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Turkey and Russia Back Rivals In Azerbaijan Power Struggle

Democratically elected president contests steps by ex-communist boss

OUSTED by rebel troops and stripped of his powers by a besieged parliament, Azerbaijan's first democratically elected president stands fast in retreat.

"I don't believe that Azerbaijan will go back [to dictatorship] and, if so, it can only survive for a very short time," Abulfaz Elchibey, the bearded president and scholar, said in an interview in his home village of Ordubad, high in the mountains of the Azeri region of Nakhichevan. "We have already made some steps toward a market economy and this will prevent Azerbaijan from returning to a form of dictatorship."

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Mr. Elchibey, who was elected with 60 percent of the vote last June, fled Baku June 18 when rebel troops advanced from their base in the western city of Ganja to the outskirts of the capital of Baku. On June 24, with rebel troops surrounding the building, the parliament voted to strip Elchibey of his powers because of his refusal to return to the capital.

Negotiations for sharing power are going on between former Communist Party chief Geidar Aliyev, now elected head of the parliament, and rebel commander Suret Guseinov.

In defeat, Elchibey has gathered his closest followers from the nationalist Azerbaijan Popular Front around him in a bunker atmosphere. Trusted Popular Front militiamen guard his office, while military police and National Guard units have sealed the area.

But the strongest support for Elchibey has come from abroad, from the United States, the European Community, and particularly from neighboring Turkey, all of which have continued to defend the legitimacy of his presidency. On June 24, the Turkish Foreign Minister Hikmet Cetin sent a letter to the United Nations stating Turkey's intentions to support the "lawful authorities" of Azerbaijan, describing the recent events as an army mutiny aimed at overthrowing the democratically elected government. In his vi llage retreat, Elchibey receives discreet counsel from high-ranking Turkish officials late into the night.

Diplomatic sources in Moscow contrast this tough position with the passive stance of the Russian government. Recalling Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev's repeated calls for the West to support the democratically elected President Boris Yeltsin against threats of coups in Russia, "it is surprising we have not heard the same thing from the Russians themselves," says a Middle Eastern diplomat who follows the Azerbaijan situation.

The Russian Foreign Ministry statement issued on June 24 refers only to settlement of the conflict in Azerbaijan on a "constitutional basis" and warns against "foreign interference." But, counters the diplomat, "when you have troops surrounding the parliament, you cannot think that what happened in the Majlis [the parliament] is support of constitutional methods."

The Russians are widely believed to be happy with the ascension to power of Mr. Aliyev, a veteran member of the Soviet Communist Party who rose from being Azeri KGB chief and party boss to membership in the Politburo in Moscow. After being ousted in 1989, Aliyev refurbished his image as an Azerbaijani nationalist and made a comeback to as chief of his home region of Nakhichevan, an enclave separated from Azerbaijan by the territory of the former Soviet republic of Armenia.

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"Why not Geidar Aliyev?" the Russian Ministry of Defense daily Red Star asked rhetorically in a June 26 article. "People need stability, firmness, and the predictability of authorities."

Accusations of Russian backing for the overthrow of Elchibey have circulated through Baku from the first moments of the clash with rebel troops on June 4. Some point to the fact that the rebel units were well armed with equipment handed over to them by departing Russian troops, although there is no proof this was a deliberate act.

The diplomatic source, echoing charges made by Elchibey supporters in Azerbaijan, suggests that Russia has an interest in blocking deals between Azerbaijan and major foreign oil companies to develop oil reserves under the Caspian Sea. The political turmoil forced postponement of the signing of a $9 billion oil deal with a consortium of foreign firms.

But Aliyev is unlikely to do Moscow's bidding. Indeed he now speaks angrily about Russian "imperialism" and is eager to demonstrate his claim to be an Azerbaijani nationalist.

Meanwhile, Elchibey's own options look bleak. If he returns to Baku, parliament has said it will impeach him for ordering the attack on the rebel garrison in Ganja. If he stays in Nakhichevan, he risks being sidelined entirely by the changes in Baku.

Elchibey remains adamant that he can return to power. "I am still confident that we can solve this crisis through democratic means," he says. "Certain measures have to be taken before I will go back to Baku and for the time being I will stay in Nakhichevan, but I will return."

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