Ex-KGB chief's new role as nation's 'father': Geidar Aliyev, back in power in Azerbaijan, was in Moscow for yesterday's summit on the troubled Caucasus region. Hugh Pope in Baku assesses the problems facing him

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The Independent Online
DEMOCRACY in the Caspian Sea republic of Azerbaijan has taken many forms since its exit from the Soviet Union, but none as slick as the electoral come-back organised by the former KGB general Geidar Aliyev, officially acclaimed this week by the Baku media as the country's new President.

Soviet-style overkill mixed with front-page poems to 'our father' in Mr Aliyev's 98.8 per cent victory in Sunday's presidential poll. But Leonid Brezhnev's former crony planned the operation to perfection in the style that has given ordinary folk in this war-battered country faith in a future that may yet make the oil-rich state the envy of the Caucasus.

'Only Aliyev can do the job. He was 19 years in power. He knows his politics, so we've got a little hope now,' said Simaye, an antiques dealer in a shop in the Azeri capital, Baku. The shelves behind her were stacked with possessions sold by families needing cash for basic supplies. But she admitted she had had the same optimism when she joined the 60 per cent of Azeris who voted 15 months ago for the previous president, Abulfaz Elchibey. The pro-Turkish and pro-Western Mr Elchibey was overthrown in June and dismissed by a referendum organised by Mr Aliyev, who, while declaring his openness to the West, has hurried to sign a security pact with Russia and to join the Commonwealth of Independent States.

A sense of purpose does seem to have returned to Baku. Builders are back at work on the streets and officials have become more officious, causing some to fear that the burst of activity may only be cosmetic Soviet-style make-work based on fear of Mr Aliyev's legendary temper.

Many worries remain. Mr Aliyev is 70, and, although he looks fit, has had two heart attacks. Also, Armenian forces still occupy nearly 20 per cent of the country. At least one in 10 of Azerbaijan's seven million people have been forced out of their homes in five years of conflict over the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh.

A cease-fire between Armenia and the defeated remnants of the Azeri armed forces is holding, but Mr Aliyev is being forced to swallow humiliating concessions in the Minsk Group peace talks. (Despite UN Security Council resolutions demanding Armenia's unconditional withdrawal from Azeri territory, Baku is being asked to start lifting its trade embargo as Armenian troops withdraw.)

Mr Aliyev has drummed into the Azeri consciousness a sense of military defeat and appears to be relying on intervention by Armenia's allies in Russia to save his country, much as he hopes that joining the CIS will revive the economy by restoring the flow of raw materials to Azerbaijan's factories. Given the troubles in Russia itself, neither prospect is guaranteed to succeed.

What is certain, however, is that Mr Aliyev is intent on ruling Azerbaijan in the style to which he became accustomed as the country's KGB chief, its Communist party leader and then its patron from the heights of the Soviet politburo.

The only evidence for the much- vaunted 'pluralism' in his election promises was the number of different pictures of himself in colour posters around town: here patriarchal in a statesmanlike suit, there smiling through clenched teeth and, in a gesture to the Soviet-nurtured intelligentsia who support him, leaning broodingly against a wall in a black sweater like an ageing theatre director.

The electoral mise-en-scene was slickly done, however. Two rival candidates won less than 1 per cent of the vote. One, a former car-dealer, promised to make millionaires of every Azeri, to pay women a full day's wages for half a day's work and to open a bank account for every child. The other, the director of a Russian-language institute, admitted he had not thought about a government programme.

Mr Aliyev was reason and hard work personified, dominating long news conferences and live transmissions from parliament. He allowed opponents to speak until they dropped, then ground them down in lengthy debates that often looked like a show trial of the former Popular Front government.

The election itself was not so easy to camouflage. Fathers voted on behalf of whole families, opposition activists were jailed and the state-controlled media vaunted Mr Aliyev's achievements with nary a mention of an opposition boycott of the process. Foreign diplomats estimated that only half the electorate bothered to vote. Pro-Aliyev feeling ran so high in one polling station that a British observer was reportedly offered an honorary vote, which, when refused, was filled out for him in Mr Aliyev's name and posted with a democratic flourish into the ballot box.

'There were masses of technical irregularities . . . but it was also undoubtedly a massive pro-Aliyev movement. He has managed to sell himself as the best hope,' said one Western diplomat, predicting that most countries would recognise Mr Aliyev as President soon.