Azeris start to shake off the Russian yoke: In war-ravaged Azerbaijan, there is hope for a more stable balance in relations with the country's former overlords in Moscow

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NAZIM SULEYMANOV is sharp, trilingual and 29. He also embodies a hope that war-battered Azerbaijan may be reaching a more stable balance in relations with its old Soviet masters in Moscow.

From his desk at the state energy company's offices in the mansion of a pre-1917 oil tycoon, Mr Suleymanov sells Azerbaijan's first trickle of oil-product exports from the rusting rigs just visible on the horizon of the Caspian Sea.

'I have a little business. I deal with the Americans, British, Turks, Iranians, Russians. But I never feel Russian pressure. Everybody is equal for me,' said Mr Suleymanov, signing papers as older generation Soviet-era bureaucrats jumped at his orders. Many Azeris wish they could also keep at bay the many-cornered struggle for their country and its oil wealth.

Russia ruled Azerbaijan for two centuries. Few doubt that Moscow exploited its alliance with Christian Armenia and the post-Soviet weaknesses of Azerbaijan to help topple its first Turkish nationalist government and to stall an offshore oil deal with a Western consortium led by British Petroleum. But some senior Azeris and Western diplomats say they detect a shift in Russia's attitude. The one- year-old government of President Haidar Aliev, an ex-Soviet politburo member, has also softened, even though he has resisted giving up on one achievement of the former government, unique among ex-Soviet republics - expelling all Russian garrisons.

The hard-line Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, has said he wants the Russian bases back. But for all General Grachev's bluster, some diplomats say Moscow has bitten off more than it can chew in the trans-Caucasus and even the central Asian state of Tajikistan.

'The Russians are being painted as puppet-masters. I don't agree. Their policy- making is fragmented. It may be 'in their interest' to have conflict, but they have simply taken advantage of turmoil,' said one Western envoy. 'Russia may be having second thoughts about whether it is worth being over-extended with an open-ended commitment in lots of small regional conflicts, which they don't control the way they thought they did.'

Vefa Gulizade, a senior adviser of President Aliev, said nascent Russian imperialism could not work. 'Soviet ideology was powerful. It could keep an empire together and widen it,' he said. 'Nobody can bring back these nations. You can't re-establish the Soviet Union. There are only economic interests.'

The Russian ambassador to Azerbaijan, Walter Shonia, insisted that times have changed. He has direct experience of new circumstances, having had his Mercedes stolen at his Baku hotel, lacking the money to move into a new embassy and facing long queues of old would-be Russian returnees at his temporary consulate.

'The military has its own interests . . . as has the economy. We have a deadly need for prosperity. Russia will not sell its wealth for alleged political-military advances,' Mr Shonia said, noting a Russian company's interest in exploiting the new Caspian oil fields. 'Who divided the Soviet Union? Yeltsin's Russia. It was an unbearable burden to have this on their shoulders.'

But the former Soviet diplomat angrily denounced British criticism of Russian insistence on talking about Caspian Sea territorial rights, a question that could stall the oil negotiations yet again. 'We are for co-operation. But we are not going to accept those who are foolish enough to think they can kick out Russia,' he said.

Azeris know that Russia's ability to destabilise remains strong, as does its capacity to say one thing to the West and do another thing on the ground as it garners an ever- stronger grip over the Armenian-Azeri 'peace process' in the conflict over the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh.

Azerbaijan has also learned how little any new friends can help. Turkey lacks funds, Iran laces aid with unpalatable Islamic dogma and one Azeri diplomat remembers trying to explain to a US general how they wanted to keep Russian troops out. 'That's your internal affair,' the diplomat quoted his American guest as replying.

But like the oil company's Mr Suleymanov, Azeris are growing confident that they cannot be re-conquered by Russia. More new foreign cars line Baku's streets, shops are filled with foreign goods, the new Latin script is slowly spreading and a student generation is growing up believing in the new state.' The government now has some idea about what to do with the country,' Mr Suleymanov said. 'Everything is changed. New people are emerging. I hope we'll stay independent. The old bridge to the past has been burned.'