Big-Power Rivalry in the Caucasus

As nationalists lose power to former Communist in Azerbaijan, Turkish officials worry that Russia is attempting to reassert its dominance in the region

NOT long after his election in June of last year as the first president of independent Azerbaijan, bearded nationalist Abulfaz Elchibey came here to the capital of neighboring Turkey. Mr. Elchibey went to the mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic. There he signed the guestbook, "your modest soldier, Elchibey."

Elchibey's proclamation of his devotion to Ataturk and his model of a modern, secular state was a gesture that endeared the Azeri leader to the Turkish public. Indeed, among all the leaders of the Turkic-populated states that have emerged from the debris of the Soviet Empire, none was so publicly pro-Turkish as Elchibey.

Historically Russia and Turkey have long competed for influence in the Caucasus. Azerbaijan with its Turkish-speaking population is Turkey's stronghold in the Caucasus, an area that in turn is Turkey's geopolitical passageway to the five Turkic former Soviet republics that lie across the Caspian Sea in Central Asia.

So when Azeri rebels marched their troops to Baku in early June and forced Elchibey to flee to his native village in distant Nakhichevan, there was understandably a great uproar in Turkey. The lively Turkish press assailed the Russians as the hand behind the coup, a view shared by many in official circles as well. The Turkish government protested to the United Nations on behalf of Elchibey.

But as the new regime in Baku consolidates control, led by an unstable alliance of former Communist boss Geidar Aliyev and the rebel troop commander Suret Guseinov, the Turkish government has changed its tune.

"We recognize Elchibey as the legitimate president of Azerbaijan," says a senior Turkish foreign ministry official. "But on the other hand, there is a practical problem. The Azerbaijan Majlis [parliament] is a legitimate, constitutional organ of the country. Whether under duress or not, it has elected Geidar Aliyev as its leader.... If Aliyev can bring stability to the country, that would be welcome." Faulting Elchibey

Turkish officials are critical of Elchibey for failing to resist the rebels when they approached the capital, for fleeing the city, and for not returning to defend his political position. "Elchibey didn't want to have bloodshed," Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin told the Monitor, "but somebody has to defend legitimacy. Now we are recommending that they should go to early elections as soon as possible."

But in Baku, the new regime is moving quickly to suppress Elchibey's supporters in the Azerbaijan Popular Front. The government has arrested several Front leaders, using force to break up street demonstrations, and even suggesting that the Front is plotting to assassinate Aliyev.

"We believe democracy is the source of stability, but in countries where democratic institutions are not yet in place, it will take some time," the senior Turkish foreign ministry official says.

Turkish officials believe that the division of power between Aliyev and Prime Minister Guseinov is highly unstable and anticipate a struggle for power in the near future. Guseinov and his mentor, former defense minister Rahim Kaziev are dismissed by one knowledgable foreign ministry official as "warlords." In contrast, Turkish officials praise Aliyev, despite his long past as the KGB and then Communist Party chief in Azerbaijan, arguing he is more able to bring stable government.

"I don't think Geidar Aliyev can be blamed, because he was working with the former Communist regime," Turkish President Suleyman Demirel told the Monitor in an exclusive interview here. "He is a man of experience and of wisdom."

President Demirel has a relationship with Aliyev going back 25 years, according to Turkish foreign ministry officials. And unlike his predecessor, the late President Turgut Ozal, he is said to prefer the hard-nosed practical style of Aliyev to the unrealistic idealism of Elchibey. "Ozal was a visionary whereas Demirel is a pragmatist, and even an opportunist," says Professor Aydin Yalcin, a foreign policy specialist.

Officials believe that, contrary to media accounts depicting Aliyev as Moscow's boy, the Azeri leader is his own man. "It is a fact that the Russians didn't like Elchibey and the Iranians didn't like him," says the knowledgable foreign ministry source. "But I don't know if there is a love affair between the Russians and Aliyev. He will be more balanced than Elchibey, but I don't think he will be a Russian tool. Aliyev is very experienced. He knows what Russia has and what Russia can do."

This view has been widely criticized in the Turkish press, which accuses the government of abandoning Elchibey. It is widely believed that Elchibey's removal was engineered by Russia because of his strongly anti-Russian views, his decision to withdraw from the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States, and Russia's continuing interest in restoring its imperial domination over the Caucasus. Russia vs. Turkey

"The main aim of the Russians is to show the impotence of Turkey," comments Professor Yalcin, who is also a specialist in the region.

Some Turkish analysts pose the clash between Turkey and Russia in the Caucasus as a conflict of geopolitical interests. "Our interest is to have this area as a buffer zone," says Seyfi Tashan, director of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute. "And their interest is to have this as a forward base."

Such Turkish analysts argue that the Russian government has deliberately encouraged the continued conflict between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in order to emerge as the arbiter of peace between the two sides, and consolidate its control over the region. Privately many Turkish officials share this view. They accuse Russians of supplying arms and advice to Armenia, a view shared in Baku, but denied by the Armenians.

One official claims Moscow has done the same on the Azeri side. According to this source, when Azeri troops made gains in June 1992, Mr. Kaziev told Turkish officials that the Russians were aiding them. "Then when Elchibey came to power," the official says, "the pendulum shifted totally to the other side."

Turkish officials are careful, however, to distinguish between the Russian government of President Boris Yeltsin and others. "When we talk about Russia," says the senior foreign ministry official, "we have to make clear which Russia, which authorities. As far as the Yeltsin government is concerned, I am confident they would not be interested in provoking events in the Caucasus, because this would be against their democratic thinking. But in Russia there are other forces who may think differently - the Ar my, the KGB, and politically conservative forces - that have not accepted the new realities."

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