Azerbaijan International

Summer 1994 (2.2)
Pages 9-11

with President Heydar Aliyev

by Betty Blair

Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev in his office.
Photo: Pirouz Khanlou

I'm interested in some of the personal dimensions of your life and wondered if I might ask a few questions that don't necessarily all deal with political and economic aspects related to the State.

Sure, go ahead.

So much of your professional life has been spent in Russia, so much so that everybody expects you to be able to speak Russian exceptionally well. But many Azerbaijanis have told me how amazed they are with your ability in Azeri. What were some of your earlier experiences like learning languages?

Statue of Mrs. Aliyeva (Zarife khanum), late wife of President Aliyev who died in Moscow in 1985. She has just been reburied in Baku. The statue now is located at her grave in the Cemetery for the Honored Ones in Baku (Fakhri Khiyabani). Sculptor Omar Eldarov.

Azerbaijani is my native tongue. I studied Russian throughout my high school years in Nakhichivan. Back then, only a few people knew Russian. I knew it very poorly. At 16, I came to Baku determined to be an architect. But when I went to the University, they told me all the lectures would be in Russian. I didn't know Russian very well and I was afraid I wouldn't succeed. But I wanted so badly to study architecture that I studied Russian intensely. I must admit that I really suffered for six months. My professors, my teachers - I couldn't understand anything they were saying.

Fortunately, there were a lot of students of mixed backgrounds - Azerbaijanis, Jews, Armenians and Russians and they all knew Russian so I made up my mind to take advantage of these Russian speakers all around me. That's how I learned Russian quite fast.

Later I studied in Moscow and Leningrad. The rest of my life has been involved with Russian. My wife had also studied Russian and we spoke it together in our home.

And what about Azerbaijani?

I learned Azeri in my youth in a literary form that, fortunately, I have never forgotten despite having lived in Moscow for ten years where there was never any Azeri spoken. But I never forgot Azeri. I've been a leader here in Azerbaijan for 14 years so that's why sometimes I think in Russian and speak Azeri; while other times, it's the other way around, I think Azeri but speak Russian.

During your pre-election Presidential speech for the international observers (October 2, 1993), you translated for yourself between Azeri and Russian. The English translation of both were extremely close-including the sequence and development of ideas.

Early on in my speech, I realized that the Russian translator wasn't doing a very good job so I decided to translate for myself. You saw that I spoke continuously for two hours-one hour in Azeri and one in Russian. I didn't use any notes and I didn't lose my train of thought. This is not so unusual for me. My son told me that not many people can do this. That's his opinion.

And you're right, too many Azerbaijanis don't speak good Azeri. Many don't know how to use the literary form of the language; they speak very simply with poor pronunciation and poor presentation.

When I used to live in Moscow, Russians used to say, "Heydar Aliyev speaks better Russian than the Russians do!" I would give speeches in the Kremlin and on television. People were watching me everywhere. Even in 1983, Time Magazine had an article about me with my picture that mentioned that "Heydar Aliyev is a Muslim, but in Russia he speaks better than the Russians." I have that article around someplace.

I understand you were actually involved with helping revive Azeri as the national language here in Azerbaijan.

Yes, Azerbaijan adopted a new Constitution in 1978. There's an important article about the Azerbaijani Language-that Azerbaijani is the national official language of Azerbaijan. I was responsible for getting the Constitution written. Every Republic was adopting a Constitution at the time but only Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia included such an article about their own native languages. In other Republics, nothing like this exists. Take the Ukraine, for example. Back then, it wasn't easy to write such an aticle but I succeeded in getting it done. (Points to a copy of the Constitution on a stand beside his desk). En shala ("If God wills"), we'll create a new Constitution soon.

When some people in the US learned you were back in office, they were afraid that everything in Azerbaijan would revert back to Russian.

Tell them not to worry about it (chuckles).

During the elections, I went to Nakhichevan as an observer. It seemed very poor-perhaps, the poverty stemmed from Armenia's blockade against the region. And it felt very isolated. I was wondering what it was like for you to grow up there. And what Nakhichievan has done to influence who you have become.

Nakhichevan has had an immense influence on my life. I spent all my youth there. It's where I finished high school. I had very good teachers. Strong teachers. I received a very good education there. I used to go to the theater a lot-there was an excellent theater. Nakhichevan has an ancient civilization, many historical landmarks, many historical traditions. That's the context I was reared in and that's the environment that enriched me.

On the other hand, I experienced a very difficult life there. My father was a railroad worker. Our family was large. We were five brothers and three sisters. And my father's earnings were meager. We grew up in hardship. But I studied very well. I was content and happy with my life. We didn't have much in terms of material goods, but I was happy.

My mother was an illiterate woman, my father could only read a bit. He died in 1942. My mother was a very wise woman, I would say she had a God-given wisdom and she worked hard to educate us all very well. We all turned out to be scientists and professors. One brother was an artist. And then there's me. I'm the only one who isn't a professor.

Nakhichevan played a big role in my life. I returned there for the second time in 1990 when it wasn't possible for me to live in Moscow anymore. I had come to Baku but they wouldn't give me an apartment-wouldn't let me live here. So I returned to Nakhichevan. And there, everyone embraced me as a native son.

May I ask you about your wife? What kind of person was she and how did she influence your life?

I loved her very much. She was a wonderful person, an eye doctor by profession. She was a very wise person who came from a fine family. Her father was also a professor. I grew up in a worker's family but she grew up in an intellectual's family. She was intelligent and cultured, a wonderful character. She died in Moscow in 1985. It was a big shock to me and I was affected very deeply. I live on my own now. I have my kids and the grandchildren. But losing her was a great tragedy for me.

(Shows me photos of the inauguration with all the family members including the grandchildren).

In looking back over your career, what would you consider to be the milestones to be?

(Pauses). There's so many. I can't really say. I've lived a long life.

What would you like to be remembered for most?

I'd like to be remembered for the contributions I've made both in culture and the economy. I don't know which ones to say specifically. Also, I was responsible for getting the permission to build many of the modern buildings that are here in Baku. For instance, this building-the President's Aparat. And the Parliament Building. Also those hotels-Azerbaijan and Absheron Hotels. Most of Baku's factories were built during my period.

So you really did manage to become an architect in the end!

Well, not as an architect but as a leader of the Republic.

Is that what you would have become if you hadn't entered politics?

Yes, I was going to be an architect. I would have loved to have been one. I didn't choose politics. Destiny brought me into politics. I only chose one thing in my life. When I was 16, I wanted to be an architect. All the rest of the things that have happened were determined by destiny.

I never chose any of the positions that I've had. For instance, I worked in the State Security Committee. I became a General. I didn't choose that. Destiny took me there. In 1969, I wasn't planning to become the leader of Azerbaijan but they asked me to. Back then, I was a military general and then I became the leader of the Republic.

Then they invited me to Moscow to become the First Deputy of the Prime Minister and I went there. After it wasn't possible to work there anymore, I resigned. That was 1987. And once again, people invited me to be President. I didn't want to be President. People asked me.

But historically, you're one of the very unique individuals in the world who has had the responsibility of being the Head of State for your country both under the Soviet system and now during its autonomous independence. From a President's point of view, what do you perceive to be the major differences between these systems?

For 70 years, Azerbaijan has lived under a Communist system that can best be characterized by its Marxist-Leninist ideology, centralized economics, communist party rule, tight government control over the citizens as individuals and as a whole. Today's transitional process in Azerbaijan towards democracy and an open society is very complex and unique.

Let me mention some of the former practices of government and administration and compare them to the new ways that are being employed as we attempt to achieve a model of democratic society and free market economy. Experience shows the objective elements for such a change must be a pluralistic approach to government. Democratic foundations and individual freedom must be strengthened. And we have to advance into a market economy.

At the present time, there are more than 40 active political parties in Azerbaijan. More than 600 political diverse newspapers and periodicals are being published. The private sector and individuals are beginning to play greater parts in shaping the socio-political and economical future of the country. To me, all of this contributes in a positive way to constructing a healthy new model for our society.

What are the greatest challenges Azerbaijan is facing in making the transition between these two systems?

Proceeding from a post-communist era is a very complex process. In our case, it's been further complicated in that a great deal of our resources have had to be devoted to defending our territorial integrity against Armenian agression and in maintaining our sovreignty.

The transition is, necessarily, an evolutionary process. But we do have some very unique factors that give our country some advantages. First of all, take a look at our geography. Our country is immensely blessed with a wealth of natural resources. Furthermore, we have a strong, technically trained work force. Apart from oil, our agricultural industries are also quite developed.

Historically speaking, the idea of a democracy is not a new thing to us. We have a history of Democracy and a traditional Parlimentarism here. We were the first in the history of all Muslim states to create a Democratic Republic (1918-1920). At that time, more than ten political parties held seats in that first parliament.

In other words, our political history has not been totally alien to civic forms of government. Since we have this model, we consider it our duty and goal to reconstruct these historically-based civil concepts accompanied by political pluralism while being sensitive to the critical needs of our own people especially in our present circumstances.

Everyone is eagerly awaiting the signing of the oil contracts. From Azerbaijan's point of view, what are the complexities that must be taken into consideration in the drafting of these documents which will so dramatically effect the future of this country?

Our position about the oil agreements stands: we support an approach that will mutually benefit all parties. It must be reached through a cooperative manner so that the interests of all parties will be guaranteed. These contracts must be achieved on the basis of fairness and cooperation which will be mutually beneficial for all.

The Azerbaijani government is looking forward to accomplishing the objectives of our country as a result of our agreements with the world's giant oil cooperations. We want to strengthen our country's economic independence. We want to raise the living standards of our people. We want to enable our people to attain a higher education and self-sufficiency combined with a strong defense.

I hope our cooperation with the US and other Western Oil companies will result in further developing close relations in relationship with other projects in the areas of economic, political, scientific, and cultural ties.

I have high hopes in the beneficial outcome of this cooperation for both sides.

How will the signing of the oil contracts effect the regional problems?

I'm certain that the outcome of these agreements will help Azerbaijan further consolidate its political position in both the regional as well as worldwide arena by bringing us economical independence.

With the dissolution of the old Soviet System and the end of Cold War and the end of the Cold war and weapons base, the tensions between the East and West have eased considerably. These changes have brought about the birth of several new-born nations. Although many old problems and conflicts have disappeared with these changes, there are now potentially dangerous new problems which are not of less significance than those old problems were especially in terms of the impact they can make on civilization and world peace.

What message would you wish to share with the world about the situation Azerbaijan faces?
We are about to reach the turn of the millenium, but, unfortunately, we are still having to deal with tragic situation of aggressive nationalism, ethnic cleansing, and religious conflicts. Our newly independent Republic has been the victim of inhuman aggression by our own neighbor.

These problems should, indeed, be addressed by the world communities. The US and other Western industrialized nations as influential and powerful countries need to play a leading role in helping resolve these conlflicts and achieve a lasting peace and stability in the area.

There is a heavy burden on the shoulders of the United Nations (CSCE) to bring about a practical resolution and realize the interests of all parties as they are addressed and acknowledge their own resolution and by-laws in the context of international law.

It's very late now, almost 2 AM. I want to thank you for sharing your time and giving me the opportunity to meet you. I really don't know how you keep such a busy schedule so late at night.

It's always been like this. For the past 50 years, I've worked like this - coming into work around 10-11AM, taking one single break for dinner around 7 PM and then working late into the night, often until 2 or 3 AM. I really don't know how I keep up this schedule either. It seems it's always been like this though.

But I want to thank you, too, for coming to Azerbaijan. Please come back. You're welcome here. The door is always open. I hope that whatever you have observed here, whatever you have seen for yourself, you will reflect to America and the rest of the world.

From Azerbaijan International (2.2) Summer 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.

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