In Azerbaijan, Three Say: `I'm in Charge'

THE leader of an armed rebellion in Azerbaijan Xis saying he's in charge of the Transcaucasian nation, but some experts expect a complicated struggle to divide the country's political spoils.

Rebel units led by Suret Guseinov were poised on the outskirts of Baku June 22, ready to enter the capital if ordered.

The rebels are not encountering any resistance from government forces. Indeed, government troops are fraternizing with Mr. Guseinov's forces. "Ninety percent of our [government] troops are sympathetic to Guseinov," acting Interior Minister Rovshan Dzhavadov told parliament.

Guseinov's rebellion, which began June 4, already has created a power vacuum, forcing President Abulfaz Elchibey to flee Baku late last week. Roughly half of Azerbaijan's territory is controlled by Guseinov's forces.

"I will take all, absolute power into my hands," Guseinov said in an interview on Azeri television.

The Azeri parliament, seeking to avoid a civil war, has called on Guseinov to negotiate an end to his uprising. It also insisted that President Elchibey return to Baku. Elchibey has set up base in his native region of Nakhichevan, an Azeri enclave squeezed between Armenia and Iran.

"We will have to settle our disputes and we must now think of the land that we are losing to the Armenians," the parliamentary resolution said, referring to the five-year-old war between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Disorganized Azeri forces have recently suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of Armenian troops.

There are indications Guseinov is receptive to sharing power with Baku's new political leaders, led by former Azeri Communist Party boss Geidar Aliyev, who became parliament speaker last week.

A precondition for a power-sharing agreement would be Elchibey's resignation and the establishment of a State Council that could function as a collective presidency, a rebel spokesman said.

Elchibey, meanwhile, insists he remains president. He said June 21 that he was prepared to return to Baku if Guseinov withdrew his forces from the city's outskirts, adding that a referendum on his rule could be held once order was restored.

Mr. Aliyev, who claims to be head of state in Elchibey's absence, continues working to forge a viable government. Currently, he is courting Etibar Mamedov, the leader of the influential National Independence Party and chief opponent of Elchibey's administration. An Aliyev-Mamedov alliance could give rise to a ruling oligarchy, including Guseinov and former President Ayaz Mutalibov, who was ousted in an armed uprising in 1992.

"No one wants bloodshed," says Svetlana Ganushkina, a Moscow-based expert on Azeri politics. "Aliyev and Mamedov are ready to cooperate and would be prepared to give Guseinov a post in the power ministries, such as defense, or interior minister." But Guseinov may not go along with such an arrangement, she adds. "Now that he's seized all this power ... he may come to the conclusion that he himself can wield power," she says.

Even if the three manage to avoid a confrontation, the power struggle is likely to lead to increased bloodshed in Nagorno-Karabakh.

"These new people are coming to power under nationalist slogans and, thus, become hostages to these same slogans," Ms. Ganushkina said. "Guseinov says he'll clear Karabakh of all Armenians, so if he comes to power he'll have to launch an offensive, meaning more victims."

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