Azerbaijan: The Harder They Come

Azerbaijan's President Haidar Aliyev
Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev (Photo: Behrouz Mehri/AFP).

Fear and unease are growing in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, following the recent collapse of the nation’s long-standing leader, Heydar Aliyev, at a ceremony in the capital.

Aides insist the president is recovering well, but there are concerns, both in Azerbaijan and abroad, that Aliyev, who celebrates his 80th birthday on May 10 and has a history of heart problems, is no longer fit to govern.

With no obvious successor, many fear a return to the civil unrest and violence—perhaps even a renewed war with neighboring Armenia—that overtook the country at the fall of the Soviet Union.

Aliyev, a former KGB general who has led this oil-rich nation in the Caucasus mountains for almost 30 years, was giving a speech broadcast live on television when he fell ill.

Soon after he began the talk—in a ceremony to mark the 30th anniversary of the Nakhchivan Military Academy—he clutched his chest, said “Something has struck me!” and fell into the arms of one of his bodyguards.

Television cameras, which had been relaying the event live to hundreds of thousands of homes across the country, swung quickly away from the limp figure on the podium, focusing instead on a visibly stunned audience.

Twenty minutes later, the president reappeared, looking shaken, but shrugging off his fall.

“It seems someone tried to put the evil eye on me!” he joked with spectators before resuming his speech. But moments later he collapsed again. The live television feed was cut and the president was rushed off the stage.

Fearing a repeat of the civil disorder that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union, the government despatched dozens of police officers to the square outside the Parliament building, a popular area for demonstrations. Baku's independent Turan news agency reported that the country’s security forces were put on a state of high alert after the president’s fall.

But a statement from the presidential administration three hours later said that he was recovering after a sudden drop in blood pressure, which had caused his brief collapse.

The following day Aliyev returned to work, meeting the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, Ross Wilson, and telling journalists he was “alive and well.” Doctors flown in from Turkey diagnosed a cracked rib and bruising from the fall and recommended a period of rest.

But Aliyev’s deteriorating health has prompted widespread speculation that he will have to step aside as president. Aliyev has a history of health problems. In 1987, he suffered a heart attack, and in the past few years he has had bypass surgery in the United States, as well as prostate and hernia operations.

Opposition newspapers have been quick to exaggerate the latest episode. Baku's pro-opposition Cumhurriyat reported that the president had been paralysed after suffering a second heart attack, and Hurriyat, another opposition newspaper, said he had slipped into a coma.

Since his fall, Aliyev has canceled a number of engagements, sparking fears he may be more frail than his aides are letting on. But on Wednesday Ali Hassanov, the head of the social-political department of the presidential administration, said the president still intended to run for a third term in elections later this year.

“The president does not plan to withdraw his candidacy. He plans to run,” Hassanov said, adding that Aliyev was keeping up with his work at home.

Western governments are also keeping a close on eye on the president’s health. Aliyev is credited with inviting foreign companies to invest huge sums in the country’s lucrative Caspian Sea oil fields, believed to be the third largest in the world. Construction has just begun on a multibillion dollar pipeline to transport crude oil from the Caspian to a Turkish Mediterranean port via the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

The West, which is backing the pipeline, sees the Caspian’s oil reserves as an alternative to supplies from the Middle East. The pipeline, known as Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, or BTC, will carry a million barrels of oil a day when it is completed in 2005.

But if Aliyev became too ill to run the country, many fear there would be a return to the instability of the early 1990s, when Azerbaijan was at war with neighboring Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994 following the conflict in which 30,000 people lost their lives and more than a million were forced to flee their homes.

Armenia currently controls Nagorno-Karabakh—a mountainous, largely Armenian region that used to be part of Soviet Azerbaijan—and six of the surrounding territories. The international community is keen for the two neighbors to reach a permanent agreement on the territory, but so far peace talks have ended in failure.

Approximately half a million Azerbaijanis continue to live in temporary accommodation and tent camps as a result of the war. Some in the Azerbaijani government say the country should take Nagorno-Karabakh back by force. Aliyev himself frowns on the prospect. But more hard-line politicians, pandering to public opinion, advocate a renewed war with Armenia.

Aliyev has no obvious successor. Opposition groups have accused the president of grooming his son, Ilham, to take his place. Ilham Aliyev is already the vice president of the State Oil Company, the deputy chairman of the ruling New Azerbaijan party and the head of Azerbaijan’s Olympic Committee.

Observers criticized a referendum held last year on changes to the nation’s constitution as an attempt to make it easier to hand Ilham the presidency. The revised constitution, adopted despite widespread allegations of vote-rigging and election fraud during the referendum, states that if anything were to happen to the president, the prime minister would take over the running of the country until elections were called. Azerbaijan’s prime minister is directly appointed by the president.

Opposition groups say it is only a matter of time before Aliyev sacks his current prime minister, Artur Rasizade, a man with few political ambitions, and installs his son in his place.

Ironically, Rasizade left Azerbaijan the day after the president’s collapse for medical treatment in the United States. He is rumored to be having eye surgery, but many suspect his departure was for more sinister reasons. The Hurriyat newspaper quoted an unidentified source close to the president as saying Rasizade had tendered his resignation before he left.

Nevertheless, Ilham Aliyev, a reformed playboy and gambler, has little experience in politics. Observers say that without his father he stands little chance of surviving on his own for long.

“If Ilham is elected as president in October, there will be widespread instability in Azerbaijan, possibly even a civil war,” says Elmar Husseinov, a political analyst in Baku. “He isn’t a strong or popular enough leader to follow on from his father.”

Azerbaijan’s last presidential election, held in 1988, was widely criticised by international monitors as falling a long way short of democratic standards. Observers cited numerous cases of ballot-stuffing, intimidation, and manipulation during the election. Nevertheless, Aliyev remained in power and dissent within the country was quickly stifled.

“If the elections are falsified again, it’s fairly certain Ilham will emerge the winner,” political analyst Husseinov said. “But if fair elections are held, I am sure one of the opposition candidates will win.”

Azerbaijan’s opposition is traditionally weak and divided, a situation Aliyev has exploited in past election campaigns. But attempts have been made in recent months to form a more unified front, and opposition rallies in the capital have been attracting up to 10,000 supporters a time, all calling for the president to resign.

“Haidar Aliyev is like an old suit you keep on putting on, even though you don’t like it any more,” Husseinov said. “People are waiting for change, and I think the opposition stands a better chance in the next election.”

Opposition leaders likely to run against Aliyev include Isa Qambar, leader of the Musavat Party—Azerbaijan's largest opposition party—and Rasul Quliyev, a former parliamentary speaker who fell out with Aliyev in the mid 1990s and has been living in the United States ever since. Quliyev is rumored to be returning to Azerbaijan within the next few weeks to begin his election campaign.