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Strained by Caucasus War, Azeris Face Internal Split

Following clashes, former Communist is asked to lead

AZERBAIJAN'S former Communist Party boss Geidar Aliyev is poised to return to power in an attempt to end a major political crisis that followed bloody clashes between government and rebel military forces in this former Soviet republic.

Mr. Aliyev, a former Soviet Communist Party Politburo member, has been invited by President Abulfaz Elchibey to become premier but is reportedly negotiating for greater powers.

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President Elchibey's government has been shaken by armed clashes on June 4 between government troops and a militia under the control of rival political leader Suret Guseinov in the northern city of Ganja, which left at least 68 dead and more than 200 wounded. Mr. Guseinov's forces are now in full control of the region, the country's second most populous; they are demanding the resignation of the government.

The crisis is yet another consequence of the five-year-long war between Azeri and Armenian forces for control of the Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The war has claimed thousands of lives and turned hundreds of thousands on both sides into refugees. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan on June 9 gave support to a new peace initiative of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, but the militant Armenian government in Karabakh has yet to sign on.

Guseinov was formerly in charge of Azeri forces in the Karabakh war and was replaced by Elchibey in February after an Armenian offensive captured the key Kelbajar region south of Ganja. But the rebel leader remained in effective control of the 709 Division, a several-thousand-strong Army unit based in his hometown of Ganja. By many accounts, his support is widespread. Many local volunteers, some armed, are reported to have joined Guseinov.

For its part, the Azeri government has bolstered its presence in neighboring regions to a reported 20,000 troops by moving in extra military police units and troops from the Karabakh front line. But opposition reports claim that the government only barely controls the cities of Shamkir and Yevlak. All of Azerbaijan's lines of communication with Georgia - road, rail, and gas lines - pass through the disputed towns.

"Most people in the cities of Yevlak, Shamkir, and Khanlar support Guseinov," said Hudu Hudiyev, head of the opposition Birlik party in Baku. "The government is flying in more troops but they exercise only partial control of these regions."

Elchibey, who denies knowledge of the decision to attack Guseinov's forces, dispatched a delegation of academics to negotiate with the rebel leader. A delegation of high-level officials sent on June 5 was detained by Guseinov and is still being held hostage.

Since his election in June 1992, Elchibey has faced growing criticism throughout the country. Some opposition democrats accuse him of indecision, while others say his government has inherited many of the authoritarian characteristics of the previous Communist regime. Elchibey's emphasis on relations with Turkey has prompted criticism of his seeking another "Big Brother" to replace Russia.

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Anti-Russian feelings are rampant in Azerbaijan as the country struggles to pull away from Moscow's control. Russia is widely blamed for the defeats Azerbaijan suffered against Armenia. Some even see Moscow's hand behind the Ganja revolt. The last units of the Russian Army left Ganja recently and Guseinov is believed to have gained control of the weapons they left behind. According to some reports, the June 4 clash was prompted by a government attempt to regain control of those weapons. Guseinov is accus ed of maintaining ties to Russian officers.

But the bottom line for most Azeris is the conduct of the war in Karabakh and the ruinous economy. Armenian forces have taken control of most of Karabakh and of other contiguous territory. Presidential officials say 43 percent of the national budget is consumed by the war.

Aliyev, now leader of the Nakhichevan region, is widely respected as an elder statesman who can restore stability and end the war with Armenia. Aliyev ran Azerbaijan from 1969-1982, after which he joined the Soviet government in Moscow. He was ousted from the Politburo in 1987 amid charges of corruption, which he denies. He has since made a political comeback here as an Azeri nationalist.

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