Azeris hope for respite in ceasefire: Defeats by the Armenians have divided a demoralised people

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IT IS a telling feature of Azerbaijan's war effort that bullet- proof jackets seem a more common sight on security policemen watching traffic on the boulevards of the capital, Baku, than on the backs of the demoralised frontline soldiers fighting a losing battle against Armenia.

The numbed and divided Popular Front that led Azerbaijan to independence from the former Soviet Union is right to fear political fall-out from a string of defeats that have cost this remote Caucasus country nearly one-tenth of its territory. But luckily for them, anger and frustration among the 7 million Azeris has as yet no real direction.

In the short term, the worthy, idealistic but ineffective President Abulfez Elchibey seems relatively safe. Unlike defeats in the Armenian war that brought down the former Communists last year, there is no viable alternative to his democratically elected leadership.

There may be a respite today if a ceasefire over the disputed enclave of Nagorny Karabakh, brokered by the Russians, comes into effect. The Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, said the ceasefire would be followed by further talks in Moscow on 13 April.

Mr Elchibey has also won unprecedented international support from the United Nations and the United States, which have both condemned Armenia as the aggressor and have joined Turkey, Pakistan and other countries in calling for an immediate Armenian withdrawal.

But Azerbaijan's main ally, Turkey, after an agonised debate, has said it cannot intervene militarily. It is hard to see how Azerbaijan can turn itself around quickly as weakness, disorganisation and defeat have fed on each other since 1988, when the 130,000 Armenians in the autonomous Azeri territory of Nagorny Karabakh rose up, demanded self-rule and began to drive out the 50,000 Azeris who lived with them.

State television has turned itself over to war mobilisation propaganda that leaves little doubt that Azerbaijan will attempt a counter-offensive to reconquer the 60-mile-wide belt of Azeri land that now links Nagorny Karabakh to Armenia proper. But the army is poorly trained, ill-co-ordinated and lacks a martial spirit. Officers complain that Russian troops had quietly sabotaged stockpiles of old equipment inherited from the departing Soviet army.

'It's more a question of where the Armenians are going to stop than what the Azeris can do,' said one Western diplomat.

The malaise goes deep in Azerbaijan, and Mr Elchibey's main power-base in the Popular Front is shrinking. There is still no new constitution to define the post-Soviet powers of the various branches of government and no agreement on what to call the national language. While oil may make Azerbaijan rich again one day, oil production has fallen to a break-even point. Hopes for the future are high, but production-sharing agreements with Western oil companies led by British Petroleum have yet to be signed.

(Photograph omitted)