Azerbaijan International

Winter 2003 (11.4)

Readers' Forum
End of an Era in Azerbaijan - The Nation Mourns Its Patriach

By conservative estimates, more than a million Azerbaijanis gathered in Baku on December 15 to lay flowers at the grave of their veteran leader President Heydar Aliyev. It was their farewell to a long and complicated chapter of the nation's history that dates back to Soviet times. Not that Aliyev's death in a hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, came as a surprise. On the contrary, news of his death had been rumored earlier on numerous occasions, as the 80-year old was being treated in the United States for serious health problems.

Yet, for many Azerbaijanis, the departure of Heydar Aliyev, who ruled the country for more than three decades, marks the end of an era as well as a milestone in the country's road to independence. Aliyev had risen through the ranks to become one of the top Soviet Politburo leaders and Azerbaijan's strong-handed leader.

In fact, the death of Aliyev, a patriarch of the region, brings to a close the era of the 1990s, which saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and rise of independence in Azerbaijan, the Caucasus and the former Soviet Union. The region faces a new political dynamic, especially now that Georgian patriarch Eduard Shevardnadze, 76, has been ousted from his Presidency in November and replaced by Mikhail Saakashvili, 36, of the younger generation, Ilham Aliyev, 42, has succeeded his father Heydar in Azerbaijan, and Russia is ruled by a younger, more dynamic leader - Vladimir Putin, 52. In Armenia, charismatic veteran politician Karen Demirchian (67 when assassinated in the 1999 shooting in Parliament), leaving practically no alternative to the current President Robert Kocharian, who is 49.

For the moment, however, top representatives of the region joined President Ilham Aliyev to mourn the loss of his father and mentor. Turkey brought the largest delegation which was led by President Ahmet Nedcet Sezer, accompanied by Prime Minister Erdogan, Cabinet Ministers and more than 100 members of Parliament and top members of the military brass. The second largest delegation came from Russia, again led by their President - Vladimir Putin and Moscow's Mayor Lujkov and about 100 members includingministers, governors of regions and intellectuals. Ukraine and Kazakhstan sent their Presidents, Leonid Kuchma and Nursultan Nazarbaev, respectively, to the funeral.

Also present at the funeral were Georgia's past, present and future presidents - Eduard Shevardnadze, Nino Burjanadze and Mikhail Saakashvili, along with the leader of the separatist region of Ajaria - Aslan Abashidze. Bitter enemies in domestic politics, they represented all of Georgia in paying tribute to the memory of Azerbaijan's Heydar Aliyev, an architect of the close partnership between the two Caucasus nations.

Culturally in this region of the world, attending someone's wedding or funeral is viewed among the greatest honor and respect that you can express. Ignoring these social functions is viewed as a display of ultimate disrespect.

Attendance at Heydar Aliyev's funeral, therefore, is perceived in part as a measure of the attitude of others towards Azerbaijan. This is especially true, since Aliyev's son Ilham now stands at the helm of government.

Stark contrast to West
The region's participation in Aliyev's funeral was in stark contrast to the virtual absence of high-level Americans and West Europeans. The U.S. delegation was led, not by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage who was a friend of the late President, but by Brent Scowcroft, a distinguished figure, but retired and with no official standing. This is unfortunate. For a leader, who made the pro-Western orientation a cornerstone of his presidency and turned Azerbaijan into one of America's most reliable partners, Heydar Aliyev deserved greater attention from his Western friends.

The arrival of one single Senator, Sam Brownback, from Kansas and A. Elizabeth Jones, Assistant Secretary of State (European Affairs) added much-needed weight to the American delegation though the difference in presence between the western partners on the one hand and regional delegations, including those from Azerbaijan's uneasy neighbors Iran and Russia on the other, could hardly escape notice from Azerbaijan's citizens participating in the memorial service. Notably, France stood out with its Defense Minister leading their delegation, though both Germany and the United Kingdom were only represented locally.

Do any of these things really matter? Perhaps not on the official level, but in the minds of the people, the poor showing of the West has not gone unnoticed. Certainly, it was a prime opportunity that was missed. At a time when America struggles for "hearts and minds" in the international arena, it may very well make a difference.
Loyalty and friendship are highly valued in the region.

Consider this: in 1993, Turkish President Turgut Ozal, a prominent and strong leader, passed away. He was close to President George Bush (the father), whom he counted among his personal friends since he had been instrumental in helping the U.S. during the Gulf War. Many Turks expected George Bush to attend the funeral of such a friend and staunch ally. Bush never appeared. Ten years have passed. Much has changed; but much has remained the same, it seems. Is it déjà vu all over again?

Elin Suleymanov
Graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University in Medford, M.A. and previous spokesman for the Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Back to Index AI 11.4 (Winter 2003)
AI Home
| Search | Magazine Choice | Topics | AI Store | Contact us

Other Web sites created by Azerbaijan International
| |