Russians claw back control of unstable Transcaucasus: Assessing the Azerbaijani revolution, Hugh Pope finds gains for Moscow and a reverse for Turkey's eastern ambitions

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The Independent Online
A PATTERN of opportunistic Russian advances has once again emerged as the dust settles around the dramatic past month of revolution in Azerbaijan. It bodes ill for the future independence of the unstable young states of the Transcaucasus. The upset has also dealt a blow to the eastern ambitions of Turkey, Russia's historic rival in the region. Ankara could only stand by and watch the ousting of its closest ally in the new Turkic republics, the nationalist Azerbaijani President Abulfaz Elchibey.

The evidence of Russian interference is circumstantial, unlike the outright Russian military support for separatists in the Georgian regions of Ossetia and Abkhazia and the more subtle co-opting of Armenia, which signed away full independence in return for Russian support in the war with Azerbaijan and emergency shipments of wheat last August.

Conspiracy theories abound in the Caucasus, but even hardened diplomats and Russian commentators believe that events in Azerbaijan were at least partly organised by Russian forces still trying to salvage whatever possible - especially border security, Russian minority rights, ports, oil and other economic interests - from territories long ruled by the Soviet and Tsarist empires.

When the Azerbaijani rebel Surat Husseinov raised the flag of revolt in the city of Ganja, the former Red Army colonel used the old Soviet flag. His armaments were bought at bargain prices from departing Russian forces, who gave him their big base in the town.

Moscow did not condemn this blatant rebellion against the democratically-elected leader of a fellow member of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. Rather, a sense of satisfaction ruled as power shifted to two friends of Russia: Col Husseinov, who was yesterday appointed the new prime minister, and Azerbaijan's new ruler, Geidar Aliyev, the republic's 70-year-old Brezhnev-era ruler and former KGB chief.

Mr Aliyev has promised not to take Azerbaijan back into the Moscow- dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), but may well change his mind. He has already shelved a protocol for the international exploitation of Azerbaijan's oil wealth by a group including British Petroleum, and has thrown into doubt the consortium's plans for a pipeline to the Mediterranean through Turkey, a scheme strongly opposed by Moscow.

Public signs of a re-awakening of the Russian bear include Boris Yeltsin's February statement about the need to protect Russian strategic interests and populations in the 'near- abroad' of the old Soviet Union. If the Turks were in any doubt about Moscow's unwillingness to share influence in the Turkic republics, they were disabused by a recent visit to Turkey by Pavel Grachev, the Russian Defence Minister. Meetings reportedly included table-thumping warnings that Turkey should keep out of 'our' Azerbaijan.

Politicians in Georgia, which also refuses to join the CIS, believe that Moscow will keep stirring up its troubles until Georgia's leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, reverses policies that fall short of full co-operation with Russia.

Azerbaijan, it has to be said, was ripe for revolution. The academic Mr Elchibey had failed to live up to popular expectations in the economy or the war with Armenia. A foreign policy that relied only on Turkey was a disaster in a state that had to play off its three neighbours to survive: Russia, Turkey and Iran, another quiet winner from the past month's events.

In some ways, Turkey is right to blame itself. It had become less diplomatically assertive since the death in April of President Turgut Ozal, had become disenchanted by the cost of playing a regional role and was frustrated by the difficulties posed by the borders created by Stalin's carve- up of the Caucasus. Even so, Azerbaijanis still speak a form of Turkish and many links have been made. Mr Aliyev is also an old friend of Ankara's, indeed 'a better business partner', in the words of one Turkish official.

Some diplomats consider the events of Azerbaijan in the spirit of a Georgian saying: 'A rainstorm in a glass of water'. The streets are still calm, soldiers loiter, life goes on. Political instability is likely to continue with rivalry between Mr Aliyev and Col Husseinov. The main oil negotiations have been set back to square one by corruption umpteen times before, the government still does not really govern and Col Husseinov, seeking to prove himself, says he will launch yet another counter-offensive against the Armenians in Nagorny Karabakh.

But the ease with which 7 million Azerbaijanis allowed their elected leader to be overthrown by a rebel so clearly being used by their old colonial masters has a deeper meaning, not without echoes from the collapse of the last brief flowering of Azerbaijani independence in 1918. 'The coup was a bitter comedy,' wrote Gungor Mengi in the Turkish daily newspaper Sabah. 'Shall we laugh or cry? The laughing is for our enemies, the crying is for us. Until the Azeri people learn to be a nation, their fate will not change.'

(Photograph and map omitted)