Sunday, November 30, 2003

The ongoing turmoil inGeorgiathat forced the resignation of President EduardShevardnadze highlights the difficulty former Soviet republics are encountering in making a smooth transition from authoritarianism to democratic pluralism. In neighboringAzerbaijan, arguablyAmerica’s strongest ally in the former Soviet Union, this transition has lead to the recent election of Ilham Aliyev, the 42-year-old son of and presidential successor to Heydar Aliyev, a man who has dominated the political landscape of this oil-rich country for over 40 years. While some in the State Department have questioned aspects of this election, Washington must now make every effort to work with the clear winner to ensure a smooth transition that can further enhance the lives of the people of Azerbaijan and advance America’s interests in this increasingly important part of the world.

I first met Ilham Aliyev in 1993, during his first visit to the United States. He had come to meet with senior officials of Amoco Corp. (now part of British Petroleum, or BP) and to determine how his country could best benefit by partnering with American energy companies. Upon his return to Baku, Ilham Aliyev was assigned by his father to head the delegation that ultimately negotiated the landmark U.S.-led multinational agreement to develop the giant oil fields of the Azerbaijan sector of the Caspian Sea. Realizing that Azerbaijan’s landlocked position required a dependable pipeline to carry its oil to international markets, Ilham Aliyev (and the team he assembled) worked closely with U.S. officials to ensure that the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (BTC) became a reality. Today, the BTC pipeline is the anchor of U.S. interests in the energy-rich Caspian Sea region.

Since that first visit, Ilham Aliyev has become a frequent visitor to Washington, representing his country in bilateral talks with senior U.S. officials on national security (tracking down al Qaeda), trade and energy issues. Despite claims to the contrary from some in the opposition, Ilham Aliyev has included members of the “responsible opposition” in almost all of his official oversees visits.

As the newly elected President of Azerbaijan, this close friend of the United States faces a number of challenges that should be of concern to Washington. One of the biggest challenges facing President Aliyev is how to tackle what is perhaps the most horrific vestige of the Soviet-era — corruption. According to Western oil executives working in Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev has been responsible for keeping corruption out of the critical oil sector of the economy. The non-oil sector, however, has been beset by rampant corruption and is in need of leadership from the new president in order to attract the foreign investment needed to diversify Azerbaijan’s oil-dependent economy. The United States should provide Ilham Aliyev with every tool it can to ensure that the non-oil sector is revived. A visit by CommerceSecretaryDon Evans, accompanied by CEOs from major U.S. corporations, would be a good start.

The second most important challenge facing the new President Aliyev is a long-awaited settlement of the war with Armenia over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabagh. While the conflict may best be described as being in a state of frozen instability, Mr. Aliyev wants to settle this issue in a peaceful manner that allows the 1 million refugees to return to their homes. Washington would be well-served to warn Armenia not to take advantage of this transition in Baku in order to restart the waroverNagorno-Karabagh. Beyond this warning to Armenia, Secretary of State Colin Powell must get involved personally in the resolution of this conflict that still threatens to engulf the region if left unresolved.

Beyond the threat of a resumption of the war with Armenia, the new President Aliyev’s most worrisome foreign policy challenge is the continued pressure exerted by the clerics in Tehran to turn this secular Shi’ite Muslim state into an Islamic republic. Washington needs to send a very strongly worded letter to the Iranian government stating that the U.S. will not tolerate any interference in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs, including the intimidation of companies exploring for oil in Azerbaijan’s sector of the Caspian Sea. The United States should use this opportunity to insist that Iran end its hostile actions towards the Anglo-American giant BP, and allow BP to explore the Alov structure that may contain as much as 9 billion barrels of oil reserves.Of course, the best signalthatWashington could send Tehran would be to invite Ilham Aliyev to the White House for a working visit with President Bush.

In exchange for our steadfast support of his new presidency, Washington must work with Mr. Aliyev to ensure that he moves Azerbaijan towards a more open political system with economic transparency in order to avoid the chaos that grips Georgia today.This would mean the empowerment, not disenfranchisement, of Azerbaijan’s responsible opposition. And it would mean the beginning of a healthy, diverse economy.

The United States has a vested interest in President Ilham Aliyev’s success. The majority of those eligible to vote among the seven million citizens of this country voted for Mr. Aliyev in order to preserve the legacy of his father — stability. It is in America’s interest that Azerbaijan’s transition to a more open and pluralistic society be anchored in stability.

S. Rob Sobhani is president of Caspian Energy Consulting and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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