Azeri Leader Aims for Moderation
President calls for outside mediator to end war with Armenia. INTERVIEW
ABDULFAZ ELCHIBEY displays little of the fire one might expect from the leader of a movement which last summer ousted the Communists from power in this former Soviet republic.Skip to next paragraph
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Instead the bearded president of Azerbaijan talks like the history professor he once was, peppering his conversation with references to Arnold Toynbee, Karl Marx, and German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He speaks animatedly about his concept of nationhood which confers citizenship equally while respecting Azerbaijan's Islamic heritage.
"We are like Turkey," President Elchibey says, referring to his country's neighbor. "We are between Europe and Asia. We are striving for a secular society, but the Islamic factor is also present here."
His voice hardens only to condemn the theocratic dictatorship of another neighbor - Iran, home to a sizable Azeri minority. "Regimes based on fanaticism will be swept away," he predicts. "It is only a matter of time ... Iran, Iraq, all of them." Calm tone
In an extended conversation with the Monitor on Nov. 12 at his office overlooking the blue-gray waters of the Caspian Sea, Elchibey struck a pointedly moderate tone on every issue. Even when the Azeri leader turned to the problem which dominates every conversation here and inflames emotions - the war with neighboring Armenia - he spoke calmly.
"Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are facing calamities unless they stop this war; they are facing starvation, collapse, and the dispersion of society," Elchibey says. "The freedom of both nations is jeopardized because of this war."
The war with Armenia has been the most powerful factor behind the rise of the Azerbaijan Popular Front, the nationalist movement Elchibey has led since its founding in July 1989. The conflict centers on the movement for self-determination of the Armenian people in Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave formed in the early 1920s by Bolshevik authorities as an autonomous region with Azerbaijan.
Since its beginnings in 1988, the Karabakh problem has deepened into an ethnic and pseudo-religious conflict, pitting Christian Armenians against Muslim Azeris and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees. More than 2,000 people have died in combat as the conflict became a full-scale war between Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azerbaijani Army.
The course of the war has profoundly influenced politics in both nations. Armenian victories this spring triggered unrest by the Popular Front in Azerbaijan, leading to the ousters of former Communist leader and President Ayaz Mutalibov and his successor. Elchibey won an overwhelming victory in June elections. Armenia losing ground
The tide of war has turned against Armenia in recent months, however. There the moderate nationalist government of Levon Ter-Petrosyan, which came to power in 1990, is under increasing pressure from radical forces who accuse it of being too ready to compromise. The radicals, led by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, known as Dashnak, control the Karabakh government, which demands Nagorno-Karabakh's recognition as an independent state.
Both sides seem to be tiring of war, particularly the economic havoc it is wreaking on their populations. "The war is sucking away limited resources," says a Turkish source here, adding that more than half the Azeri state budget goes to finance the war.
Elchibey links this situation to the ethnic conflicts consuming their other Caucasus neighbor, the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The three nations, known for their mercantile prowess, could be as prosperous as the three Baltic republics were it not for the wars, he says.