LAST Sunday's presidential election in Azerbaijan was a crucial turning point in the geopolitical struggle for influence in the southern belt of the disintegrated Soviet empire.
The apparent victory of nationalist leader Abdulfaz Elchibey firmly aligns the oil-rich former Soviet republic with Turkey, with whom it shares a common Muslim and ethnic heritage. Those prospects have drawn an early expression of dismay over the election results from official circles in neighboring Iran, which is competing with Turkey for influence among the six Muslim-populated former Soviet states.
The consolidation of control by the Azerbaijan Popular Front also poses a challenge to Russia, which is seeking to reassert its traditional strategic interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia through the Commonwealth of Independent States, which groups 11 of the former Soviet republics. The new Azeri leader vows to leave the commonwealth.
These alignments could have serious implications for the ongoing war between Azerbaijan and Armenian irregulars for control of the Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. While Azerbaijan seeks Turkey's backing in that conflict, Christian Armenia has turned to its traditional allies in Russia. Iran, which borders both countries and has sought to mediate, increasingly finds itself in the Armenian camp. Aligning with Turkey
Popular Front candidate Mr. Elchibey made no secret of his foreign policy views during the election campaign.
"We will support economic relations with Russia, but we are against Azerbaijan joining [the commonwealth]," he told the weekly Moscow News. "Azerbaijan and Turkey have special ethnic relations. Our peoples are close in language, culture, mentality. Of course, Turkey will enjoy pride of place in Azerbaijan's foreign policy."
The Popular Front has voiced anti-Iranian views, accusing it of favoring Armenia in the Karabakh conflict and of suppressing the national rights of the large Azeri minority within Iran. Some Azeri nationalists even advocate the breakup of Iran and the creation of a "Greater Azerbaijan."
"We cannot accept that the Iranian government wants to help Armenia and not Azerbaijan," Elchibey told reporters in an election-eve press conference. "Iran says it wants to do something for Azerbaijan. But during [peace] talks in Teheran, we lost the towns of Shusha and Lachin," he said, referring to two major Azeri towns that fell in early May to Armenian guerrilla forces.
The election result "does not serve as good news for Iran," the pro-government Teheran Times said, according to Reuters. The report said Elchibey "lacks the insight needed for resolving the major problems besetting the country." `Don't expect miracles'
The report also criticized the pro-Turkish stance of the Azerbaijan Popular Front. "They should not expect a miracle from Turkey, which is itself gripped by economic problems and by political dependence on the West."
The Armenian government has expressed its own concerns about the Turkish role, particularly after the Turkish government threatened to come to the aid of Azerbaijan following the recent Armenian military victories. With Turkey's membership in the NATO military alliance, these developments raised fears of turning the Caucasus conflict into an international crisis.
"Until a few months ago, Turkey stuck to neutrality," Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan told the Monitor last week. "But I think the prospects now open for Turkey to take advantage of Russia's withdrawal from Central Asia and Azerbaijan - trying to fill this political vacuum - encouraged Turkey to take a blatantly pro-Azerbaijan and anti-Armenian position."
Armenia has sought to balance the Turkish presence - and counter the threat of direct Turkish intervention - by strengthening its ties to Russia and the commonwealth. Last month it signed a collective security treaty with Russia.
"The treaty shows that Russia is far from just abandoning its strategic interests in Central Asia and the Trans-Caucasus," Mr. Ter-Petrosyan said. "Turkey must take that factor into consideration, to say nothing of taking into account the reaction of Iran." Iran's helping hand
Armenian officials seek to reassure the West that their ties to Iran are a geopolitical necessity given the economic blockade imposed by Azerbaijan, cutting most of the transportation links to Russia, and Turkey's refusal to open normal relations. "We must have an outlet to the outside world and it is Iran," Ter-Petrosyan said.
He defended a Russian role as a means to maintain a balance of power in the region: "I think the US is interested that [the commonwealth], and Russia in particular, preserve a sphere of influence in this region because it is a factor for stability."
As a result of the treaty, Russia will retain some of the former Soviet troops still stationed in Armenia, as well as assist in the formation of an Armenian army. The units in Azerbaijan are to be withdrawn, although Russian defense officials say most of their equipment and ammunition has already been seized by the Azeri militia.
Russian policy is far from coherent, admits a senior Armenian official, but the treaty is "not entirely formal," he says. "It is the beginning of a game with some new rules, a game in which you say `I am your ally.' Nobody knows how serious this game is, including the Turks."