Autumn 1996 (4.3)
Unfair Punishment for Azerbaijan
Guest Editorial-July 26, 1996
by George Zarycky
©1996. The Washington Times. Republished electronically with permission. No further redistriubtion without copyright owner's permission.
An obscure provision in foreign aid legislation, Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, has severely hampered U.S. and refugee aid from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and democracy building efforts in strategic, oil-rich Azerbaijan. But despite opposition from the State Department, policy-makers, diplomats and private relief groups, its support by the influential Armenian-American lobby makes it unlikely that either Bob Dole or President Clinton will address revising the measure in an election year.
Section 907, which bars governmental and private agencies from aiding or working with institutions or facilities even indirectly controlled by the Azerbaijani government, was to remain in effect until the President determined the Azerbaijanis had taken "demonstrable steps" to cease hostilities against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, the ethnic Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan embattled since 1988.
Today, Armenians firmly control Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory. A cease-fire mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has held since May 1994. Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, despite extremist pressure, has agreed to substantial autonomy for the enclave. Armenians gave a cool reception to Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott and Deputy National Security Advisor Sandy Berger during a trip this spring to spur stalled peace talks.
In humanitarian terms, 907 has undercut U.S. ability to assist the estimated 1 million Azerbaijanis displaced from Armenia, Karabakh and Armenian-controlled Azerbaijani territory, many living in squalid conditions in tent cities, schools or deserted railroad cars where disease, infant mortality and malnutrition prevail.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has concluded that 907 has hamstrung efforts by Oxfam, the International Rescue Committee and others by blocking or complicating delivery of medicines and other essentials because Azerbaijan's public health system is entirely state-controlled. In one instance, perishable vaccines that needed cold storage were wasted because all properly functioning warehouses were government-owned. Since all Azerbaijani medical personnel are technically state employees, they are barred from child immunization and other programs. U.S. government-funded private volunteer groups cannot repair dilapidated state-owned buildings housing refugee families. Meanwhile, civilians continue to suffer and may yet translate discontent into civil unrest.
Humanitarian concerns are only part of the issue. Bordering Iran, Azerbaijan's long-term stability and the stability of the historically turbulent Caucasus is vital to U.S. strategic interests.
With offshore Caspian Sea oil reserves estimated at 6 million barrels or more, Azerbaijan has been the focus of political machinations by Turkey, Iran and Russia, whose ire at Baku's $8 billion deal with a consortium of Western oil companies is widely believed to have been behind several coup attempts over the years. With 25 million ethnic Azerbaijanis living in northern Iran, relations between Baku and Tehran's theocrats are strained. During Iran's recent parliamentary elections, rioting by ethnic Azerbaijanis reportedly left 15 dead. The Aliyev government, wary of Muslim fundamentalism, recently arrested several Islamists, leading to protests in Iran, also irked by Mr. Aliyev's pro-Israel policy. To countervail Turkish influence, Iran has stepped up assistance to Armenia.
For its part, Moscow has chafed at Baku's pro-Western attitude, haggling over oil pipeline routes, its leeriness of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and its staunch refusal, unlike Armenia, Georgia and six other former Soviet states, to allow Russian troops and bases on its soil. All these regional factors should be of primary concern to the United States.
Section 907 has also hindered democracy-building and programs to support an emerging civil society. The Aliyev government came to power in 1993 after a Russian-backed coup drove out the democratically elected anti-communist Popular Front president. It has periodically cracked down on the opposition and censors the independent press.
U.S. Embassy officials and NGOs in Baku have complained that 907, by hindering full engagement with quasi-independent organizations, media, universities and government relief agencies, undercuts U.S. leverage and democratization efforts like those implemented in Eastern and Central Europe and the rest of the former Soviet Union to facilitate the transition to genuine pluralism and market economics. Key Azerbaijani leaders have been banned from exchange programs involving U.S. funds. The American Bar Association scrapped plans to work with the Azerbaijani government on a new constitution. A recent Freedom House student polling project on attitudes toward the government, economics and foreign oil companies had to exclude Baku State University, by far the country's largest.
With much at stake in the Caucasus, Section 907 has impeded formulation of a coherent policy that addresses current contingencies. Azerbaijan has taken "demonstrable steps" towards ending hostilities with Armenia. It is Western-oriented, secular, a potentially substantial source of oil and gas.
Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole should heed the concerns of the U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Embassy personnel, NGOs, the Azerbaijani democratic opposition and business leaders and ask Congress to conditionally revise 907. They should also assure Yerevan and begin to make the case to Armenian-Americans that such a move by no means undermines our commitment to Armenia's security and sovereignty, but increases the chances that Azerbaijan can become a responsible, more open neighbor.
George Zarycky, a specialist for East-Central Europe for Freedom House, recently returned from Baku.
From Azerbaijan International (4.3) Autumn 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.