Azerbaijan Flexes Muscles Over Karabakh

A militaristic rally in Baku - with a symbolic Turkish presence - fails to disguise the weakness of President Aliev's "military option" in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan Flexes Muscles Over Karabakh

A militaristic rally in Baku - with a symbolic Turkish presence - fails to disguise the weakness of President Aliev's "military option" in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Friday, 7 September, 2001

Baku favours a peaceful solution to its conflict with Armenia over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region, but the army should be prepared to restore the country's territorial integrity "at any cost", President Aliev said late last month.

This is not the first time that Baku has revived the military option as a means of regaining control over the disputed area. Negotiations to end the 1989 war with Armenia have been stalled since April, and Azerbaijani officials have made increasingly militant statements with Aliev's clear approval.

President Aliev's latest threat, however, was made during a two-day visit to Baku by the country's close ally Turkey's head of general staff, Huseyin Kivrikoglu. When the Key West round of peace talks with Armenia broke up in March, Aliev held a series of high-level meetings with members of the Turkish government and army that effectively took the Nagorno-Karabakh problem beyond the immediate circle of the OSCE Minsk Group chairing the negotiations.

Turkey has repeatedly stated that it will not open diplomatic links with Armenia until it pulls out of "the occupied lands of Azerbaijan". Furthermore, in March, Istanbul and Baku signed a key agreement for the sale of several billion cubic metres of gas from the Sha Daniz gas field in the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian Sea.

Aliev's sabre-rattling was doubly significant since it came just one month after an incident in the Caspian Sea, when Iranian gunboats threatened two Azerbaijani oil survey ships in waters disputed by the two countries [CRS No.95, 24-Aug-01]. The presence in the capital of Turkey's top general and a squadron of Turkish jets underlined the growing ties between Baku and Ankara over Caspian issues.

The performance of the Turkish Stars aerial display unit over Baku appeared to hearten ordinary Azerbaijanis after the humiliation of what the local media portrayed as Iran's violation of the country's maritime borders. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to watch the air shows on August 24 and 25, while Aliev's robust statement on Nagorno-Karabakh seemed to chime with the public mood.

The event marked the largest public gathering in Liberty Square since the independence movement rallies in 1988. Iran immediately demanded an explanation from both Baku and Ankara.

Military matters dominated General Kivrikoglu's visit. Aliev presented him with the Flag Medal, one of the country's highest decorations, for his contribution to the development of bilateral relations. Defence minister Safar Abiev praised Turkey's work in raising standards in the Azerbaijan army and appealed to recent graduates of the Baku High Commander School - trained under a NATO, not a Turkish programme - to be prepared to sacrifice their lives for the motherland. His recommendation that they should behave "like Turkish officers" went down well in a festive atmosphere enjoyed by both the Azerbaijani and Turkish military leadership.

The general's visit proved a morale booster for an army still racked by serious problems. In August alone, according to the Committee of Soldiers' Families, 19 troops died, mostly by committing suicide, but others as a result of poor conditions . The committee sent a petition to the commander-in-chief, President Aliev, asking him to investigate and to punish those responsible for the deaths.

But the military sees no grounds for concern. During Kivrikoglu's visit, defence minister Safar Abiev boasted that the number of deaths in the army had fallen by 30 per cent. Two days later, however, another soldier died.

The government's indifference to conditions in the army was highlighted during the recent trial of invalids from the Nagorno-Karabakh war, who demanded back payment and increases in their pensions during an extended protest action in February [CRS No. 96, 31-Aug-01]. Convicted of orchestrating disorder during the protests, several received prison sentences of six years. Although President Aliev freed them in an amnesty at the end of August, their pensions have still not been paid.

Poor conditions in the army are not the only threat to Aliev realising his "military option" in Nagorno-Karabakh. Western backers are deeply reluctant to see any further outbreaks of ethnic war in the troubled Caucasus.

During a pause in her whistle-stop tour of the region, US Undersecretary of State Elizabeth Jones urged adherence to the continuation of dialogue with Yerevan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Two other members of the Minsk Group, Russia and France, joined the US in issuing a joint statement in July that deplored the "bellicose rhetoric in recent weeks" and described calls for a "military solution" as irresponsible.

But negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh have not moved on since April and the US recently replaced its veteran mediator, Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh, who had worked with the Minsk Group for the last three years. Some commentators in Baku interpreted Cavanaugh's replacement as a sign that the US was indifferent to finding a solution to the impasse in the negotiations.

And when diplomats fall silent, the threat of military conflict increases.

Nair Aliev is deputy editor-in-chief, and Mamed Bagirov a staff writer at the Baku newspaper Ekho.

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