Winter 2003 (11.4)
an Era in Azerbaijan - The Nation Mourns Its Patriach
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
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.
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?
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.
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