Out of Azerbaijan: Aliyev gives an old tune a new song

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The Independent Online
BAKU - Security checks start at a wrought-iron gate on the street, continue at a metal detector just inside a grubby glass door and are repeated by a tubby man in battle fatigues waving a gun at the entrance to the lift. If you get out on the fifth floor, as most people do these days, the ritual concludes with a frisk and a final scan by yet another metal detector, this one built into the wall and disguised, clumsily, to look like an oversized door frame. However, a red light flashing above the lintel and a noisy hum emanating from inside the plaster give the game away. So do the burly men wearing double-breasted jackets loitering in the hallway.

Declared free of firearms, I am admitted into the presence of their boss, Geidar Aliyev, a 70-year-old former secret policeman, ex-Communist Party baron, world- class schmoozer (silver-tongued talker), political chameleon and for the past week or so, would-be ruler of post-Soviet - and, if he has his way, probably post-democratic - Azerbaijan. He sits at the far end of the room, at a big wooden desk. The only decoration is a map of Azerbaijan, a national flag and a matching seal hanging on the wall. He apologises for the austere decor. He has not had time to make his new office in the Azerbaijan parliament building more cosy: 'I never expected such a situation,' he declares, unconvincingly. Power, he insists, has come as a huge, though not entirely unpleasant, surprise: 'I'm not a fortune teller. How could I know what the future would bring?'

Indeed, who could have guessed that, six years after being dumped from the politburo by Mikhail Gorbachev amid whispers of corruption, heart attacks and general unsuitability for any post now that perestroika had, in the official jargon, swept away Brezhnevite stagnation, Mr Aliyev would be in charge of a country. He has been installed as chairman of the Azerbaijan legislature and vested with most of the powers of the president, Abulfaz Elchibey, who, fearing for his life, fled the capital to escape his own mutinous army and is reduced to transmitting what remains of his meagre authority down a crackly phone line from a mountain village near the border with Iran. 'The President has gone,' says Mr Aliyev, 'I am all alone.' He is speaking in Russian. An alternative translation might be: l'etat c'est moi.

He is not the first former or not-so-former Communist to stage a comeback. Nor does it have anything to do with Communism as an ideology. The path is already well trodden by Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia, Algirdas Brazauskas in Lithuania, Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan. In Ukraine the old guard never left; in Tajikistan they came back after a bloody civil war declaring themselves the last line of defence against Islamic fundamentalism.

Geidar Aliyev, though, is in a class of his own. Mr Shevardnadze may grit his teeth when reminded of how he once told Georgians that, thanks to Brezhnev, the 'sun rises in the north'. Never, though, could anyone match the standards of flattery set by Mr Aliyev during his 13-year tenure as first secretary of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. He could turn any occasion into a celebration of Leonid Brezhnev and, by association, himself. (He delivered what could well be the world's most obsequious speech: an address that mentioned Brezhnev more than 100 times). With the words came gifts, showered on Brezhnev during each of three official visits to Baku. To commemorate one trip, Mr Aliyev presented a huge ring. At the centre was a large stone symbolising Brezhnev the Sun King surrounded by 15 smaller stones representing the Soviet republics. Brezhnev was so delighted he broke down in tears of gratitude on television.

Mr Aliyev is also famous for having a prodigious memory. Asked about the Brezhnev years, though, he pleads amnesia. 'It was all so long ago,' he says dismissively, 'it makes no difference what position I held 10 years ago to what position I hold now.' For most of the population, though, it makes a huge difference: they remember not Aliyev the fawning courtier but Aliyev the strong man who presided over what seems an almost golden age, before the war with Armenia claimed thousands of Azeri lives and increasingly large tracts of territory, before a 35-year-old rebel lieutenant could march all the way to Baku unimpeded and get himself declared prime minister.

Local television features re-runs of grainy newsreel of a young Mr Aliyev opening factories and hospitals. The message: happy days are here again. There has been a little tinkering with the rhetoric: Brezhnev is out, democracy in; Azerbaijan's role in the unbreakable union has been replaced by talk of the republic's inviolable national sovereignty: 'I am concerned only about the destiny of my people,' he tells me in his office. 'The principles of democracy are a basic human value. This is the main thing.' The words are new and Mr Aliyev still has his old touch.