Friday, October 10, 2008

Azerbaijan drops military rhetoric

First published in September 20, 2008 Armenian Reporter

On visit to Russia, Aliyev touts peaceful conflict resolution
Azerbaijan steps up targeting of anti-Russia Islamist groups
by Emil Sanamyan

Ilham Aliyev and Dmitry Medvedev at the Meyendorf castle near Moscow on September 16, 2008.

WASHINGTON - President Ilham Aliyev struck anunusually timid tone when speaking about Karabakh and other Caucasus conflictsduring a visit to Russia this week to meet President Dmitry Medvedevand Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

In a September 16 press availability with Mr. Medvedev inthe Meyendorf castle near Moscow, Mr. Aliyev spoke of his country's "uneasewith certain regional developments" - a reference to Russia's operation againstGeorgia after its attack on South Ossetia - and touted Russian-Azerbaijanirelations as an example to be emulated by other states "if they wanted to avoidconflicts or even misunderstandings."

While Mr. Aliyev's officials have in the past publiclytalked about genocidal campaigns to expel all ethnic Armenians from theCaucasus, in Moscow he played up good neighborly relations. "No one will evermove from this region somewhere else" and therefore all should live in peace,Mr. Aliyev observed.

The Azerbaijani leader also suggested there were "goodprerequisites for a settlement of the [Karabakh] conflict based on theinterests of all states and principles of international law" - a retreat fromthe usual Azerbaijani rhetoric that highlights its claims on Armenian Karabakh.

Just a couple of months ago, Mr. Aliyev complained of the"injustices of the international community" that was unwilling to pressureArmenia, bragged about Azerbaijan's oil-fueled military build-up andAzerbaijan's readiness to "liberate its lands at any moment."

No such belligerence hasbeen heard since Russia's action in Georgia last month. Moreover, in itsSeptember 5 declaration the Collective Security Treaty Organization, aRussian-led group of which Armenia is a member and Azerbaijan is not, noted"military buildup and escalation of tensions in the Caucasus" and warnedagainst "new attempts at resolving conflicts by force."

Notably, in his comments on the Karabakh conflict, Mr.Medvedev also avoided a customary reference to Azerbaijan's "territorialintegrity," recently played up by Vice President Dick Cheneyon a visit to Baku (see this page in September 6, 2008 ArmenianReporter).

The Russian president only said that his country's policy onKarabakh remained the "same" and that its government will continue to supporttalks between Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents.


Meanwhile, security forces from Azerbaijan and Russia havestepped up apparently joint efforts to target members of Islamist groups in theCaucasus and pressure their sympathizers. The groups have engaged in alow-intensity guerilla campaign against Russia for most of the last decade.

At least seven people were killed in skirmishes near theRussia-Azerbaijan border, after an unprecedented grenade attack on a Bakumosque in mid-August left two dead and several wounded. The mosque, knowninformally as Abu Bakr, was known as the gathering place for radicalized SunniMuslims linked to anti-Russia Islamist groups in the North Caucasus.

But having shut down the mosque since the explosion,Azerbaijani authorities have accused fellow Sunni radicals - specifically agroup led by an ethnic Lezgin Ilgar Mollachiyev - in theattack.

Lezgins are an ethnic Caucasian group whose members livethroughout northeastern Azerbaijan and across the border in Russia's Dagestan.In the 1990s, the Azerbaijani government accused other secular Lezgin groups ofseparatism and terrorist attacks inside Azerbaijan.

Potential motives for the mosque attack are likely to remainunclear since Russian forces have since killed Mr. Mollachiyev and two of hisassociates. Also known as "Abdul Majid," Mr. Mollachiyev, a native ofAzerbaijan, recently became commander of Islamist groups in Russia's Dagestan.

Forces of the Azerbaijani Ministry of NationalSecurity (MNS)have also killed at least three other individuals identified as "Islamists,"arresting dozens of others in border areas near Dagestan and the town of Sumgait near Baku. One Azerbaijani service member was reported killed andothers wounded.

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