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Azerbaijan Mourns Aliev

Public grief for a dead president gives way to speculation about what the future holds for his son.
By Rufat Abbasov

The funeral of Heidar Aliev in Baku earlier this week drew greater crowds than any other event in the history of independent Azerbaijan. His passing marks the end of the thirty-year era of the father and the true beginning of that of his son, Ilham.


The not-so-unexpected news of Aliev's death in a hospital in Cleveland Ohio came the night of December 12. The 80-year-old Azerbaijani patriarch had never fully recovered after he twice fainted while addressing a public meeting at the Republic Palace in central Baku on April 21. His health deteriorated, he never properly returned to work and did not appear on television again after July 2003.


Heidar's son, Ilham, who was elected president in October, declared a week of national mourning on December 13. All public entertainment was cancelled, and foreign television channels and radio stations were taken off the air.


For days Azerbaijani television has shown nothing but mourning ceremonies, which are broadcast live on all channels. With very little else being shown, the opposition Turan News Agency has reported a steep rise in sales of satellite dishes.


Aliev, who was president of Azerbaijan for a decade and had been Communist Party boss from 1969, inspired genuine love and respect amongst many Azerbaijanis. The morning after his death was announced, the plaza in front of the presidential office filled with crowds. People lit candles and laid flowers in front of their leader's portrait.


The former president's body was flown into Azerbaijan on December 14. Only the new president, his son Ilham with his wife and three children stood by the airplane when the coffin was brought out. The late president's brothers stood at a distance. Aliev's daughter Sevil flew in from London only three days later, on the day of the funeral.


The funeral ceremony on December 15 was unprecedented in scale. Foreign leaders included Russian president Vladimir Putin, Turkish president Ahmet Sezer and prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the presidents of Kazakstan and Ukraine, Nursultan Nazarbayev and Leonid Kuchma respectively.


Georgia was represented by "three presidents" - ex-president Eduard Shevardnadze, acting president Nino Burjanadze, and presidential hopeful Mikhail Saakashvili. Other dignitaries included Iran's vice-president, the mayor of Moscow and the leader of the Georgian republic of Ajaria, Aslan Abashidze.


Heidar Aliev was buried high above Baku in the Lane of Honour next to his late wife Zarifa. Three days later, the stream of mourners at the graveside had not abated and the cemetery staff are constantly having to remove flowers to make way for new wreaths.


Baku's administrative leader Hajibala Abutalybov said that around two million people - one quarter of the entire population of Azerbaijan - had attended the funeral ceremonies. However, a Russian reporter for Vesti news put the figure at a more modesty 200,000. In any event, the city had seen nothing like it since the aftermath of January 1990, when Soviet troops intervened in the city and more than 100 people died.


Much of this was obviously a genuine expression of grief for the late leader. But liberal opposition analyst Zardusht Alizade voiced a note of caution, saying, "When I was seven, I saw my father, mother and all our neighbours and friends cried when Stalin died - but his shadow lived on for only three years.


"Then in 1970, when I was working as a translator in Egypt, I saw the entire five million population of Cairo sincerely mourn President Nasser. A year later they were cursing him. I think a similar fate awaits Aliev."


Azerbaijanis are now asking how the passing of the father will affect his son's political career.


MP Sirus Tebrizli, deputy head of the governing New Azerbaijan party, told IWPR that Ilham Aliev would grow into the job of president because he had been "properly schooled" by his father.


"I don't think popular support for the opposition will grow after this tragedy," Tebrizli said. "The people have long since lost faith in them and in these days they have demonstrated their allegiance to the policies of Heidar Aliev."


Not so, said Gabil Husseinli, deputy head of the main opposition party Musavat, who predicts trouble within the governing elite. "Tensions will open up in the ruling party, and factions will spring up who will start fighting for power," he said.


Elmar Huseinov, editor-in-chief of the pro-opposition Monitor magazine, went further. "Ilham Aliev can stay in office for three years, if he does not change his father's strict style of rule. But if he does try to make serious changes, he will be out in 12 months."


Elhan Mehdi, who advises the chairman of the main opposition Musavat party on foreign affairs, believes that Aliev junior's inexperience will lead to major changes in the republic's foreign policy.


"Azerbaijan's foreign policy will take a pro-Russian slant, drifting away from Turkey, especially in the military field," he predicted.


Former foreign minister Tofik Zulfugarov said the new president had made a good start. "I think [Ilham Aliev] can do the job, because all the necessary governmental institutions have been put into place by his father.


"This loss is a great tragedy for Azerbaijani people, but I can tell Ilham has the desire to solve the problems his father left unresolved," he said.


The main unresolved issue is the 15-year-old dispute over Nagorny Karabakh. Many fear that the elder Aliev was uniquely capable of solving it and that his son cannot break the deadlock.


"Now that Heidar Aliev is dead, there is little hope the conflict will be resolved in our favour," said Eldar Mamedov, a schoolteacher. "I am not sure Ilham Aliev will resolve it. He lacks the tenacity and experience of his father," he said.


Zulfugarov pointed however that the Karabakh conflict is larger than the leaders of the countries involved. "It's between the two nations, and both have a vested interest in a peaceful settlement," he said. "The Azerbaijani people will be with Ilham Aliev as long as he shares their stance on Karabakh."


Heidar Aliev set Azerbaijan on a firmly pro-western course and all the signs are that those foreign governments are supporting his son.


"The West will continue to back Ilham Aliev and Azerbaijan after the death of Heidar Aliev," said one Baku-based western.


"We will continue to support Azerbaijan and we are interested in it remaining stable so that crucial oil projects can continue."


Rufat Abbasov is a reporter for Olailar newspaper in Baku. Shahin Rzaev is IWPR's Azerbaijan Coordinator.


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