To help rebuild the former Soviet Union, the U.S. government passed the Freedom Support Act on October 24, 1992. It is replete with provisions for financial, technical, and other forms of assistance "to support freedom and open markets in the independent states of the former Soviet Union." Amid these good works, however, is a little-known but important and mischievous clause, Section 907. It prohibits the provision of U.S. assistance "to the Government of Azerbaijan until the President determines . . . that the Government of Azerbaijan is taking demonstrable steps to cease all blockades and other offensive uses of force against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh."
This means that the Congress has passed and the president has signed into law a provision that singles out and excludes by name a specific country from receiving U.S. assistance. This, obviously, is a very strong step. Why has Azerbaijan been subjected to this special treatment? What are the implications of this provision? Should it remain on the books?
A Territorial Conflict
Recalling the mythic borders of the distant past, Armenians have twice in this century tried to reestablish an Armenian state that includes substantially more territories than does today's Armenia. Each attempt followed on the collapse of a Russian empire, the tsarist one in 1917 and the Soviet one in 1991. With the tsarist collapse at the end of World War I, independent republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia came into existence. This could have been an opportunity peacefully to transit to democracy and modernity but the first political act of the Armenian leadership - led by the ultranationalist Dashnak party - was a declaration of war against Azerbaijan in 1918, hoping to gain territory.
Seventy years later, Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms led to a condition of destabilization and collapse startlingly similar to that of tsarist Russia after World War I. Once again, the dissolution of empire led to the creation of independent Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Georgian states. And again, instead of peaceful development, the area experienced warfare.
Greater Armenia would include a number of regions outside of the internationally recognized borders of the state, including portions of Syria, Iraq, and Iran; Nakhchivan, a geographically detached province of Azerbaijan located between Armenia and Turkey; Bogdanovsky, a region of Georgia with a majority Armenian population; a large portion of northeastern Turkey, including the regions of Kars, Ardagan, and Erzerum; and Nagorno Karabakh, the focus of the fighting since 1988.
The Armenian Parliament adopted laws in1989 and 1992 that deem parts of western Azerbaijan to be Armenian territory. Armenian leaders have in the intervening years often reiterated these claims. For example, in January 1994, the secretary of the Karabakh Committee of the Armenian Parliament, Suren Zolian, asserted that "both Agdam and Fizuli are in the heart of Nagorno-Karabakh and are historic Armenian lands." Azerbaijanis see things otherwise: as Audrey Altstadt writes, this region has great significance to Azerbaijan, being "regarded as a cradle of Azerbaijani art."
In brief, though often seen as a religious war between Christians and Muslims, the Armenian-Azerbaijani war is really a territorial dispute over Nagorno Karabakh, a region located in the western part of Azerbaijan. The problems began in February 1988, when Armenians perceived the weakness of the Soviet central government and decided to take advantage of it. Ethnic Armenians living in Karabakh demanded secession from Azerbaijan to join Armenia, arguing that their low status in Azerbaijan made life there intolerable. The Armenian authorities in Yerevan then armed Armenian nationalists in Karabakh and sponsored the creation of a military force. From the beginning, Yerevan claimed not to be involved in the fighting, insisting that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh shouldered the entire military effort - an amazing contention, given that its tiny population of 150,000 was soundly beating an Azerbaijani population of 7,500,000. The hollowness of this claim became obvious over time. For example, The New York Times reported in August 1993 that the Armenian army, not forces from Karabakh, controlled the Azerbaijani city of Zangelan.
The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan easily ranks as one of the bloodiest conflicts in the territory of the former Soviet Union. What had been mainly local warfare during the Soviet period (1988-91) has since independence developed into an open military conflict between two states.
This conflict compares in many ways to the Serbian-Muslim war in Bosnia. In both cases, religious and communal differences have inspired a harrowing battle for territory. And in both cases, the great powers are hardly to be heard from. The U.N. Security Council and leading countries condemned Armenian aggression only after one fifth of Azerbaijani territory had been occupied, then took absolutely no measures against Armenia. Not punishing an aggressor leads that aggressor, whether Serbian or Armenian, to believe in its impunity. The Armenian government, like its Serbian counterpart, ignores international law and continues ethnic cleansing in the territories it occupies.
The official Azerbaijani position calls for an end to fighting on the basis of existing borders, the assurance of minority (namely, Armenian) rights in Nagorno Karabakh, and the safe return of refugees to their places of permanent residence. In contrast, the Armenian side is holding out for keeping the occupied territories under its military control. In an October 1993 interview, foreign ministry official Manvel Sargissian said, "The existing international laws fail to be applied to all new realities. . . . The military activities help define natural borders." Armenian officials appear to see the lines of their conquests as the new reality.
At the same time, the Armenian leaders apparently realize that continuing the war will cause their country to collapse. Tales of economic misery have been coming out of Armenia for years; always dependent on external suppliers of raw materials and energy (mainly Azerbaijan and Georgia), Armenia has repeatedly found itself cut off for reasons beyond its control. This was the case in the summer of 1992, when links to Russia through Georgia were cut off owing to turmoil in the latter republic. Nature has been no kinder; in December 1988, an earthquake in Armenia destroyed about 10 percent of industry and housing. In 1992 alone, Armenian gross domestic product fell nearly 40 percent from the year before. Economic hardship caused more than 300,000 Armenians to leave the country in the two-year period March 1992-March 1994. At the same time, even as disaster sets in, the leaders find themselves compelled to keep the war going in accordance with their ideological doctrine of territorial expansionism. Though the economic disaster has caused a postponement of further offensives, the Armenian government still keeps troops on Azerbaijani territory.
American Backing for Armenia
As a small people (3.5 million in Armenia, plus 800,000 in the United States and one million in other countries), Armenians could not hope to achieve territorial ambitions against Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey on their own, so they turned to the outside world for help. Historically, Russia has been the most important support for Armenian expansionism.
From 1988 on, Armenian Americans mobilized in the United States to win support for Armenia and to deprive Azerbaijan of the same. They had considerable success on both scores. In 1992-93, Armenia received $188 million in U.S. aid, placing it first among the former Soviet republics in terms of per capita aid. The latest U.S. foreign aid bill contains $75 million of further aid for Armenia, which will undoubtedly pass as well.
But the Armenian lobby's greatest achievement is the passage of Section 907 to the Freedom Support Act. The Armenian lobby is an experienced and active political force, and is especially influential with congressmen from states with populations of ethnic Armenians (among them California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey). Steve LeVine argues in the Financial Times that the Armenian lobby in the United States has been especially skillful in targeting campaign contributions. One of its strongest supporters, Congressman Joseph Kennedy II, for example, received more than 10 percent of his 1994 individual campaign donations from Armenian contributors, according to public records in Washington.
LeVine considers the success of the Armenian diaspora as an illustration of
An outgrowth of Europe's post-cold war rush of nationalist wars. This has been an increase in power of diaspora groups . . . to influence politics in Western countries where they live and in the nations from which they emigrated.
When originally proposed by the Bush administration, the Freedom Support Act did not contain the prohibition on assistance to Azerbaijan. In fact, this provision was first adopted by voice vote by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and added to that committee's draft of the bill. When the provision was discussed in committee, again no roll call vote was taken, nor was there debate on it when the bill passed the full House of Representatives.
When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met to draft its version of the bill, John Kerry (Democrat of Massachusetts) proposed adding the House's Azerbaijan provision to the Senate bill. After general discussion, the addition was agreed upon, again by voice vote. Subsequently, Richard Lugar (Republican of Indiana), Terry Sanford (Democrat of North Carolina), Nancy Kassebaum (Republican of Kansas), and Mitch McConnell (Republican of Kentucky) filed a statement in opposition to the proposal:
By imposing sanctions against a specific country in the former Soviet Union, this amendment would establish a potentially dangerous precedent of choosing sides in conflicts which have deep historical roots. Indeed, we fear that this Amendment would be an invitation to consider other such provisions in which the United States is asked to side with one state, nationality group, or religious entity against another state, nationality, or religious body within the former USSR. That would be most unfortunate. We simply do not believe that the provision will have any positive effect on resolving the conflict.
However, as in the House, there was no debate on the proposal when the bill came before the full Senate. Thus, the only senators who are specifically on record with regard to the provision are Kerry, Lugar, Sanford, Kassebaum, and McConnell. But a majority of the committee obviously favored the proposal or it would not have passed so easily on a voice vote.
Because the Senate and House passed differing versions of the Freedom Support Act, a joint conference met to work out the differences. Since both bills contained identical provisions relating to Azerbaijan, it was never debated in the conference committee and Section 907 was accepted as part of the final bill that went to President Bush for his signature. While the Bush administration did not favor the provision, it chose not to veto the whole bill.
All of this occurred at a time when Azerbaijan had no embassy or other representation in Washington.
Later on, several members of Congress spoke out against Section 907, including one of its original supporters, Senator Dennis DeConcini (Democrat of Arizona). In addition, Representative Timothy Penny (Democrat of Minnesota) has stated that "Section 907 runs counter to our strategic and humanitarian interests in the Caucusus."
The congressional legislation points to Azerbaijani "blockades" of Armenia as a reason to prohibit aid to Baku. But this makes no sense, for three reasons. Azerbaijan cannot possibly blockade Armenia, for it geographically does not surround Armenia. Secondly, who has ever heard of a state in war providing its enemy with supplies? Why should Azerbaijan be expected to help the Armenian war effort? Thirdly, the U.S. government itself relies with ever greater frequency on economic sanctions (against Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Haiti, and many other states); why penalize Azerbaijan for resorting to the same instrument?
Section 907 has other problematic implications. To begin with, it puts the U.S. government firmly on one side of a knotty and evolving conflict. This is especially a mistake because, as a member of the Council on Strategic Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) Minsk group trying to settle the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, the U.S. government has a direct diplomatic role in that conflict (indeed, this is the only conflict in the former Soviet Union in which the United States has such a role).
Section 907 severely reduces American influence in Azerbaijan; why should the U.S. government tie its own hands by legally restricting its policy options? In February 1994, Richard Armitage, who coordinated U.S. assistance to the former Soviet Union under the Bush administration, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that "we have dealt ourselves out of the game of influence with the government in Baku, with the Azerbaijanis, because of our inability . . . to have any influence, because of the legislation."
It also encourages the Armenian authorities to step up their war of conquest in Azerbaijan; confident of a benign American attitude, they have every reason to continue to march through Azerbaijan. They already control over 20 percent of the country and have displaced more than a million refugees, with no sign of letting up. Former U.S. envoy to the CSCE Minsk group John Maresca has repeatedly argued for a repeal of Section 907, noting that "with almost a million internal refugees and one-fifth of its territory occupied, a unilateral prohibition of even humanitarian aid to Azerbaijan is deeply unfair."
Finally, Section 907 hampers the prospect of the republic's becoming pro Western, democratic, and market oriented. This last consequence is a particular shame because, like their fellow Transcaucasians (Georgians and Armenians), Azerbaijanis have traditionally shown great aptitude in the market. Their business activities and talents became famous across the former USSR. Today, an abundance of natural resources, an appealing climate, and a central location give the country great potential for a quick transformation.
Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act should be repealed. Its removal will make a positive impact on American-Azerbaijani relations and the peace process in the region. The recent signing of a $7 billion oil contract between Azerbaijan and a consortium of Western companies, including American ones, promises benefits for both the United States and Azerbaijan. Continuing the sanctions against Azerbaijan has a negative impact on the peace process and is contrary to the interests of the United States.
Mahir Ibrahimov, first secretary of the Azerbaijani embassy in Washington, specializes in American foreign policy. Erjan Kurbanov is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Maryland.