenes deals" without keeping the parliament informed of the details. The Union for Constitutional Rights is a member of the nationalist "Right and Accord" parliament bloc supported by hardline former Karabakh Defense Minister Samvel Babayan, who has said repeatedly over the past two years that he does not exclude the possibility a new war over Karabakh. (Liz Fuller)

Azerbaijan's Ruling Party Heads For Make-Or-Break Congress. Beset by charges of corruption and dissent within its ranks, the Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) Party (YAP) created as his personal power base in late 1992 by then Nakhichevan parliament chairman, now Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev is scheduled to hold its first ever congress next month. That congress was originally scheduled for the early summer, but postponed, probably primarily to allow Aliyev to recuperate from his heart bypass surgery in late April.

In an interview with Turan News Agency last week, Siyavush Novruzov, who is chairman of YAP's organizational department, said that the congress will endorse changes both within the government and within the party's structure. That pronouncement may fuel speculation about a possible purge of the party's ranks and the imminent appointment as its chairman of President Aliev's son Ilham. That appointment, in turn, would strengthen Ilham's anticipated candidacy in the next presidential elections. But it could also precipitate YAP's disintegration into two (or more) rival parties, and thus exacerbate political tensions and instability.

Reports of dissent within Yeni Azerbaycan are nothing new. Over a year ago, two parliament deputies who were members of Yeni Azerbaycan announced their intention to quit that party in protest against the domestic and foreign policies of the Azerbaijani leadership and join the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 4, 24 March 1998). Hundreds of rank-and-file members of YAP have reportedly since followed their example, but whether the exodus has been so great that some local branches of YAP (in Aghdam and Akstafa) have ceased to exist, as some recent opposition press reports claim, is not clear. Two parliament deputies who quit YAP earlier this summer to join the Democratic Party have been subjected to harassment, as have members of their families.

Dissent within the upper echelons of YAP may pose an even greater threat to that party's survival. Those tensions surfaced one year ago, when Abbas Mustafaev, chairman of a Baku district branch of YAP, gave a series of interviews in which he accused Labor Minister and YAP deputy chairman Ali Nagiev of corruption. Nagiev's reluctance to take court action against Mustafaev was widely attributed to his fear that Mustafaev was in a position to provide hard evidence to substantiate those allegations. At that time Nagiev and Minister of Health Ali Insanov were both perceived as possible candidates to succeed parliament chairman Murtuz Alesqerov. Nagiev's position in that competition grew stronger after an investigation he chaired implicated Insanov in the misappropriation of aid intended for displaced persons and refugees. But Insanov retained his post, a fact which some observers to attribute to personal support from President Aliev. Mustafaev has continued his campaign of denigration against Nagiev, most recently accusing him of conspiring with opposition party leaders with the aim of splitting YAP and creating his own new party.

The personal feuds within YAP are, however, only one aspect of a broader struggle between rival members of the Azerbaijani leadership intent on retaining their positions, if not increasing their power, when the ailing 76-year-old president finally departs the political scene. Some observers have described that struggle within YAP as between the "reformers" who back the anticipated election as YAP chairman of Aliev's son Ilham, and the "conservatives," who fear that Ilham's accession to that post would result in the appointment of many of his political allies to prominent posts. But this may be an oversimplification, given that the so-called "conservatives" are also split between supporters of Nagiev and Insanov. And Novruzov in his recent Turan interview explicitly exonerated Nagiev from charges, again by Mustafaev, that Nagiev opposes the election of Ilham Aliyev to a leading position within YAP. (Liz Fuller)

Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry Under Scrutiny. Nor is YAP the only pillar of power in Azerbaijan that appears to be crumbling. President Aliyev responded in mid-July to allegations that Defense Minister Safar Abiev has engaged in embezzlement by forming a state commission charged with investigating the ministry's financial activities, which was to submit its findings within one month.

Detailed allegations of mismanagement and corruption within the Defense Ministry were made last year by Djanmirza Mirzoev, a former instructor at the Baku Higher Naval Academy whom Abiev had demoted and fired. The two men had been at odds since 1995, when Mirzoev rejected a demand by Abiev to remit a $1 million payment for the training in Azerbaijan of foreign students to the Defense Ministry. Mirzoev insisted that the money should be paid to the state budget. Since that time, Mirzoev said, he has been systematically hounded by Abiev.

Speaking at a press conference in Baku in early December, Mirzoev detailed instances of corruption within the ministry, including a scam in which the Defense Ministry falsified documentation pertaining to the purchase of food supplies from the Ministry of Trade, skimming off the difference between the actual and the alleged price. Mirzoev also claimed that servicemen had died of starvation, including some whose cause of death was given as frostbite.

Further accusations against Abiev surfaced last month. In an article published in the independent newspaper "Azadlyq," former Azerbaijani Deputy Defense Minister Ayaz Mamedov, who fled to Russia in 1995 to escape being brought to trial on charges of embezzlement, accused Abiev of embezzlement and of "destroying" the Azerbaijani officer corps. In a rebuttal of those charges, current Deputy Defense Minister Mehman Salimov accused Ayaz Mamedov of cooperating with Russian intelligence and having inflicted considerable financial damage on the country's armed forces (how is not clear.) Salimov added that he believes Mamedov has support from forces which oppose Azerbaijan's current unambiguously pro-western and pro-NATO orientation.

On 13 July, less than one week after the "Azadlyq" article was published, President Aliyev decreed the creation of a commission to investigate the work of the Defense Ministry and report its findings within one month. (Prosecutor-General Eldar Hasanov and Finance Minister Fikret Yusifov, both of whom had also alleged corruption within the Defense Ministry, had been agitating for such an investigation for some time.) "Azadlyq" reported in early August that the preliminary findings of the commission did not contain any incriminating materials, to the displeasure of the president who instructed the commission to review its findings.

In late July, Abiev had expressed his confidence that the commission would fail to unearth any materials that would reflect badly on his ministry, affirming that "our affairs are in order." But at the same time, he approached Mirzoev and tried to persuade him publicly to retract his allegations of corruption and mismanagement and to divulge on whose orders he had made them. "Zerkalo" noted on 3 August that the state oil company SOCAR and numerous enterprises subordinate to the Ministry of Light Industry are unable to pay salaries to their employees because the Ministry of Defense declines to repay its debts to them. The 1999 state budget allocates a total of $97.2 million to the Defense Ministry.

Meanwhile, Abiev on 25 July fired Salimov for "serious errors." In an interview in the independent newspaper "Hurriyet" the previous day, Salimov had named the chief of general staff Najmeddin Sadyhov, who is Abiev's first deputy, as the "patron" of a group of Defense Ministry officials openly critical of Abiev. Salimov further accused Sadyhov of opposing Azerbaijan's policy of pursuing closer relations with NATO, and of aspiring to succeed Abiev as defense minister should the ongoing investigation culminate in the latter's dismissal for financial malpractice. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "It is impossible to be friends unilaterally." -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, speaking on Georgian State Radio, 23 August 1999.

"I treat with caution statements that [operations against] the armed formations [in Daghestan] will be completed by the end of this month, or next month, or the month after next. The military too understands this perfectly. The destructive process which has been already waged for a long time against Daghestan, taking into account all aspects of the situation in which the republic has found itself, the de facto economic blockade over the past few years, the increasingly acute social problems, all this has brought about a profound social-economic crisis in Daghestan. A destructive role is also played by ideological penetration and the intensive propaganda directed at various strata of the population, taking into account their distinctive features and making use of the difficulties which Daghestan is experiencing. ...And until there is at least a minimal normalization of the situation in Chechnya, that too will continue to exert a negative influence on Daghestan." -- Russian Nationalities Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailov, interviewed in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," 24 August 1999.