Azeri President Arrives in Moscow

MOUNTAINOUS KARABAGH ISSUE ON AGENDA

Baku Today–Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev began a three-day official visit to Russia on Thursday–for talks with President Vladimir Putin and top government officials. Observers say Azerbaijan’s new leader is attempting to maintain the delicate balancing act mastered by his father and presidential predecessor Heydar Aliyev–maximizing relations with both Russia and the US. Discussions about the Mountainous Karabagh conflict are also on the agenda–according to the Olaylar News Agency.

Russia and Azerbaijan are expected to sign six agreemen’s during Aliyev’s visit–including a political document known as the "Moscow Declaration" setting guidelines for boosting bilateral ties.

In an interview this week with Russia’s RIA-Novosti news agency–Aliyev said ties between Moscow and Baku are at "their highest level" since the breakup of the Soviet Union 12 years ago.

The chairman of the Baku-based think tank Eurasian Foundation for Strategic Cooperation–Resat Rezaquliyev said that Aliyev’s Moscow visit–which follows a recent trip to the US while he was still prime minister–does not depart from the rules set up by his father: "The foreign policy of the former Azerbaijani president could be described as ‘pluralistic.’ It was a balance between the US on the one hand–and Russia and Iran on the other hand."

Another topic Aliyev will certainly raise during the Russia talks is Azerbaijan’s dispute with neighboring Armenia over Mountainous Karabagh.

Aliyev last month blamed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Minsk Group–in charge of mediating the conflict–for failing to produce a mutually satisfactory peace plan.

His commen’s followed reports in the Azerbaijani media that Moscow– together with France and the US co-chairs the OSCE’s Minsk Group of nations monitoring the Karabagh peace talks–had come out with a new plan that could help move negotiations forward.

Baku-based independent political analyst Elhan Nuriyev says Russia–which played a role in fueling the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute in the late 1980s and has maintained close political and military links with Yerevan since then–has its own agenda in the South Caucasus region–which may not necessarily coincide with that of either the US or Azerbaijan. He believes–however–Moscow’s own security concerns could contribute to a peaceful resolution of the Karabagh dispute:

"Russia has its own vision of how the Karabagh conflict should be settled. As a major regional power in the South Caucasus–Russia knows [Karabagh] better than any one else–I mean better than the US or France. Therefore–it is natural that it should want to play a leading role in the Karabagh settlement. I believe Russia can’t not be interested in having the Karabagh conflict resolved–because what is at stake is its southern border. Russia has an interest in preserving stability in Azerbaijan. A stable Azerbaijan can only benefit Russia–which itself is in a state of instability–by this I mean the situation in Chechnya and along Russia’s southern border–in Daghestan–and elsewhere," Nuriyev said.

But Rezaquliyev says the content of the Moscow plan remains a matter of widespread speculation in Baku: "The Azerbaijani press has released reports–based–naturally–on information provided by unofficial sources–saying that should Azerbaijan drop plans to host NATO bases on its territory–Russia would press for the return of the five [Azerbaijani] administrative districts [Armenia] has been occupying [near Mountainous Karabagh] and the opening of transport links between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Most likely that was a test of public opinion and–as far as I am concerned–I haven’t heard of anymore concrete proposals. Things remain at the level of rumors and mere scraps of information meant to feed stories to journalists."

The possibility that Washington may seek to deploy US or NATO troops in Azerbaijan to guard the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline may prove to be a sticking point during the Russian-Azerbaijani talks. The idea was raised several months ago when a high-ranking US military official (General Charles Wald–the deputy chief of the US European Command) said the safety of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline–which will ship Azerbaijani crude oil to Turkey via Georgia–could be entrusted to NATO.

Ahead of his visit to Moscow–Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Aliyev as saying–"Azerbaijan views its own interests as a priority. When these interests coincide with those of our neighbors or great powers we cooperate; but when they do not coincide–we do not cooperate."

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