Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Baku's Firm Pro-Russian Line Claims A Victim

The abrupt departure of the Azeri president's trusted aide has fueled further speculations about negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh and other policies of concern to Moscow. Did the advisor jump or was he pushed?
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The President of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliev's team contains quite a few professionals, but foreign policy advisor Vafa Guluzadeh always stood distinct among them.



His personal charm made him popular with the public, his openess to journalists made him a friend of the media and most importantly, he had the deserved image of an honest and incorruptible political figure.



This last was no mean feat, taking into consideration the level of corruption in government of Azerbaijan. There are plenty of people ready to offer temptation in the form of illegal cash from shady businesses like the Baku Hotel Europe casino, one such deal that cost former foreign minister Hasan Hasanov his job.



Guluzadeh resisted the siren call of the criminal fraternity. His resignation on October 8 was put down to illness, yet was not unexpected - everything was leading directly to it. He had begun to find his voice sounding too loud, too often out of key with the rest of the band. For a while the opposition and the media considered his increasingly divergent views as skilful strategising. Aliev is not the kind of leader to tolerate independent activities from subordinates. He sets foreign and domestic policies himself, so local observers were in the habit of reading tactical motives into statements from officials who strayed from the Aliev line.



Guluzadeh used to play this game for Aliev, acting the unyielding 'enfant terrible' at tough meetings over Nagorno-Karabakh, whether with the OSCE's Minsk Group delegates or with the Armenians themselves. Later the same representatives would meet Aliev, who softened Guluzadeh's line and achieved the desired result.



The OSCE's Istanbul summit is drawing near, when hard decisions may have to be taken over the pan-European body's favoured 'common state' plan to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, and a summit with Armenian President Robert Kocharian in Nakhichevan is due before that. Thus it is hard to completely rule out that Aliev and Guluzadeh are planning some arcane political manoeuvre ahead of the showdown.



Still, the possibility looks remote. Other motives are more likely to be at play.



The official reason given by Guluzadeh when he tendered his resignation was illness. Nobody believed it. In personal appearances he displayed no sign of sickness, and after his announcement the skilled diplomat refused to be drawn on details despite the efforts of the media.



In the end there are two likely scenarios. First - Guluzadeh, well-informed of the compromises Azerbaijan was going to make to Armenia under OSCE eyes in Istanbul, decides to wash his hands of the matter and disassociate himself from what would be a deeply unpopular set of decisions at home.



If so, he might now expect Aliev's rule to falter in the wake of public hostility to concessions on Nagorno-Karabakh - lost to Armenia in a 1991-94 war in which 30,000 died, more than a million Azeris became refugees and some 20 per cent of country's territory fell under Armenian occupation. In that case he may be manoeuvring for a better place with the present opposition.



His public statements criticising the decision of Aliev and Kocharian to thrash out a deal on the disputed territory 'man-to-man' and in secret, starting in Geneva in August, then in Yalta last month, and soon again in Nakhichevan, were clearly expressed. Guluzadeh argued that Karabakh's fate should not be the subject of secret negotiations, but instead be put to open discussion among the whole nation.



Given the sensitivity of these talks as a subject in Azerbaijan, this unusually divergent view for a diplomat went unpunished by Aliev, at least in public.



When meeting Carey Cavanaugh, new US co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, Aliev repudiated the concept of the 'common state'. The same line was repeated in talks with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, when Aliev firmly stated that Azerbaijan refused to hold negotiations on such a basis. But these views were expressed in public. Suspicion is rife in Baku that Aliev is ready to 'sell out' in secret to Kocharian, under pressure from the US and OSCE.



What is beyond dispute is the fact that Guluzadeh is a pragmatic and undoubtedly very well informed person, who could not fail to think about what would follow Aliev's retirement from the political scene - and what could be his place within it.



Theory two is no less probable, despite being somewhat different from the first. In this scenario, Russia plays the lead role. As Moscow's armed advance to the Terek river inside 'independent' Chechnya continued, Guluzadeh appeared to break ranks again with Aliev with another unusually undiplomatic statement. He unexpectedly condemned Russian actions against 'peoples' national liberation movements' in the Caucasus, a phrase that served to implicitly ally Azerbaijan with all opponents of Russian rule in the region - even suspect Islamist 'terrorists' in Chechnya - as well as seriously anger the Russians.



Russian Ambassador in Azerbaijan Alexander Blokhin took Guluzadeh to task and the Moscow media sharply turned on Baku, accusing Azerbaijan of supplying arms to the Chechen rebels. Aliev had to personally intervene to cool Russian anger, pledging full support to the Russian strategy in Chechnya and Dagestan at a meeting with Ivanov.



But Guluzadeh knows that a little anti-Russian sentiment never plays badly among Azeri voters, which takes us back to scenario one, briefly.



Speaking to Armenian and Georgian journalists recently, Guluzadeh compared Russia to the giant Gulliver of Jonathan Swift's classic satire and the Caucasus republics to the tiny Lilliputians who bound him to the ground as he slept.



Of course Russia's influence in the region is still powerful. It cannot be ruled out that Ivanov demanded Guluzadeh's head as the price of peace between them; or that Aliev offered it to Ivanov on a plate.



Guluzadeh resigned soon after that meeting, but three days before he actually quit Russian jets dropped bombs on the Azerbaijani region of Zakatala, just over the border from Dagestan, apparently by accident, but nevertheless making a vivid point.



Perhaps the Russian Gulliver simply decided to rid himself of just one particularly bothersome Azeri Lilliputian.



How will he keep himself busy now? It is possible that he will continue his diplomatic pursuits on a less responsible but still quite honorable position, as ambassador to an international body, or to an English-speaking state, as his command of the language is perfect.



It is more likely however that he will busy himself in journalism, and unlikely that he will commit to one political party or another. He will bide his time.



Shahin Rzaev, IWPR Regional Correspondent in Baku.