THE warm winds of the Caspian Sea sweep over the brown hills of the Apsheron peninsula, barely stirring the pools of black oil gathered around forests of oil rigs. Traffic fills the streets of the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, its cafes crowded with men loudly arguing politics or bargaining for a better business deal.
With the exception of a few men in camouflage fatigues, little evidence tells of the war being waged with Armenian fighters only 150 miles away in the mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh. But the quiet in the one-time Texas of the Russian Empire is deceptive.
Azerbaijan is in the midst of political turmoil, triggered in large part by the victories of its Armenian foes on the Karabakh front. A wave of angry demonstrations after those defeats drove President Ayaz Mutalibov from office in early March, leaving a government in disarray. And while presidential elections are scheduled for June 7, many here doubt they will ever take place.
As a result of Armenian battlefield successes, "virtually all the Azeri population has been expelled from Karabakh," says Acting President Yagub Mahmedov in an interview with the Monitor.
The Karabakh war is the most intense inter-ethnic conflict among the former republics of the Soviet Union. It is a war that many fear could widen to include neighboring states including Turkey or Iran, and could threaten the shaky Commonwealth of Independent States.
A constant stream of would-be mediators flows through Baku, from bearded Iranian Foreign Ministry officials trying to maintain a tattered cease-fire to Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev. But, shrugs Mamedov, "there are no fruitful results." Nor are there likely to be any until some stable government emerges from the political crisis.
"As long as there is no authority that the people trust, nothing will happen," says Eldar Namazov, head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Mr. Mutalibov, a Communist Party leader who tried to recast himself as a nationalist, was widely viewed as a leader more open to compromise. But events in Nagorno-Karabakh reduced his room to maneuver while strengthening the Popular Front. Armenian advances
The Armenian militia put an end to Azeri control in the Armenian-populated enclave, finally holding a referendum and declaring themselves the independent Republic of Karabakh.
Mutalibov was reviled as a "traitor," accused of conspiring with Armenians and Russians to precipitate Azeri defeat and was ousted March 6 after days of Popular Front-led demonstrations.
While a long list of candidates could replace him, observers see only three who matter - Mr. Mahmedov, who was the parliament chairman when Mutalibov resigned; Popular Front leader Abulfaz Elchibey; and Etibar Mahmedov, head of the radical Azerbaijan Independence Party.
"If elections do take place and minimal legality is observed, I am absolutely sure that the leader of the Popular Front will win," says Isa Gambarov, deputy head of the Front and chairman of the parliament's foreign affairs commission. Opinion polls and observers here agree that public support has strongly shifted to the Popular Front. One recent poll shows Mr. Elchibey with 59 percent backing compared to 10.7 percent for President Mahmedov.
Acting president Mahmedov suffers from his association with the previous government and from factional strife which has divided the former Communist Party. Mutalibov followers oppose him, as do backers of Hasan Hasanov, who was ousted as premier in a power struggle April 4.
Indeed, the greatest challenge to the Popular Front comes from former Azeri Communist boss Gaidar Aliyev, who returned to the scene two years ago with refurbished nationalist credentials and is widely revered as a strong leader. A constitutional amendment setting an upper age limit for the presidency bars him from the election campaign, some say deliberately, but the Front fears he could gain power through parliament if elections are called off.
Interviewed in his home base of Nakhichevan, an Azeri enclave inside Armenia, Mr. Aliyev gave indirect backing to this scenario. "I think this election is untimely," he told the Monitor. "At a time when a country is in a state of war, when part of the country is seized by another country - usually presidential elections are not held in such conditions."
Mr. Namazov says the chances of the election being held at all are minimal. Another dramatic Armenian victory, such as the capture of Shusha, would create a crisis and cancellation of the elections in favor an emergency parliamentary regime, he predicts. Mr. Gambarov, the Popular Front leader, suggests a deliberate Armenian or Russian move to promote instability and block formation of a nationalist government.
"The intensification of Armenian aggression or maybe provocative actions of the Russian Army here can destablize the situation and can lead to the elections being called off," Gambarov says.
No matter who wins this power struggle, there are few signs of flexibility among contending forces. They blame Armenian "aggression," which they say is controlled by the Armenian diaspora and backed by Russian imperialism, for the problem. Outside forces
"The ordinary people in Karabakh don't want war," says President Mahmedov. "The Armenians who want war to continue are from abroad and in Armenia.... After the alien forces are expelled from Karabakh and after Armenia renounces its territorial claims, I am sure there will be peace."
The Armenians and Azeris have agreed in principle to mediation by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, but plans for talks are bogged down over differing interpretations of a vague agreement which allows participation of representatives of the Karabakh government. "There is no state called the Karabakh Republic," Mahmedov responds. Representatives of the Armenian and Azeri populations of Karabakh can participate, he adds, but "on our side of the table."
Mahmedov welcomes international mediators, but he concurs with the Popular Front in refusing Armenian-backed proposals for deploying United Nations troops, a move which they argue would violate their sovereignty. Moreover, Popular Front leader Gambarov claims, the UN is controlled by the Western powers which, along with Russia, are "the protectors of Armenia."
Aliyev declines to give a specific formula for a Karabakh solution, but his emphasis is on negotiation. "It is impossible to study different attempts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis while bloodshed and war is going on," he says. But he also opposes an international peacekeeping force, arguing that direct cease-fire talks are possible. Many people see Aliyev as the only Azeri leader with the ability to deal directly with Armenia, pointing to his successful border talks with Armenian leaders which h ave brought relative peace to that segment of the frontier. Azeri military policy
To the extent there is any Karabakh policy in Baku, it is a military one. Mutalibov is accused of failing to organize an Azeri army, with the Azeri forces actually consisting of militia groups following individual commanders, many of them loyal to the Popular Front. Now a strong effort is under way to form a unified force, led by newly named Defense Minister Rahim Gasiyev, a leader of the radical wing of the Front who organized the successful defense of Shusha, the last Azeri stronghold in Karabakh.
Despite their military successes, the Armenian strategy in Karabakh has reached a "dead end," argues Namazov, who advises the Azeri government. "Armenia has a choice now - either give concessions on the Karabakh issue and settle the conflict ... or prepare for a long-term war." Armenia's geographic isolation makes it vulnerable in a long conflict, he says, while Azeris have support from their ethnic brothers in neighboring Turkey.