Azerbaijan's First President Dies

A nation mourns the death of Abulfaz Elchibey - the dissident professor who led Azerbaijan out of the Soviet wilderness, then lost the war in Nagorny Karabakh

Azerbaijan's First President Dies

A nation mourns the death of Abulfaz Elchibey - the dissident professor who led Azerbaijan out of the Soviet wilderness, then lost the war in Nagorny Karabakh

Azerbaijan's first democratically elected president, Abulfaz Elchibey -- whom some remember as the nation's "Mahatma Gandhi" -- died last week at the age of 62.


Thousands of mourners attended the burial ceremony held in Baku on August 23, the day after the Popular Front party chairman died of prostate cancer in a Turkish military hospital.


"I am greatly saddened by Elchibey's death," said Heidar Aliev, Azerbaijan's current president, whose relationship with his predecessor had always been complicated.


In the past, the Popular Front leader had described Aliev as "an autocrat playing at democracy" while the president said openly that Elchibey was unequal to the demands of building a fledgling state.


However, Lala Shovket Gadjieva, chairman of the Liberal Party of Azerbaijan, has since dubbed Elchibey "Azerbaijan's Mahatma Gandhi" who led the republic out of the Soviet wilderness in 1992.


Abulfaz Kadrygulu oglu Aliev was born in 1938 in Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani enclave in southern Armenia. He later changed his name to Elchibey which means "envoy".


In 1969, after a short spell working as an interpreter in Egypt, Elchibey took a teaching position at the history faculty of Baku State University. It was here that he became involved in the anti-Soviet movement which then enjoyed a growing following in Azerbaijani intellectual circles.


In 1975, Elchibey was arrested by the KGB for defaming the Soviet system and jailed for 18 months. On his return to Baku, he went to work for the Academy of Sciences where he authored over 50 works on Eastern philosophy, history, literature and religion.


However, Elchibey continued to lead an active political life, becoming a leading member of the People's Movement in 1988. In the following year, after taking part in mass demonstrations in Baku city centre, he became chairman of the Popular Front, a party which was fundamentally nationalistic in its political outlook.


Elchibey was elected president of Azerbaijan in June 1992, scooping 60 per cent of the vote. He immediately demanded the withdrawal of the Russian army, replaced Cyrillic with the Latin alphabet and introduced a national currency, the manat.


However, the conflict in Nagorny Karabakh was Elchibey's political undoing. After a series of humiliating defeats, 20 per cent of Azerbaijani territory fell under the control of the Karabakhis and their Armenian allies. Around 30,000 people were killed in the fighting and more than a million were forced to abandon their homes.


In the aftermath of these defeats, the internal political situation in Azerbaijan became increasingly unstable. Things reached a head in June 1993 when Colonel Suret Guseinov staged a military uprising in the town of Ganja and sparked off widespread anti-government protest.


As a result, Elchibey handed over the presidential mandate to Heidar Aliev, formerly chairman of the Baku Communist Party and then parliamentary speaker. "He thought that I alone could hold back the country [from the brink of civil war] and avoid bloodshed," said Aliev in a July interview.


Elchibey then spent an internal exile in his home village of Keleki, before returning to Baku in 1997 to reassume leadership of the Popular Front.


However, the party itself had fallen victim to internal infighting which came to a head during the build-up to this year's parliamentary elections. In recent months, the party has split into the "old guard" led by deputy chairman Mirmakhmud Fattaev and the "reformers", under the control of first deputy chairman Ali Kerimov.


While the reformers secured a majority in the party leadership, the old guard looked to Elchibey for support -- but the former president kept his silence. At the time, many accused the leader of indecision and weakness but it is now clear that he was already suffering from a fatal illness.


It is likely that Elchibey's death will serve to unite these two factions - for the time being at least. However, in the long run, the ambitions of party activists will outweigh any lingering loyalties to the memory of their mentor.


Shahin Rzaev is editor of the Impulse newspaper

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