Rebel troops bear down on Azeri capital: Brezhnev-era Communist comes out on top over elected President in complex power struggle

Click to follow
A RAG-TAG convoy of rebel troops advanced to within 10 miles of the centre of the Azeri capital, Baku, yesterday, waved and cheered on their way by scattered government soldiers who were supposed to be stopping them.

The push intensified a labyrinthine power struggle that has already seen the democratically elected President, Abdulfaz Elchibey, flee Baku and the remarkable political resurrection of the region's Brezhnev-era Communist Party baron.

Led by three armoured personnel carriers flying Azeri flags, a rocket launcher and truck carrying some three hundred heavily armed soldiers drove through heavy traffic on the main southern road along the Caspian Sea to the outskirts of the capital.

They met no resistance and their commander was greeted with hugs and kisses at some government checkpoints. Late yesterday evening in the centre of the capital, however, there was repeated gunfire, though it was not immediately clear who was responsible or if the shots had been fired in anger.

The rebels are supporters of Suret Guseinov, a former wool merchant, disgraced military officer and would-be leader of Azerbaijan, better known for a wardrobe of sharp pinstripe suits than any firm political views. His personal militia of up to 5,000 men has none the less made him an important player in a muddled battle for authority in the former Soviet republic. His principal demand is the resignation of the President, who has fled but not yet given up his job, and his own elevation to the rank of prime minister or some other senior post.

The fate of the President is of particular interest to Britain, where he is due for an official visit next week, and to British Petroleum, which had expected to find a big oil field with Azerbaijan. So far the only clear winner amid all this muddle is Gaidar Aliyev, a former KGB general, Azerbaijan's Communist Party leader for 13 years and one of Leonid Brezhnev's favourites. He was made leader of the parliament last week and immediately declared himself in charge in the absence of the President.

'The captain should be the last to leave the ship,' Mr Aliyev declared yesterday to an audience of foreign diplomats, businessmen and journalists. Determined to show himself physically as well as politically vigorous, the 70-year-old former Politburo member stood for nearly two hours answering questions. He said there would be no change in Azerbaijan's foreign relations whatever happens, so he himself seemed in doubt about what the outcome of this political and military crisis. Though derided by liberals as a 'dead soul' of the Brezhnev era, remembered as the man who cited Brezhnev more than a hundred times in a single speech, Mr Aliyev is revered by many ordinary Azeris as a strong leader capable of recovering the lost peace of the Soviet period.

Yesterday he defended his past as one of Moscow's most loyal servants and Communism's most feared enforcers. 'I don't think any court in the world can judge who is a democrat and who is not. It is not a healthy tendency to split people into Communists and non-Communists. All Azeris have the same rights. Democracy belongs to the whole people. Everyone is entitle to a voice, even Communists.'

Ideology has little to do with the struggle gripping the country's leadership. The rebel leader is driven mostly by desire for revenge against President Elchibey, who sacked him from his officer's post and blamed him for a series of defeats in the war against Armenia.

The dismissal and a botched operation to bring Mr Guseinov into line has backfired badly against the President and alienated large segments of the military. At no point during the rebel advance over the past week from the western city of Gyandzha has there been any serious attempt by government forces to stop them.

Yesterday's advance, which took the rebels some 30 miles closer to Baku, indicated how deep the complicity between the regular military and the rebel militia has become.