Winter 1994 (2.4)
Azerbaijan and the Ominous Rumblings
Over Russia's "Near Abroad"
by Charles H. Fairbanks Jr. and Elshan Alakbarov
At his recent summit meeting with President Clinton, Boris Yeltsin justified Russian activism in the "Near Abroad"- the other republics of the former Soviet Union-as a natural way of helping neighbors and kin. But Russia is not treating these new states like neighbors or kin as the dramatic events in Azerbaijan show (though scarcely any mention is made of this by American media).
The southern zone of the "Near Abroad" from Moldova to Tajikistan, is one of the world's most disorderly areas. Six ethnic or regional wars of secession, like the Bosnian conflict, are going on, and seven mini-states have already emerged that control their own territory but have neither international legitimacy nor the corresponding responsibilities; some of these mini-states have become havens for smuggling, and drug trade and warlord armies that circulate through the region to do the fighting for the highest bidder.
These struggles would not be of much interest to anyone if the Caspian basin were not believed to be the world's second largest treasure house of oil and gas. The Persian Gulf shows that, depending on the policy of the major powers, such wealth can be the source of either stability or instability. Oil wealth excited Saddam Hussein's attempt to grab Kuwait. Because the major powers have discouraged such adventures, and allowed the small oil-rich countries to dispose of their own wealth, oil wealth has built stability in most of the Persian Gulf states. It could be the same in the "Near Abroad".
But what has Russian policy been? On September 20th, after three years of tortuous negotiations, Azerbaijan finally signed an oil deal of roughly $8 billion with a consortium of Western companies which included British Petroleum, Statoil, Amoco, Unocal, Pennzoil, Ramco, McDermott, Turkish Petroleum and Russia's Lukoil. Russia was the only country to object to this "deal of the century"-which, if fully implemented, will change not only the face of the region but also world oil markets.
On the day of the ceremony, the spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry Grigory Karasin, said that Russia would not recognize the legitimacy of the oil contract until the Caspian states concluded a new agreement concerning the status of the Caspian Sea.
The first sign of destabilization in Azerbaijan came right after the signing of the oil contract. On the night of September 21st, four high-ranking prisoners-the former Defense Minister, Rahim Gaziyev; his deputy, Baba Nazirly; the commander of the Lachin battalion, Arif Pashayev; and the head of a failed secessionist movement, Alikram Humbatov-escaped from custody isolation at Azerbaijan's Ministry of National Security. "I don't think that it is pure coincidence," President Aliyev said, noting that the escape took place the very day after the signing of the oil contract.
Two Azeri Officials Assassinated
The climax of the latest drama in this oil-rich Caspian Sea nation came on Thursday, September 29th, just a week later, when two top Azeri officials were assassinated. The Deputy Chairman of Azerbaijan's Parliament, Afiyaddin Jalilov, and Presidential Security Chief, Shamsi Rahimov, were gunned down. Both victims were close associates of Mr. Aliyev, who was in the United States when the assassination took place. Mr. Jalilov is rumored to be Mr. Aliyev's illegitimate son. Mr. Rahimov had been one of Mr. Aliyev's most trusted people in Azerbaijan, where personal connections are vital.
After these two closely connected assassinations, the Procurator General, Ali Omarov, arrested three officers from the Special Police Department, who were accused of murder. Led by Deputy Chief of the Special Police Department Roshan Javadov, the following Sunday approximately 100 armed policemen mutinied, seized the building of the Procurator's office and took several people hostage inside the building, including the Procurator General. The rebels demanded the release of their arrested fellows, the resignation of Minister of Internal Affairs Ramil Usubov, and an emergency session of the Parliament. Ali Omarov was brutally beaten.
Meanwhile, forces loyal to the Prime Minister, Surat Husseinov, had seized the airport and other strategic buildings in Ganje, the second largest city in Azerbaijan, 188 miles northwest of the capital, Baku.
Aliyev's Midnight Plea "Come Stand With Me"
After midnight, in a dramatic nationwide television speech, Mr. Aliyev announced a "State of Emergency" in the territory of Azerbaijan. He assessed the actions of the Special Police Forces as a "coup d'état" and called on people to take to the streets to defend the President and the legitimate government.
"The country is on the edge of civil war. A difficult trial awaits us," said Mr. Aliyev afterwards. By late Wednesday, it seemed that government forces were in control of the situation. On October 5th, before a huge crowd, Mr. Aliyev angrily denounced Russia for its attempts to destabilize the situation in Azerbaijan and install the former Communist First Secretary, Ayaz Mutalibov, who was living in Moscow in the house of Viktor Barannikov, the Russian KGB minister until last year.
All this is a strange coincidence. In May 1993, when then - President Abulfaz Elchibey, a pro-Western nationalist, was about to sign the multi-billion dollar oil contract, the warlord Surat Husseinov launched a revolt from his power base in Ganje against the government. Mr. Husseinov, a young wool merchant and millionaire, was in close contact with the last remaining Russian troops in Azerbaijan, which were trained in Ganje. After repeatedly refusing the Azeri government's demands for several months to quit the garrison in Ganje, Russian troops unexpectedly left in late May 1993, leaving huge quantities of military hardware for the warlord. Within a few days, Mr. Husseinov, with his private army, marched into Baku, forced Mr. Elchibey to flee from the capital city and became Prime Minister. In fact, Mr. Aliyev himself made a comeback in the wake of Mr. Huseynov's revolt in June 1993, becoming the Chairman of the Parliament and later President.
It seems likely at this time that Mr. Aliyev will survive the crises, but the message remains-like the message to a medieval Grand Vizier, who upon waking up, finds a dagger sticking in his pillow. The message is that a leader who lets Western countries handle his oil can be destroyed.
Russia Behind the Coup
Destroyed by whom? The attacks came from Azeris, but it is in the interest of every Azeri for the oil wealth to arrive. It was Russia, and only Russia, that refused to accept the oil deal. Rahim Gaziyev and Surat Husseinov seem to have taken refuge in Moscow. There is no proof, but everyone in the region believes that in order to get a larger slice of Azerbaijan's oil wealth, Russia is destabilizing the country. They point to the destabilization of Georgia during the Abkhazian war, which had Russian fingerprints all over it, as well as many events in Azerbaijan itself.
Russian destabilization, which makes an already unstable situation in the Caucasus worse, is not in the interest of the international community. But is it in Russia's own interest? The civil war in Chechnya, an effectively independent mini-state within Russian Federation, gives a clue. Intense fighting is going on there between the militias of the secessionist President, Dzokhare Dudayev, and opposition fighters armed and supported by Russia. Where did Mr. Dudayev's forces get their weapons, training and combat experience? Largely from Abkhazia a year ago when, armed by the Russian army and security services, they wrested the secessionist province away from Georgia. The dragon's teeth Russia is sowing in the "Near Abroad" are already sprouting into warriors.
Russia Fuels Rebellions
This sequence of events illuminates the dangers of Russian activism in the "Near Abroad" to Russia herself. Because Russia does not attack neighboring governments openly, working through aiding or fomenting rebellions and arming opposition groups; it is breeding more disorder and more floating armies without loyalties to any government. These movements are weapons that tend to flash back in the face of their user. A second case, the "Trans-Dniester Republic" that has seceded from Moldova with the assistance of the Russian Fourteenth Army, shows the most dangerous direction these wayward forces can take. In October 1993, when Boris Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet were fighting for control of Russia in the streets, fighters from Trans-Dniestra arrived in Moscow itself to fight against President Yeltsin. The disorder around Russia's periphery inherently attracts criminals, adventurers, veterans of Soviet Union's international role in subversion and terrorism, nostalgic communists and hopeful fascists. The "Near Abroad" is becoming an incubator of post-democratic Russia.
This has happened before. After World War I, the rulers of Italy and the Weimar Republic let their enemies play with guns in the disorderly periphery, in places like Fiume and the Baltic Republics. The result was to foster habits of marching in private armies, of wearing new uniforms, of fighting in peacetime, habits that flowered when fascism took power.
Instability Not in Interests of US nor Russia
Instability in the "Near Abroad" is not in the interest of the United States and not in the interest of Russia, either; it is an issue on which our interests are essentially the same. But the temptation to create disorder in the "Near Abroad" is not easy for Russia to resist. Russia does have important interests there, but the Russian state and its traditional instruments, diplomacy and the army, are temporarily weak. Russia still has a resource in all the old KGB and political networks, with their Mafia ties, in the "Near Abroad". These networks can be far more easily used for destabilization than for building anything, so it is tempting to see destabilization as a means to Russian policy.
Moreover, Mr. Yeltsin does not entirely control the agencies of the Russian state, as the contradictory signals about the Azerbaijan oil deal demonstrated once again. Mr. Yeltsin probably cannot stop all the restless elements of the ex-KGB and the army from some maneuvering in the "Near Abroad". It is easy to say, "better there than here," and to collect whatever advantages for Russia their operations bring. These are understandable reactions, but they are very shortsighted. Precisely because we are not dealing here with coordinated, centrally controlled Russian policy but with ad hoc responses to disorder in the "Near Abroad" and at home, American foreign policy can have some real influence on Russian behavior.
US Must Be More Vocal To Establish Stability
Western investment in "Near Abroad" energy resources is not only profitable to American business but potentially stabilizing, and the Clinton administration has in the past few months begun working hard to facilitate it. What the administration has not been willing to do is to identify and respond to Russian acts of destabilization. Someone in Russia struck hard and fast to punish Mr. Aliyev for signing the oil deal with us, but it took our State Department six days to issue a bland, naive press statement that urged "the sides [to] work toward a peaceful resolution of the crisis," putting the government (Azerbaijan) which signed the oil deal with us, on the same level as shadowy assassins and mutineers. The statement never hinted at any Russian role, even the public position taken by Russia against the oil deal.
It is not in our interest to get into polemics with Russia that might degenerate into a comic Cold War. Russia is enormously important to us, more important than any oil deal. But precisely for this reason, we need to supply the best elements in Russia with arguments against the worst element, against those who argue there is nothing to be lost in unleashing the assassins and the plundering mercenaries around Russia's borders.
Charles H. Fairbanks Jr. is Research Professor of International Relations at the Johns Hopkins University's Foreign Policy Institute in Washington, DC where Elshan AlakbArov is an Azerbaijan Analyst and Research Assistant.
From Azerbaijan International (2.4) Winter 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.