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With the expected signing of a deal on Nagorno-Karabakh derailed by last month's carnage in the Armenian parliament, the Chechen crisis is even more certain to set the agenda for the OSCE summit next week.
By Selina Williams

The recent shootings in the Armenian parliament that left Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and seven other leading political figures dead, have taken their toll on efforts to secure a peace deal between Armenian and Azerbaijan on Nagorno-Karabakh.

It now looks unlikely that the deal, which a few weeks ago appeared very close to completion, will be signed at the November 18-19 Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Istanbul.

However, with Moscow continuing to resist the OSCE's efforts to set up a mission in Chechnya, most Western observers predict that the war in the North Caucasus and the resulting humanitarian crisis will now dominate the meeting. Karabakh will though run it a close second.

And while Western diplomats seem keen to focus much attention on the suffering of the Chechens and on Moscow's military buildup in the region, Russia's political and military leaders have, over the past few days, indicated they do not wish a very deep discussion on issues they term their "internal affairs."

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin harshly rejected recent U.S. criticism that Russia's military action in Chechnya violates the Geneva Conventions. Meanwhile, senior generals are seen as piling the pressure on their political chiefs.

In an interview with the Russian daily Trud this week, General Viktor Kazantsev, the commander of Russia's federal troops in the North Caucasus, urged politicians to give the army a "free hand" in Chechnya. He said the military campaign there could end "within one week," if political considerations were set aside.

Such fighting talk is unsettling to countries elsewhere in the region. Equally disturbing are the claims, though denied in Tbilisi, that the Kremlin has sought Georgian permission to launch strikes over its border with Chechnya from Russian bases inside Georgian territory.

Moscow has already closed suspended flights between its cities in the south and the Southern Caucasus and has partially closed its borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan in a bid, it says, to prevent foreign mercenaries from entering Chechnya from the south.

But for the states of the Southern Caucasus at least, the main issue for the OSCE conference remains the outstanding one of Karabakh.

Political observers in the Azeri capital, Baku, say a possible delay on the Karabakh peace deal will not mean that the momentum to sign a peace document on the disputed territory will be lost altogether. Ironically, it may even be that the summit will find it far easier to push through some kind of solution over Karabakh than agree anything substantive with regard to Chechnya.

The recent visit of U.S. deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott to Baku and Yerevan shows the US administration's determination to move toward a settlement. Strong U.S. pressure on both Aliev and Kocharian is unlikely to let up, as all three countries have a lot to gain from a settlement to the conflict.

Fighting erupted 11 years ago when the mainly Armenian population tried to breakaway from Azeri rule. Some 35,000 died and hundreds of thousands became refugees before a 1994 ceasefire ended the fighting.

A deal would boost Aliev's plan, much rumored about in Baku, to pass on the presidency of a wealthy and relatively stable country to his son, Ilham. Armenia would be released from years of political and economic regional isolation. As a result, it could open its border with Turkey and start trading.

For the United States, acting as mediator in a successfully finalized Karabakh peace deal would mean gaining significant influence in the energy-rich region. The United States have been locked in a struggle with Russia and Iran over influence on the area including the Caspian countries, strategically located near Black Sea ports with access to international markets.

Following this view, some Western political observers in Baku say that Aliev would most likely be awarded with large amounts of U.S. aid if a Karabakh deal were forthcoming. They add that the possible partial financing of a multi-billion dollar oil pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan in Turkey would likely be in the bag as well.

Speculating still further, others say there are also hints of future U.S. support for Aliev's son, Ilham, should he become president. Since his heart bypass operation this summer, Aliev, 76, has been quietly manoeuvering Ilham into a position where he could assume an official role, (for instance leader of the ruling party and then parliament speaker) that would boost his chances of president if he died.

Analysts say Ilham's succession is the main reason Aliev is still eager to sign a deal with Armenia. They say his son would then inherit a country that would be wealthier, would have U.S. political support and would not be hampered by social problems such as the almost one million Azeri refugees that fled the fighting in Karabakh.

The actual details of a possible peace deal are unclear. Recent meetings between Aliev and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian have been shrouded in secrecy. Opposition parties in Azerbaijan have demanded details of the Karabakh deal is opened up to public scrutiny.

In the absence of reliable and transparent information, opposition leaders have accused Aliev of selling out to the west. The opposition also point to the recent resignations of a key Karabakh negotiator, Foreign Minister Tofik Zulfugarov, and of two other high- ranking Azeri officials as a sign that the deal would be a controversial and potentially unpopular one.

At the summit, Aliev is likely to sign a packet of four documents that will pave the way for assuring the finance for the U.S.-sponsored multi-billion dollar oil pipeline carrying Azeri crude from Baku to Ceyhan.

The war and the humanitarian crisis in Chechnya aside, if both the pipeline and the future Karabakh peace deal were to be finalized at the OSCE summit, this would be counted as a victory for the U.S. The pipeline deal rewards the U.S. and Azerbaijan's close ally and strategic partner Turkey at the expense of Russia, that hoped to be the main export route for Caspian oil and gas.

A Baku-Ceyhan pipeline would also punish and further isolate Iran, despite the fact that many oil companies see it as the most commercially viable and therefore logical route for Caspian crude.

However, a Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline deal would advance U.S. policy of diversifying energy supply and exports eliminating dependency on the Middle East.

Selina Williams is a freelance journalist based in Baku.

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