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 October 10, 2003 

Commentary: The Autumn of an Apsheron patriarch

The face on the carpet has walked for 34 years as Azerbaijan's leader.

Ilham, son of President Heydar Aliev, is once and for all ready to take over the reigns of government in Azerbaijan. It will happen Wednesday (October 15). Judging from the situation in Armenia's neighbor to the east elections will be held the way Heydar Baba, himself, has willed. (The elder Aliev, 80, dropped out of the presidential race last week, yielding the candidacy to his son. Heydar is currently in the United States being treated for life-threatening medical ailments.)

The Aliev dynasty drive is being quietly tolerated by most of the international community. Almost all sides interested in the Caucasus region have already directly or indirectly thrown their support to Ilham.

The West, first of all the USA, is ready to accept an Aliev dynasty, equating democracy with consistency in maintaining good relations in Oil Country. Ilham, 42, received warm welcomes on two recent visits to the States.

Russia is likewise on the Aliev bandwagon. Ilham met with Putin tete-a-tete during the recent CIS Summit in Yalta, meanwhile, Russian delegations make frequent official visits to Baku. First wife Liudmilla Putina and Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Vladimir Rushailo were recent guests.

Undoubtedly Russia is concerned about Azerbaijan's post-election priorities as evidenced by Rushailo's comment: "Russia is interested in continuity of policy in Azerbaijan and in continuation of the constructive dialogue between heads of both countries."

Ilham unceasingly assures both the West and Russia of his devotion to his father's cause. In fact he promises what they expect him to promise - guarantees. And texts of his assurances are the same both for the West and Russia:

"Foreign policy of Azerbaijan remains invariable. Relations with Russia are relations of strategic partnership, which are of primary importance for Baku," said Ilham during the meeting with Rushailo. He repeated the phrase in the US, changing only for appropriate geographic location.

Ilham's promises are sincere, as they are his only commodity. Baku has many priorities. And it has its closest priority, Turkey, enjoying warm relations with its Muslim brothers. The presumed future president, in fact, maintains Turkish citizenship.

Even across closed borders, Ilham's candidacy is supported. Armenian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vardan Oskanyan said this week: "Ilham Aliev is the most preferred candidate for Armenia as he is well informed about his father's activities and knows about the latest proposals of the OSCE Minsk Group on the settlement of the Karabakh conflict."

In the shrinking world of geo-politics, the international community appears ready to accept a dynasty of (to paraphrase Lenin) "one, separate" Caucasian country. Voters, meanwhile appear ready to follow the "spirit" and the "letter" of Father Aleiev's Cleveland epistle - a will, of sorts, bequeathing power to Ilham.

What does Baba (grandfather) will to his people? Firstly, of course, he wills a memory of himself. "These days", his bedside message said, "is the 34th anniversary of my governing of Azerbaijan as a whole and 10 years as a president of the independent Azerbaijan republic. As an Azerbaijani, citizen of the Republic of Azerbaijan, its leader and the president the idea of my entire life was only to serve you, people of Azerbaijan, whom I love more than my life."

The ability for such soulful persuasion and his imperturbable paternalistic image affords the senior Aliev indulgences. His is a leadership marked by corruption and repression and, of course, the unresolved Karabakh conflict. But if his subjects don't necessarily forget, they are compelled to forgive by his impassioned confession.

"I love you more than my life…" The image and inflection snapped into action without a hitch.

In the second paragraph of his message Aliev wills the country to his citizens, a country, he says "using the most progressive experience and world values, guided by the principles of a democratic republic, domination of human rights and rights of citizens and political pluralism, realizes activities side by side with the most progressive and powerful countries of Europe and the world…"

That part of the message with democratic embellishment is, of course, meant for foreign ears. The message for natives raised the country's profile through other self-serving rhetoric.

"Our country took a deserved position in the international community. Today, the main strategic and global issues of the world and regions are not solved without taking our opinion and our interests into account. They know us, they accept us and reckon with us…"

The weakest part in Aliev's will is Karabakh. But even there Baba (as he is widely known) managed to marvelously portray himself as a stabilizer.

"…Taking advantage of the political crisis that burst out in our republic in 1990-1993, crisis of power, uncontrollability and chaos, the Armenian army occupied Azerbaijan lands and turned more than a million of our compatriots into refugees and re-settlers… We prevented all of that."

The moral of that message on the dawn of an election is this: If there were no chaos and crisis we would preserve "our" territories. Remember that and don't stand in the way of Ilham…

In the end, the president again reminds that he "devoted all my life to the people of Azerbaijan, to their present and future. . . . a few problems with my recent state of health don't allow me to finish all this work…"

The obvious segue is an unveiled nomination speech for the son.

"Ilham is a highly intellectual, energetic, stirring individual with a pragmatic way of thinking, who perfectly comes to know the particulars of the policy and economics". And finally, "I believe him like I believe myself."

Ilham is probably the biggest of Heydar Aliev's weakness. Analysts for years have said the elder statesman would have abdicated power long ago, if not for the desire to provide a succession for the son. Succession of power guarantees prosperity and the safety that comes with status. Common opinion is that the son has done little to earn such status on his own. But it is the will of the father that he profit from it.

Is it possible that people would disobey their leader? Probably not. Not even during growing rumors that their Baba is in fact already dead. There is no precedent for disloyalty to the man who has been in charge for 34 years.

But neither has there been a precedent for a "democratic dynasty". Still, one appears on the horizon east of Armenia.


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