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.

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.

"The war in Azerbaijan and the wars in the Transcaucasus are the main obstacles to the economic development we are trying to introduce," he says. "The situation in Georgia and Armenia is no better than what we are experiencing here. We have all deteriorated very much because of the war."

While the war grinds on, the Azeri leader very carefully suggests that a glimmer of light has appeared. "In the last few months, events are moving not toward greater tension but toward some agreement," Elchibey says. "We should not lose this moment."

Several attempts at outside mediation, however, most recently by Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, have produced only unobserved cease-fire agreements and no progress toward talks. Azerbaijan has resisted Armenian proposals for a United Nations peacekeeping role, arguing that Nagorno-Karabakh remains an "internal" issue. But Elchibey echoes his Armenian counterparts in seeing there is no way to break the deadlock without an outside mediator.

The Azeri leader compares this to the Israeli-Arab conflict, saying that they need an American-style Camp David effort. "We need one or two very strong mediators who would oversee the two parties and try to bring them together.... We are not ruling out Russia because Russia has strong ties to both Armenia and Azerbaijan and Russia has interests here. But we also would like a second and third country such as the United States, Ukraine, or Britain."

One of the ironies of this war is that Elchibey shares a similar history and character with his Armenian counterpart. Both men are scholars who began their education as specialists in the Arabic language, with Elchibey serving briefly in 1963-64 as a translator in the Soviet Embassy in Cairo. Elchibey went on to become a historian while Mr. Ter-Petrosyan became a renowned philologist. The men have met meet during their professional careers. Both also went to prison for their efforts to overthrow the Sovi et totalitarian regime, Elchibey for two years from 1975-77.

The Azerbaijani leader depicts Ter-Petrosyan as a potential partner in peace talks but argues that the Armenian leader does not control more radical forces around him. For that reason, Elchibey has refused an offer for a direct meeting, expressing concern that peace talks with the two previous Azeri leaders ended badly when they were followed closely by Armenian military victories.

But Elchibey, too, is circumscribed by the complex political forces around him. He is opposed by Etibar Mahmedov, a former Popular Front leader who broke away to form the Azerbaijan Independence Party. Differing views

The Popular Front itself is divided, grouping moderates with far more radical voices than Elchibey's. "This front united both Islamicists and atheists, both nationalists and internationalists," says Mr. Mahmedov, "very different people with very different views."

Elchibey has included many of these views in his Cabinet, including well-known nationalist hard-liners as the interior and defense ministers, as well as former Communists. The president defends the need for a "civil accord" and for an "evolutionary" rather than "revolutionary" approach to transforming Azerbaijan. But he admits that this approach is hard to sustain under conditions of economic collapse and growing political tension.

"It is common to all these former Soviet regimes that leaders having a peaceful, evolutionary thinking have difficulty in governing their states because the communist, Bolshevik psychology is still very alive," he says. "We need an evolution in the social psychology of the people."

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