Azerbaijan International

Winter 2003 (11.4)
Pages 19

Goodbye, Mr. President (Heydar Aliyev, 1923-2003)
by Betty Blair

Related Articles:
(1) Heydar Aliyev - Interviews and Articles
(2) Goodbye Mr. President. Photo Tribute to Heydar Aliyev (1923-2003)

Of all the interviews I ever had with the President Heydar Aliyev, that one stands out the most in my mind took place in August 1997. It was the last leg of his 10-day, 4-city tour in the U.S. - New York, Washington, Houston and Chicago. There were 60 members in his entourage, including advisors, select Cabinet and Parliament members, and about 30 security staff, photographers, TV and print media, and me - the only non-Azerbaijani.

He had promised an interview with Azerbaijan International magazine. The time had come and I was escorted to the front Presidential section of the plane. Being a fairly experienced traveler, I invariably buckle up for the duration of flight. This time, however, I took my cues from the President who was not using safety straps, and I slid into the booth opposite him.

As luck would have it, we soon hit some rough turbulence and the plane started bouncing around. Trying not to interrupt his train of thought since we were recording the interview, my hands groped blindly in my seat for the safety belt buckles. And yes, the President saw me. He stopped and smiled, and with his usual wry twist of humor remarked, "Don't worry, I won't let the plane go down!" We both laughed. I buckled up anyway.

It was just like him to say something like that - personal, humorous, apropos - both conscious of his power and the irony of the moment.

But these days which surround Aliyev's funeral (December 15, 2003), it seems the spontaneous outpouring of emotion and sympathy by millions of Azerbaijanis for the President was encapsulated in those words that he had joked about a few years earlier - "Don't worry, I won't let the plane go down!"

It seems most Azerbaijanis felt that way about him - that as long as Heydar Aliyev was at the helm of power, the ship of nation would not go down. They valued him as an astute, experienced, incredibly savvy politician. After all, he had once been among the most influential leaders of the Soviet Union - that vast empire that had stretched across 12 time zones. His rank among the top leaders in the Soviet Politburo had been among those you could count on one hand.

And though Azerbaijan was one of the smallest republics of the former Soviet Union, Heydar Aliyev as President always carried himself with the authority of someone who knew who he was and where he had come from.

Even his detractors credit him, especially in the early years (1993-1997) after the collapse of the Soviet Union, for not letting competing forces and the war in Karabakh destroy the nation. For many people, Aliyev represented security during those very dark early years of independence.

He worked hard. No one ever could accuse him of being "a 9 to 6 President". He wasn't ruled by clocks. He was always "on" - always Presidential.

I remember our first interview in early 1994. Aliyev was 71 at the time. It was late - very late, in fact - when we were ushered in to see him. By the time we finished, it was nearly 2 a.m., and I commented about his late schedule. He replied that it had always been like this for the past 50 years - coming into work around 10-11 a.m., taking a single break for dinner around 7 p.m., and then working late into the night - often until 2 or 3 a.m.

It may be that I interviewed him more times than any other Western journalist, especially after Azerbaijan gained its independence. I had met him dozens of times and had interviewed him on at least seven occasions. [See Click TOPICS, ALIYEV.] During our last session, he had told me: "Don't think that I give interviews so frequently to others".

From the very beginning, we rarely talked about oil or economics or war - topics that the typical hard-news media always pressed him about. And, unlike reporters of the Soviet period, I dared to bring up personal questions. He loved to talk about language and his efforts to strengthen the use of Azeri. At the same time, he was quite proud that in the 1980s Time Magazine had observed, "Heydar Aliyev spoke Russian better than most Russians".

He loved to talk about history, especially the recent history that he had helped to shape. He loved music, art, beautiful buildings, and clever, talented people. You always got the idea that he tried to spend much of his time doing things that he genuinely liked to do. That he did not let bureaucracy consume him. It was not beyond him to break protocol and do something spontaneous. He understood the power of his presence - a handshake, a nod, a smile, a kiss.

Another interview stands out in my mind - one in 1999. At that time, people were concerned that since he had undergone heart surgery two years earlier, that no one seemed to be standing in the wings groomed to take his place. I pressed him about what advice he would give future leaders in regard to foreign policy.

He replied that they should follow the strategy that he had set forth. Not sure that our international readers would know exactly what he meant, and not wanting to put words in his mouth, I asked him to elaborate.

Suddenly, he slammed his fist down on the table - a gesture he had never used before with me - and replied: "It means you can't be friends with some countries and enemies with others, despite the fact that this is the way most countries function. You have to take into consideration the special interests of each country. Azerbaijan doesn't want to be enemies with any country. At the same time, we will not become victim of any other country's policies. We have our own independent policy. As well, we are developing good relations with Europe and America and stand to benefit from their experiences, while preserving our own national identity and our own resources. Future leaders must pursue the policy that I have put in place. If they do, they will succeed. If not, then Azerbaijan will face enormous tragedy." And, that was the end of the interview.

Naturally, he was not without his critics and, on numerous occasions, rightfully so. But all in all, most people acknowledge that Heydar Aliyev was "bigger than life" and a man of gigantic political stature. No doubt, he will be identified as the Architect of his Era - encompassing the 30 odd years from 1970 to 2003.

Now, it's up to the youth, to climb upon his shoulders, to identify the positive things that he has given to this nation - and there are countless examples - and work tirelessly to build a strong, vibrant, healthy and prosperous nation.

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