Azerbaijan to sign oil deal with BP to ward off Russia

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The Independent Online
A LONG-DELAYED oil production-sharing deal between Azerbaijan and a Western consortium led by British Petroleum will soon be signed, the Azeri President, Geidar Aliyev, said yesterday. Mr Aliyev is due to visit Britain on 20 February, apparently as part of a continuing effort to keep his country independent from Moscow's control.

Mr Aliyev's statement, made during an official visit to Turkey, followed a threat by the Western consortium to withdraw because of the difficulty in pinning Azerbaijan down. Mr Aliyev gave no timescale, but said the deal, which would give his country the production of a small Gulf state, 'should take Azeri interests into account'.

Mr Aliyev's room for manoeuvre in what he calls his fight for an independent Azerbaijan is narrowing. Moscow is breathing down Mr Aliyev's neck for concessions similar to those it extracted from Armenia and Georgia, who signed pacts putting Russian troops back on to the old Soviet borders with Turkey and Iran. 'I think he will resist, but I don't know how long he can resist for,' a senior Turkish official said after four days of talks between Mr Aliyev and Turkish leaders.

Turkey is doing its utmost to help its ethnic cousins in Azerbaijan, sending military trainers, opening trade credits and inviting Mr Aliyev to address the Turkish parliament. But Turkey's best may not be enough, demoralised by its own clumsy leadership, its lack of cash and a shortage of Western support.

Turkish-Azeri relations soured last summer during Mr Aliyev's takeover from the former dissident Turkish nationalist Abulfez Elchibey. This week, Turkey even found itself in the unusual position of lecturing somebody else on human rights, criticising Mr Aliyev, a former politburo member, for suppressing Mr Elchibey's supporters in the Popular Front. In return, Mr Aliyev declined to say whether he considered himself a Turk. 'Turkey is trying to find support in the Caucasus, Russia is trying to establish its hegemony . . . let them all come, but let them realise that the Caucasus has sunk great empires before,' Mr Aliyev said.

Mr Aliyev has offered Russian companies a slice of the oil action to try to appease Moscow, though he declined to say how much. But even if the deal is signed, big difficulties remain in finding an export pipeline route that avoids political problems associated with Russia or Iran or armed conflicts in eastern Turkey, in Georgia or with Armenia.

To judge by Mr Aliyev's statements, the six-year conflict with Armenia over Nagorny Karabakh appears no closer to resolution. He said Azerbaijan's first successful offensive in nearly a year had regained some territory and that he would fight on until they had regained all the 20 per cent of territory lost in the conflict.

Men of military age were being sent to the front to create a powerful, centralised army, he said. Recent television pictures have shown deserters being punished by standing near-naked in the snow chained to trees. Azerbaijan has hired the services of experts from the US and Iran and a 1,000-strong unit of Afghan Mujahedin.

Western diplomats in Baku believed last month's Azeri offensive sought to win advantage ahead of new peace talks. Turkey and Azerbaijan both strive to keep the matter as international as possible, while Russia seems keen to exclude outsiders. Mr Aliyev reiterated his refusal to accept Moscow's latest proposal to put Russian troops on to Armenian front lines, occupying a fifth of Azerbaijan.