Turkish officers take Azeri forces in hand

IT TOOK 70 years, but Turkish military men have got back to Baku, recovering the lead in a race they lost first to the British Empire and then to the Soviet Union.

Their presence in Azerbaijan is modest, and Armenian claims of large supplies of arms and men to their Turkish-speaking cousins seem wildly exaggerated. But two Turks are raising Ankara's profile in the Transcaucasus.

One is Brigadier-General Halil Kalayci, Turkey's unusually high- ranking military attache. His public visit to the Nagorny Karabakh front in June preceded Azerbaijan's first successful big counter- attack after four years of fighting in which Armenian forces had driven most Azeris out of the Armenian-majority Azeri enclave of 180,000 people.

The other Turk now in Baku is a retired air force general, Yasar Demirbulak, who is adviser to President Abulfez Elchibey on how Azerbaijan should set up its army. General Demirbulak is one of more than a million Turks of Azeri origin whose efforts on Azerbaijan's behalf have long exceeded those of the cautious Turkish state.

'We want to create a modern and trained national army in the Western sense. It'll take five or six years,' the US and British-trained General Demirbulak told the Cumhuriyet newspaper. 'First we changed the ranks to resemble ours, except that their stars are eight-pointed. Now we are sending students to military colleges in Turkey.'

The alleged presence of dozens of retired Turkish officers in the Azerbaijan army was the result of purely private initiatives, said Nevzat Ayaz, Turkey's Minister of Defence. 'It is not possible for Turkey to encourage or discourage them. They have no relations with Turkey,' he said, insisting that Ankara wanted to solve the Nagorny Karabakh dispute diplomatically. 'But we do not see Armenia and Azerbaijan as the same. We say Azerbaijan is right, that Armenia must be stopped. Armenia is in the wrong.'

The Azeri armed forces' improved, but still disorganised, recent performance has - as yet - little to do with advice from Turkey. More important has been a jump in army morale since the nationalist President Elchibey was elected in June, replacing the pro- Russian regime of Ayaz Mutalibov, who had no interest in strengthening front-line troops that hated him almost as much as the Armenians.

A number of ethnic Russian officers still wander the corridors of Azerbaijan's Defence Ministry, a reminder that there were far fewer Azeri Muslim officers in the former Soviet armed forces than Christian Armenians. But they offer little help in organising the disparate Azeri battalions into a real army. President Elchibey stresses he would like American, British or even Israeli help, but Turks have been the first to respond.

Turkey is now limited only by its own resources, as well as geography. The only land border is to the tiny Azeri enclave of Nakhichevan. 'Everybody is asking us for something, Albania, Azerbaijan, the Turkic republics,' Mr Ayaz said. 'We can't possibly satisfy them all.'

Turkey is now backed by Britain and Western powers, unlike in 1918, when a British force rushed to Baku to head off the advance of troops sent by the leader of Turkey's wartime junta, Enver Pasha. It occupied Baku for six weeks before the arrival of Ottoman Turkish-backed units of Azerbaijan's independence movement. The Turk organising Azeri forces in those days was a half-brother of Enver Pasha. But in the end even that was not enough to prevent Moscow's re-conquest of the country in 1920.