BAKU–January 2 (Itar-Tass) – Oil exports–the Karabakh settlement and presidential poll will be the three major factors to shape the life of ex-Soviet Azerbaijan in 1998.
All the three are intertwined — it is no secret that Caspian oil gains will be a key argument at Armenian-Azerbaijani talks on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute–whereas Azerbaijani voters will elect the new president largely basing on the proposed oil policy and Karabakh settlement plan.
Azerbaijan will evidently try to secure positions in a club of oil exporters it joined in 1997. According to expectations–early oil from its Caspian shelf oil-field Chirag will reach Russian port Novorossiisk via the so-called "Russian" or "northern" route already in February to be then transported to the outer world. Another oil pipeline–connecting Baku and the Georgian port Supsa–is due to begin operating in the fall. By early 2000s–its annual capacity will be seven to eight million tons of oil–according to estimates.
But most importantly–Azerbaijan will decide on the final routing of its main pipeline to connect Azerbaijani–Kazakh and Turkmen oil-fields with foreign consumers. It is planned to pump up to 100 million tons of Caspian oil to world markets annually starting from the beginning of the next century.
Several countries want to have the pipeline laid on their territory–but Russia–Georgia and Turkey are the chief bidders at the moment. Turkey seems to have the biggest scores as its project is backed by Azerbaijan and lobbied by Washington. However–some other decision is not ruled out as Baku may well neglect political pressures to proceed from commercial gains of an international consortium developing three Caspian shelf oil fields. These gains will clearly depend on conditions offered by rival countries.
The year 1998 may become a turning point in settling the 10- year-old Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. At least–this is the final end of Baku tries to intensify peace talks with the help of Russian–U.S. and French co-chairmen of the Minsk group of the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe).
In 1997–Azerbaijan and Armenia accepted a two-step settlement plan following the principles worked out by the Minsk forum–which is a precondition of peace. However–Armenian leaders of Nagorgo-Karabakh ignored both the principles and the peace plan–insisting — in a bid for independence — that the autonomy be regarded a "conflicting side" rather than a "party in concern." Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Gasan Gasanov told Itar- Tass the Minsk group’s nearest goal is to eliminate these obstacles and bringing positions of the sides closer.
Finally–Azerbaijan is facing the presidential poll which will certainly become a key event of the year. At the moment–the election is set to take place in October when the incumbent Geidar Aliyev completes his term. In contrast to his predecessors–Ayaz Mutalibov and Abulfaz Elchibei–each of whom ruled for about a year–Aliyev has been in power for four years in a row and is in a strong position for re-election–according to public opinion polls of December 1997. Aliyev had announced his intention to seek the next term–stating that he was not going to give power to "casual newcomers."
Aliyev’s most likely contenders are ex-president Elchibei–who heads Azerbaijan’s Popular Front–ex-speakers Isa Gambar–currently heading the opposition party Musavat–and Rasul Guliyev–now living abroad–and ex-Secretary of State Palu Gadzhiyev.