Why White House woos Azerbaijan

President Ilham Aliyev's visit to Washington Friday comes as the country's oil and geography make it increasingly important.

In the boxing ring of international diplomacy and influence, Azerbaijan punches above its weight.

Coming at the White House's invitation, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev will meet Friday with top administration officials - including President Bush - in his first official visit to the US since taking office in a widely criticized election in October 2003

The visit, analysts say, is part of a broader effort by the Bush administration to gain support in a key region in the face of a growing confrontation with Iran, particularly from Muslim countries.

But Azerbaijan's history of corruption and its poor human rights record have raised eyebrows about strengthening ties with the Central Asian country, and many point to oil as another driving factor in the relationship.

The visit is "a little anomalous," admits Cory Welt, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, though he adds that there are "a number of reasons why Azerbaijan is of particular interest to the US now."

The predominantely Shiite Muslim country of 8 million shares a 380-mile border with Iran, with whom it retains close economic and cultural links, though it maintains its political distance. That geographical position makes Azerbaijan a natural ally for the US, said Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov on a recent visit to Washington.

"The US is improving its relations with all countries on Iran's periphery," explains Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "In case economic sanctions or other measures are to be taken on the Iran issue, we should have a better relationship with Azerbaijan than the other side."

Dr. Welt adds that soured relations with Uzbekistan, home to a key US military base, impelled the US to develop other potential military allies in the region.

But many experts point to a different key factor: oil. A major oil pipeline stretching 1,000 miles from Azerbaijan's capital of Baku through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean was recently completed and the first tanker ship will be filled this summer. A natural-gas pipeline is being constructed parallel to the so-called BTC (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan) oil pipeline, designed to deliver upward of a million barrels of oil a day.

Azerbaijan's location may become even more pivotal if a plan to extend the pipeline eastward to provide an outlet for gas and oil from Kazakhstan, currently under negotiation, bears fruit. Vice President Cheney will travel to Kazakhstan to meet President Nazarbayev in early May.

With oil prices at record highs, Azerbaijan's state oil company will soon see an unprecedented influx of cash. The government has established a special fund to manage the extra oil revenue, and President Aliyev has indicated that the money will be used for military budget and citizen benefits such as improving living conditions for internally displaced persons.

Up to a million Azeris fled their homes in the autonomous Nagorno-Karabakh territory during fighting in the early 1990s with Armenian soldiers, who remain there. More than 100,000 still live in refugee camps while tensions simmer under a cease-fire agreement.

While some experts have expressed concern that the conflict could boil over and draw in other countries, more international attention has been focused on Azerbaijan's poor governance.

The US vocally criticized its elections last fall, one in a string of polls held since gaining independence from the Soviets in 1991 that have not met international standards.

According to Transparency International, an anticorruption watchdog group, Azerbaijan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. And human rights groups like Amnesty International have criticized forceful responses to political protests and politically motivated arrests. This week, Human Rights Watch called on President Bush to push for concrete improvements to Azerbaijan's human rights record.

But if the US is to leverage the two countries' growing closeness to promote change in Azerbaijan, it will have to be "much more upfront and harsher with [Aliyev]," says Charles King, a professor of foreign service and government at Georgetown University in Washington.

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