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Azerbaijan President Visits Washington


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush is playing host today to the leader of the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, in what some say is a litmus test of the president's so-called freedom agenda.

President Bush has often spoken about the need for reform, including in oil rich countries in the Muslim world. The U.S. says these issues do matter in relations with Azerbaijan, though today's talks are likely to focus more on energy, security, and geopolitics.

NPR's Michele Keleman reports.


For Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, the White House visit is a long awaited stamp of approval from Washington. Aliyev replaced his late father in 2003 in an election that was criticized in the west. And he oversaw Parliamentary elections last year that were widely viewed as flawed. The 44 year old Aliyev, though, sounds polished and prepared for his critics.

President ILHAM ALIYEV (President, Azerbaijan): I am a democratically elected president. And who measures where is democracy, where is not democracy?

KELEMAN: Aliyev told the Council on Foreign Relations this week that democratic development must go hand in hand with economic growth. And he reminded the audience that he's in a tough and not-so-democratic neighborhood and still in conflict with Armenia.

Pres. ALIYEV: If you look at the map and see where we are situated, you'll see, wherever you look from Baku, you will see hostility, wars, conflicts; existing, and potential.

In these circumstance, Azerbaijan is an island of stability and development.

KELEMAN: The map also shows how crucial Azerbaijan has become in the energy sector. This summer, an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey is said to open. The U.S. is also backing a parallel natural gas pipeline through Azerbaijan.

Martha Brill Alcott of the Carnegie Endowment says the Bush administration wants to show it is developing alternatives to Russian pipelines and energy resources.

Ms. MARTHA BRILL ALCOTT (Analyst, Carnegie Endowment): By entertaining Aliyev, the White House is showing their critic that we're not too dependent on Russia, that we are courting somebody like Aliyev. Vice President Cheney is on his way to Kazakhstan in the next week or so.

So, I think this is all part of trying to say that there's a balanced policy with regard to Russia and the Caspian.

KELEMAN: As for the Freedom Agenda, Alcott says the Bush administration has always overstated that aspect of its foreign policy.

Ms. ALCOTT: The White House got themselves boxed in a position where you can't bring these kinds of people in without looking like you're violating your own policy.

KELEMAN: Even a human rights activist from Azerbaijan says it was time for the White House to reach out for Aliyev. But Morad Sadadinov(ph), a former political prisoner who's also visiting Washington this week, says President Bush needs to at least bring up some tough issues.

Mr. MORAD SZEDADINOV(ph) (ex-Political Prisoner): (Through Translator) It is extremely important that he raises these questions with human rights, democracy development, torture, and specifically a couple of prisoners, specifically, former Minister of Economics whose health condition is critical at the moment.

KELEMAN: Several former government ministers are facing allegations of plotting a coup, though Sadadinov(ph) says the charges are politically motivated. The human rights activist is talking about these cases with members of Congress and with White House aides.

On strategic issues, Sadadinov(ph) is worried that Azerbaijan might try to curry favor with Washington by providing bases for a potential attack on neighboring Iran.

President Aliyev, though, is ruling that out.

Pres. ALIYEV: Azerbaijan will not be engaged in any kind of a potential operations against Iran, and our officials made it very clear, including myself in the past. Therefore, I think that it's time to stop speculating on these issues.

KELEMAN: Military to military relations are developing, though, he says. Aliyev is quick to point out that Azerbaijan has troops in Iraq. Part of his efforts to improve ties with the Bush administration.

Michele Keleman, NPR News. Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.