by Patrick Gorman*
Central Asia Monitor, No. 1, 1993

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Before the collapse of the USSR in December 1991, the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was waged primarily by lightly-armed irregular forces from Azerbaijan and Armenia. The withdrawal of Russian and CIS forces resulted in the transfer of vast stores of modern military equipment to the Azerbaijanis during the summer of 1992 and helped to escalate the level of violence in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to new heights. Moreover, the abandonment of vital air defense facilities within Azerbaijan and the removal of CIS border guards from the Azeri-Iranian border has greatly complicated the defense responsibilities of Azerbaijan. Paradoxically, the removal of CIS forces and the transfer of military hardware to Armenia and Azerbaijan, while initially intensifying the level of conflict, has had the effect of tempering passions and pushing both sides towards a negotiated settlement.
Despite the fact that the Azerbaijanis suffered grievously at the hands of Soviet troops during the January 1990 communal conflict in Baku, the Communist-dominated government of Azerbaijan continued to support the presence of Soviet troops in their country; moreover, the fulfillment of republic draft quotas, though not completely satisfied, remained a relatively high 84 percent during the spring 1991 call-up. (By contrast, Armenia and Georgia, Azerbaijan's Transcaucasus neighbors, registered 16.5 and 8.1 percent, respectively).[1] While Armenia and Georgia had created formal defense establishments prior to the August 1991 coup attempt, the Azerbaijani leadership waited until September 1991, when it was under considerable popular pressure in the face of upcoming elections, before establishing a Ministry of Defense. Prior to the creation of an independent defense establishment, the bulk of the fighting for Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh was conducted by OMON (Special Purpose Militia) units from the Azerbaijani Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and irregular forces aligned with the Azerbaijani Popular Front (APF), the prominent government opposition group. The imminent collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union introduced a new dynamic into the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as increasingly emboldened Azerbaijani government officials declared their intention to seize the sizable stores of military hardware located on Azerbaijani soil. As a consequence, the intervening year has witnessed the conflict change from one waged between small groups of lightly armed combatants to one conducted with tanks, multiple-rocket launchers, and modern attack aircraft.


Under the military structure of the former Soviet Union, Azerbaijan was host to over 60,000 Soviet military personnel deployed throughout the country in units of the Ground Forces, Air Forces, Air Defense Forces, and Navy. The primary combat formation of Ground Forces in Azerbaijan was the Soviet Fourth Army, which housed its headquarters and various support units in Baku. In addition to the independent surface-to-air (SAM) missile, artillery, and SCUD brigades, the principal combat elements of the Fourth Army were the 23rd (Gianja), 295th (Lenkoran'), 60th (Baku), 75th (Nakhichivan) Motorized Rifle Divisions (MRD), and the Gianja Helicopter Assault Regiment (Mi-24 Hinds and Mi-8 Hips).[2] The only ground forces training establishment in Azerbaijan was the Combined Arms Command School at Baku. Under the reporting provisions of the Conventional Forces Europe (CFE) treaty, it was declared that 391 tanks, 1,265 armored combat vehicles, 463 artillery pieces (100 millimeter or more), and 24 helicopters were located in Azerbaijan in February 1991.[3] If these divisions were category I divisions (i.e., 100 percent manned at wartime strength), then the total number of ground forces personnel in Azerbaijan would include over 10,000 officers and warrant officers and nearly 40,000 enlisted. Likewise, fully manned divisions would include over 1,100 tanks and 1,500 armored combat vehicles. It is clear from these figures that most of these divisions were either category II (70-80 percent manned) or category III (20-50 percent manned) divisions. In fact, the 75th MRD, dispersed along the Soviet-Iranian border in Nakhichivan, was maintained at a category IV level (5-10 percent manned).[4] Only the 23rd MRD, deployed along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border since March 1990, seems to have been at a category II level or higher. In late 1991, total Soviet ground forces personnel in Azerbaijan numbered between forty to forty-five thousand men.
Soviet naval forces located within Azerbaijan included the headquarters of the Caspian Sea Flotilla, the Caspian Higher Naval School, and the 23rd Military Ship Repair Yard. While naval bases of the Caspian Sea Flotilla were located in Russia (Astrakhan), Kazakhstan (Guryev) and Turkmenistan (Krasnovodsk), the bases at Baku were considered the best developed and most important. In 1991 the Caspian Sea Flotilla consisted of 4 Riga-class frigates, 30 patrol and coastal combatants, 22 minesweepers, 19 Polnocny-class amphibious landing ships, and 10 support craft. Total personnel in the Caspian Sea Fleet approached 4,000 officers and enlisted, with the majority of these forces stationed at Baku.[5]
In addition to the regular forces of the Transcaucasus Military District, Azerbaijan was the home of the 6,500-strong 104th Airborne Division at Gianja (formerly Kirovabad), two battalions of the KGB Border Guards, and the so-called "Don" Division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), which maintained 3,600 troops along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and 5,500 men within Nagorno-Karabakh during 1991.[6]
As part of the 34th Air Army of the Transcaucasus Military District, Azerbaijan hosted three Soviet Air Force regiments: a ground attack regiment (30 Su-25/Frogfoot) at Sital-Chay; a reconnaissance regiment (30 Su-24/Fencer and Mig-25/Foxbat) at Dallyar; and a bomber (30 Su-24/Fencer) at either Kiudamir or Kazi Magomed Air Bases.[7] Including ground combat support personnel, it is likely that the total number of Soviet Air Force personnel in Azerbaijan was around 2,000 men.
Within the unified air defense system of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan, along with most of the Transcaucasus and North Caucasus regions, was protected by the Tbilisi Air Defense Army. The radar troops, surface-to-air missile (SAM) brigades, and aviation regiments in the Azerbaijani zone provided valuable air defense early-warning and protection capability along the volatile Soviet-Iranian border and the southern Caspian Sea region. To this end, Azerbaijan was equipped with a series of early warning radars and SAMs, and one aviation regiment of Mig-29 fighter aircraft at Nasosnyj Air Base northwest of Baku.[8] Perhaps more importantly, however, is the fact that Azerbaijan hosted the Gabelinskiy missile-attack, early-warning, over-the-horizon (OTH) radar station at Liaki. The OTH radar site at Liaki was one of eight multi-billion dollar radar stations designed to identify and track ballistic missiles along the peripheries of the former USSR. The Liaki radar station, which entered service in the late 1980s, provided critical OTH radar coverage over most of the Middle East, giving the Soviets vital early-warning coverage in a region of increasing ballistic missile capability.[9]


Unlike its neighboring republics in the Transcaucasus, Azerbaijan was slow to create an independent Ministry of Defense before the August 1991 coup in Moscow. In fact, Azerbaijani leaders encouraged draft-aged men within the republic to respond to the draft call-ups, serve in the Soviet Army, and receive valuable military training. This encouragement, coupled with a relaxation in 1990 of the Soviet policy of stationing servicemen outside of their native republics, guaranteed a relatively high fulfillment of the Azerbaijani draft quota requirement in the 1991 spring and fall call-ups. The immediate impact of these two events was a dramatic increase in the percentage of Azerbaijani nationals serving in the Fourth Army from the years 1990 to 1992.[10]
In the absence of a republic-controlled defense establishment, the war in Nagorno-Karabakh was conducted by Azerbaijani irregulars and units from the Azerbaijani MVD OMON forces. As was the case in OMON units in other republics of the Soviet Union, the OMON detachments in Azerbaijan were often manned by former soldiers of the Soviet Army and veterans of the war in Afghanistan.[11] However, as the Soviet Fourth Army became increasingly "nativized" by Azerbaijanis throughout 1991, units subordinate to the Fourth Army began taking a more partisan approach towards the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Operation "Ring," an offensive initiated during the summer of 1991 with the intention of disarming and deporting Armenian fighters within Nagorno-Karabakh, was conducted by elements of the predominantly-Azerbaijanized 23rd MRD, Azerbaijani MVD OMON forces, and Soviet MVD troops. The operation continued until August 1991, when the failed coup in Moscow brought about new leadership in the Soviet military and Internal Affairs Ministry.[12]
In the wake of the failed coup, President Mutalibov, acting under pressure in the approaching election to establish his bona fides as a Communist-turned-nationalist, established the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense on 10 September 1991. General-Lieutenant Barshatli Valeg Eiub-olgi, a sixty four-year old former airborne troop artillery officer and tank commander, was named Minister of Defense. The Azerbaijani government immediately declared its intention to inventory all former-Soviet units and equipment on its territory and increased the pressure on Moscow to release more military equipment from the Fourth Army to the Azeri side. The Azerbaijani MOD announced its plans to create a 20,000-strong national army consisting of ground, air, and naval forces. The foundation of the ground forces was to be several mechanized brigades, each consisting of 2,000 to 3,000 men and organized according to a standard brigade-battalion-company structure. The air forces were to consist of three regiments: one fighter aircraft regiment, a helicopter assault regiment, and an air transport regiment.[13]
President Mutalibov was forced from office on March 6 following serious Azeri defeats in Nagorno-Karabakh and reports that scores of Azerbaijani civilians were massacred by Armenian forces in the village of Khojaly in late February 1992. Azerbaijan's military position in Nagorno-Karabakh continued to be seriously undermined during the internecine political struggles between Mutalibov, his supporters, and members of the APF throughout March and April. Mutalibov's short-lived return to power on May 14th to 15th followed the Armenian capture of several Azeri strongholds in Nagorno-Karabakh and the opening of the Lachin-Shusha corridor from Armenia to Azerbaijan. Armenian forces then turned south and launched an offensive into the isolated Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhichivan, where Gejdar Aliev, the former Communist Party boss of Azerbaijan and current speaker of Nakhichivan's parliament, had enjoyed months of de facto autonomy from republican authorities in Baku. The Azeri position began to stabilize, however, following the appointment of Rakhim Gaziyev as Defense Minister, the CIS meeting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan -- at which the assets of the former Red Army were divided among the former-Soviet republics -- and the election of APF leader Abdulfaz Elchibej on June 7. Following the June elections, Azeri forces mounted an effective campaign against Armenian forces, recapturing dozens of Armenian-held villages within Nagorno-Karabakh. The seesaw attacks continued throughout the summer with Azeri armored forces and attack aircraft making advances in Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Azeri-Armenian border only to be countered by effective Armenian artillery and Russian-supplied SA-16 surface-to-air missiles.


The MVD regiment in Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh was withdrawn during November and December 1991 in conjunction with the reorganization of the MVD and KGB. The complete dissolution of the Soviet Union in December witnessed an increased willingness on the part of Azerbaijanis to attack CIS military units located within Azerbaijan in order to confiscate weapons and military equipment for use in Nagorno-Karabakh. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that in most units, the bulk of the officer corps was Slavic (primarily Russian) while the majority of the enlisted personnel were Azerbaijani nationals. Caught between Azerbaijani government decrees nationalizing all military equipment, on one hand, and rebellious Azerbaijani soldiers agitating for military action against the Armenians, on the other, the Russian officers organized themselves and appealed directly to Moscow for assistance. During an all-Army conference set in Moscow in January, Colonel-General Patrikeyev, the commander of the Transcaucasus Military District, argued that the beleaguered military district should be placed directly under the control of the Russian Federation.[14] The difficult situation was publicly highlighted by the disastrous retreat of the 366th Motorized Rifle Regiment. Azerbaijani officials accused this regiment of participating in the Khojali massacre, and demanded the immediate withdrawal of the unit from Nagorno-Karabakh. Due to poor coordination and under siege from local Armenian residents who did not wish to see the 366th and its military hardware leave, the remaining men and equipment of the demoralized regiment had to be brought out by Russian Spetsnaz and airborne troops in early March 1992.[15] The retreat of the 366th coincided with attacks by Azeri nationals on other sub-units of the Fourth Army and the disarming of several PVO radar sites along the Azeri-Iranian border. In light of these incidents and under pressure from his military advisors, President Yeltsin transferred both the Transcaucasus Military District and the Caspian Sea Flotilla to Russian jurisdiction on March 25, and in April sent Andrej Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, to the Transcaucasus to iron out the problems associated with this transfer.[16]
The issue concerning the division of military assets belonging to the former Soviet Union was the primary topic of the May 15 meeting of CIS leaders in Tashkent. In accordance with the Tashkent agreement, the weapons and equipment in Azerbaijan from the 23rd and 295th MRD, which included 150 tanks, 290 infantry fighting vehicles, 150 mortars, and 90 anti-aircraft guns, were turned over to Azerbaijani authorities in early June 1992. Disregarding the proposed timetable proposed by the Tashkent agreement which called for the orderly transfer and removal of remaining CIS/Russian equipment and personnel, Azerbaijani forces moved quickly and seized military airfields and aircraft at Dallyar Air Base, where Azeri troops captured 5 Mig-25, 11 Su-24 reconnaissance aircraft and 3 IL-76 transport aircraft, and at Sital-Chaj Air Base, where they confiscated the entire Su-25 Frogfoot regiment.[17] Much to the dismay of Air Defense commanders, Azeri forces had been seizing assets of the Air Defense Forces in Nakhichivan and along the Azeri-Iranian border since the beginning of the year, depriving the unified command of CIS Air Defense Forces of an important early-warning capability in the airspace from the Caspian Sea to Turkey. In late May the OTH ballistic missile early-warning radar site at Liaki was visited by members of the Azerbaijani Supreme Soviet who threatened to close the station due to environmental and public safety concerns. General Grachev, the Russian Minister of Defense, claimed that the 104th Airborne Division would be moved to Saratov, Russia, beginning in June, with the entire transfer of men and equipment to be complete by the end of 1993.[18] In early August 1992, Russian forces agreed to turn over military installations and hardware from the 75th and 60th MRD, signaling an end to an official Russian military presence in Azerbaijan. In accordance with the agreement between Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea Flotilla was divided into four equal parts. Azerbaijan officially celebrated the creation of the Azerbaijan Navy on July 26 and appointed Captain First Rank R. Askerovii as its first commander.[19]


As was often the case with the majority of conscripts from the Turkic-speaking southern republics of the Soviet Union, most Azerbaijani draftees were assigned to low-ranking, non-technical positions within the Soviet Army. In 1991, for example, there were only 3,420 officers and 6,672 non-commissioned officers of Azerbaijani origin serving in the entire Soviet Army of four million-plus men.[20] Currently, only nine active-duty Azerbaijanis have served in the Soviet Army in the posts of deputy regimental commanders (Lieutenant Colonel) or higher. Before the transfer of military units and equipment this past July and August, some 90 percent of the enlisted force in subunits (battalion or lower) were composed of native Azeris while 40 percent of the total military forces in Azerbaijan were non-Azeris; most of the officer and technician positions were filled by Slavic soldiers and airmen. In fact, even within the new Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense, some 10 percent of the staff are non-Azeris, mainly Russians and Ukrainians.[21] As a consequence, the greatest challenge facing the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry is the creation of a strong officer and warrant officer corps from among the ranks of the native population.
In the interim, the lack of a native Azerbaijani officer corps has led to a great reliance on non-native officers, primarily Russians and Ukrainians who decided to remain in Azerbaijan in response to generous salary and benefit packages offered by the Azerbaijani government, and partly due to bleak employment prospects within the Russian and Ukrainian militaries. Azerbaijan has been forced to hire Slavic mercenaries to fly combat missions over Nagorno-Karabakh in support of Azeri ground forces, with payments given for each successful sortie. In order to increase the size and quality of the officer corps, Azerbaijan has signed several military training agreements with the Turkish government. Since June, for example, Azerbaijan has sent several dozen officers to be trained in Turkey while several retired Turkish generals have arrived in Azerbaijan to assist in combat training. Azerbaijan has also made arrangements to have Azerbaijani officers sent to Russia for military-technical training.
While the transfer of CIS military equipment gave an initial boost to the Azerbaijan military, the defense responsibilities left in the wake of retreating CIS forces threaten to overwhelm the capabilities of the fledgling defense ministry. The dismemberment of the complex air defense structure along the Azeri-Iranian border, coupled with the lack of technical personnel trained to operate the radar system, has exposed Azerbaijan's southern border and allowed Iranian jets to violate the Azerbaijani border with impunity during August and September 1992. With the removal of CIS border guards in September, Azerbaijan will be forced to allocate scarce personnel and material resources to patrolling the porous border with Iran. In the north along the border with the Russian Federation, Azerbaijan is confronted with Lezghian separatists who are agitating to secede from Azerbaijan and reunite with their ethnic kin in southern Russian Daghestan. The situation along the Azeri-Daghestani border has been exacerbated by the resettlement of Nagorno-Karabakh refugees into Lezghian-populated northern Azerbaijan and the forced induction of Lezghians into the Azerbaijani military for combat in Nagorno-Karabakh.[22] Divisions exist even within the ethnic community of the Azeri Turks, with the country being split along regional lines between Azeri Turks in the isolated enclave of Nakhichivan and Azeri Turks in Azerbaijan proper.[23] The 75th MRD was transferred to representatives of the Nakhichivan government rather than authorities from the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense. In short, Azerbaijan has neither the manpower nor the material resources to simultaneously guard the southern borders, quell potential ethnic conflict in the north, rein in rebellious Turks in Nakhichivan, and continue military operations against Armenia in the west. The security planners will have to adjust their priorities or put Azerbaijan at risk of being pulled apart by the same centrifugal forces of ethnic and regional separatism that destroyed the Soviet Union.
While the military stores left by the retreating CIS forces have provided Azerbaijan with sufficient military equipment for the immediate future, the lack of an armaments industry will force Azerbaijan to seek munitions and replacement parts for damaged military equipment from other CIS countries, most notably Ukraine and Russia, where the majority of the former Soviet defense industry was located.[24] To finance both armament purchases and military operations, Azerbaijan has allocated approximately 2.8 billion rubles or 12 percent of the gross domestic product for the defense budget, the third largest sector of the state budget behind education and pensions.[25] Though the economic position of Azerbaijan vis-a-vis Armenia is relatively strong, a burgeoning defense budget is consuming funds desperately needed to upgrade the Azeri oil industry and address the disastrous environmental problems associated with Azerbaijan's extractive industries.


Ironically, though initially escalating the level of violence, the transfer of CIS armaments to Azerbaijan and Armenia and the removal of CIS troops from Azerbaijan have a greater potential of peacefully resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict then any attempt at outside mediation. Firstly, the removal of CIS forces "clarifies" the battlelines and undermines the practice adopted by both Armenia and Azerbaijan of blaming Russia and CIS forces for their respective military setbacks. This new situation also allows Russia and CIS member-states to legitimately become impartial observers and mediators, a status which was impossible to achieve as long as their troops remained actively engaged in the middle of the conflict. The transfer of equipment has also shattered hopes harbored by many Azerbaijanis that the military situation would shift to Azerbaijan's advantage once they nationalized the equipment of the former Soviet army; this advantage failed to transpire mainly because the transfer of military equipment to both Azerbaijan and Armenia was roughly equal or, in cases where a disequilibrium occurred, one side was given weapons (e.g. Armenian SAMs) to counter the advantage of the other side (e.g. Azerbaijan's warplanes). Moreover, the mountainous terrain in the areas of conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh and along the Azeri-Armenian border precluded the effective use of large scale military assaults by armored forces, while the lack of skilled pilots and operational aircraft has largely mitigated the impact of airpower. Consequently, although the Azerbaijanis achieved several important military victories following the transfer of two divisions in June, neither the Azerbaijanis nor the Armenians gained a strategic advantage. The result has been a protracted stalemate along the frontlines throughout the summer.
The transfer of CIS weapons to Azerbaijan and the popular election of the APF allowed Azerbaijan to recapture areas lost to Armenia during the spring. Though these events failed to translate into the desired strategic victory, they have strengthened Azerbaijan's negotiating position and increased the popular support for the Azerbaijani government. It would have been impossible for the Azeri side to negotiate a comprehensive settlement in the wake of the disastrous defeats during the spring. A stronger position on the battlefield has allowed Azerbaijan to feel confident enough to pursue a negotiated settlement with Armenia.
The removal of CIS forces and the assumption of a weighty defense burden once shouldered by CIS forces has apparently dampened the enthusiasm of APF leaders to seek a military solution in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is highly unlikely that the undermanned and undertrained Azeri army can continue military operations in Nagorno-Karabakh, protect the Azeri-Iranian border, patrol the Caspian Sea, maintain order along the Azeri-Daghestani border, and reign in the independence-minded leaders in Nakhichivan who have been isolated from Azerbaijan proper by the war with Armenia. Given these new-found security responsibilities, it is probable that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh could assume a lower priority than maintaining the existing integrity of Azerbaijan.


*Non-Commissioned Officer in the U.S. Air Force.[1]

The Military Balance, 1991-1992 (Oxford: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1991), p. 34.
[2]Nezavisimaia gazeta, 12 August 1992, pp. 1-2.
[3]Lee Feinstein, "Commonwealth Members Offer Early Support for CFE Treaty," Arms Control Today, January/February 1992, p. 44.
[4]Nezavisimaia gazeta, July 8, 1992, pp. 1, 3.
[5]The Military Balance, 1991-1992, p. 44.
[6]"MVD at 'Trouble Spots'," Jane's Defense Weekly, 18 November 1989, p. 1113.
[7]Soviet Military Power 1990 (Washington: US GPO, 1990), map supplement.
[8]The Military Balance, 1991-1992, p. 38. Military Technology, January 1992, p. 151. Soviet Military Power, op. cit.
[9]Krasnaia zvezda, May 28, 1991, p. 1.
[10]In February 1992, for example, almost 17 percent of all officers and 90 percent of all enlisted personnel serving in Azerbaijan were Azeri nationals. Moscow Interfax in English, 26 February 1992, transcribed in Foreign Broadcast Information Service (hence FBIS), Soviet Union Daily Report, 92-039, 27 February 1992; Krasnaia zvezda, 4 June 1992, p. 2.
[11]Komsomolskaia Pravda, 18 September 1991, p. 2-3.
[12]Conversely, the 366th Motorized Rifle Regiment, a subunit of the 23rd MRD stationed in Stepanakert NKAO, was predominantly (over 50 percent) staffed by local Armenians and often found itself supporting Armenian forces in attacks against Azeri-populated strongholds.
[13]Krasnaia zvezda, 4 June 1992, p. 2.
[14]Moscow TASS International Service, 16 January 1992, transcribed in FBIS, Soviet Union Daily Report, 92-012, 17 January 1992, p. 20.
[15]Krasnaia zvezda, 11 April 1992, pp. 3, 5.
[16]In late February, President Yeltsin sent General Gromov and Admiral Chernavin to negotiate the transfer of some military units to Azerbaijan. In accordance with the agreement reached between the two parties, Azerbaijan received a helicopter squadron, the Baku Combined Arms Command School, and a large part of the rear service (supply) units of the Fourth Army; see Izvestiia, 24 February 1992, p. 1.
[17]Nezavisimaia gazeta, 12 August 1992, pp. 1-2.
[18]Nezavisimaia gazeta, 9 June 1992, p. 2.
[19]Bakinskii rabochii, 7 August 1992, p. 3.
[20]Dmitry Trenin and Vadim Makarenko, "What Can the Army Do When There is Fighting All Around?" New Times, June 1992, pp. 8-9.
[21]Krasnaia zvezda, 4 June 1992, p. 2.
[22]Nezavisimaia gazeta, 15 September 1992, p. 3.
[23]In fact, the Autonomous Republic of Nakhichivan, not the central authorities in Baku, were the recipients of military equipment and stores left by the 75th MRD. Security affairs are the responsibility of the Nakhichivan parliament and not subordinate to the Azeri Ministry of Defense. Tehran IRNA, 9 January 1992, as transcribed in FBIS, Soviet Union Daily Report, 92-007, 10 January 1992, p. 53.
[24]Under the former-Soviet military-industrial structure, Azerbaijan mainly produced textiles and radio-electronic equipment for the Soviet military.
[25]Economic Review: Azerbaijan (Washington, D.C.: International Monetary Fund, 1992), p. 87.

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