Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 144

Back in 1995-96 during the first war in Chechnya, and again during the 1999 phase of the current war, Moscow systematically accused Azerbaijan of allowing “international terrorists” to supply and reinforce Chechen forces via Azerbaijani territory. Russian civilian and military officials–and mass media stories inspired by them–claimed to have identified “terrorists” from many countries, ranging from the Muslim Middle East and South Asia to Ukraine and the Baltic states, allegedly operating out of Azerbaijan in support of the Chechens. No evidence was ever produced, however, and each case Azerbaijan refuted each case. Neither shown even one of those many “international terrorists.”

This year, Moscow has all but forgotten about Azerbaijan, reserving those accusations–still wholly unsubstantiated–for Georgia, which now bears the brunt of Russian psychological pressure. On July 14, the Observer Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported to the OSCE’s Permanent Council in Vienna that no pro-rebel activities were taking place on the Georgian side of the border with Russia. That international fact-finding should shield Georgia from possible Russian military incursions under the pretense of “hot pursuit of terrorists.” That scenario remains a dangerous possibility in Georgia, as it also was in Azerbaijan last year.

Unexpectedly, however, Azerbaijan was singled out in a U.S. State Department report, “Patterns of Global Terrorism,” a text of which was internationally distributed on July 11 by the United States Information Agency. The passage on Azerbaijan succinctly describes that country as “a logistic hub for international mojahedin with ties to terrorist groups, some of whom supported the Chechen insurgency in Russia.” The pro-American government in Baku reacted indignantly. Foreign Affairs Minister Vilayet Guliev publicly refuted the report as “fallacious and superficial,” based on “inaccurate allegations,” possibly reflecting some individual researcher’s “negative attitude toward Azerbaijan,” and ignoring the opinion of the American embassy in Baku. The Azerbaijani government issued a strongly worded protest.

As could be expected, the report from Washington promptly registered in Moscow. Russian officials–including Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky–lost no time resurrecting dormant accusations against Azerbaijan through the familiar technique of inspiring media stories. Those culminated in a July 19 story alleging that no fewer than 1,500 “mercenaries” from Afghanistan and other countries had just been “detected” in Azerbaijan, poised to attack Dagestan from the south in coordination with Chechen forces from the north. Officials of Russia’s Internal Affairs Ministry and Border Troops Command, who thereby distanced themselves from their colleagues in the army and the intelligence services, in effect, brushed that story aside two days later. Yet the latter launched a follow-up story on July 23, alleging that Azerbaijan and Georgia were allowing a Saudi-based Islamic organization to channel US$34 million worth of supplies, purportedly just allocated by international terrorist leader Osama bin Laden to the Chechen rebels. Yastrzhembsky put the Kremlin’s weight behind that story. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze on July 24 rejected those accusations as “disinformation, deliberately passed on to Russia’s presidential spokesman by certain organs”–an allusion to Russia’s general staff and intelligence agencies. Although familiar with Yastrzhembsky’s penchant for threatening rhetoric–the recurrence of which would hardly be possible without President Vladimir Putin’s approval–Shevardnadze chose to absolve the Kremlin of responsibility for its own words; in his reply he even paid his “deep respects” to Yastrzhembsky–a measure of how delicate the situation looks from Tbilisi’s and Baku’s perspective.

Adding to the complications, ANS Television in Baku–an independent private channel–scheduled for broadcast on July 14 excerpts from a recent interview with Chechen commander Shamil Basaev. In the tense atmosphere, created by the seeming convergence of Moscow’s recriminations and the State Department’s report, the Azerbaijani authorities pulled the plug on ANS TV. The General Prosecutor’s Office, citing Azerbaijan’s state interests as well as the criminal code, officially warned the station against broadcasting the interview. Those measures created a political storm in Baku, with local journalists and political groups charging that the government was gagging the media.

It was not until July 20 that the U.S. State Department in a special statement retracted the gist of the report it had distributed nine days earlier. The Department now acknowledged that Azerbaijan “in no way” assists international terrorism, has taken steps to prevent terrorists from operating on its territory, contributes to international counterterrorism efforts and cooperates with the United States government in that regard.

The public retraction does not explain how could the report ignore the fact that Azerbaijan’s strongly secular government has no truck with militant Islam, has itself been targeted by various types of terrorism in recent years, is to all intents and purposes an ally of the United States and Turkey, and has warm relations with Israel (these countries being in the forefront of antiterrorism efforts). By reviving long-discredited accusations against Azerbaijan, the report pleased Russian hardliners in Moscow and at the North Caucasus military command. It also, and unexpectedly, reintroduced a destabilizing element in Azerbaijani-Russian relations. This Washington episode follows the unsubstantiated leak from the Justice Department in early July which threw some doubt on the legality of U.S. oil companies’ acquisition of the rights to some of the largest Caspian oilfields in Kazakhstan. Timed to the discovery of the giant East Kashagan field, the Justice Department leak threw a wrench into the wheels of State Department and White House policies in the Caspian region. Those wheels have in any case been moving none-too-fast recently. Taken together, such symptoms of incoherence might reflect this administration’s fin-de-siecle (Turan, ANS TV, AzerHabar, Itar-Tass, July 13-23; Zerkalo (Baku), July 21; Tbilisi Radio, July 24; Stratfor, “Phantom Mercenaries Inflame Caucasus Tensions,” July 21; see the Monitor, July 7).