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Azerbaijan: President's Illness Highlights Country's Uncertain Future

  • Michael Lelyveld

Washington, 7 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The sudden hospitalization of Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev in the U.S. has highlighted the uncertain future of that nation.

Azeri officials have reportedly denied that Aliyev's visit to a hospital in the midwestern state of Ohio for heart surgery last week was planned in advance. But observers say events suggest otherwise.

Aliyev had been scheduled to make a very different side trip to deliver a speech at Harvard University during his mission to attend NATO's fiftieth anniversary ceremonies in Washington. But the Harvard appearance was cancelled two weeks before, ostensibly to leave more time for meeting with other NATO participants.

It now appears that Aliyev's bypass operation may have been in the works since at least January, when the 75-year-old president was treated in Turkey for what was termed acute bronchitis.

Details on Aliyev's heart surgery and his condition have been sketchy this week, and perhaps with good reason. There is a regional tradition of secrecy on such subjects, say observers. When a government rests on one aging leader, his health is the basis of national stability.

In dealing with Aliyev's illness, political experts say Azerbaijan is following the example of Turkmenistan, which imposed a virtual news blackout in September 1997 when President Saparmurat Niyazov underwent heart surgery in Germany after an official visit there.

On the positive side, observers say Aliyev can look around and take heart from the fact that fellow-rulers like Niyazov are still firmly entrenched in power, thanks to similar bypass operations and information control. Russian President Boris Yeltsin also has undergone successful bypass surgery along with former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, now Russia's Balkans envoy.

But the length of Aliyev's recuperation could pose problems. Reuters reported from Baku this week that political and economic decisions have come to a standstill in the absence of Aliyev, whose last official act was to sign three oil contracts valued at $10 billion.

The country must now try to avoid delay on initiatives ranging from pipelines to privatization. But only Aliyev has the power to approve.

Like other countries in the region, observers say Azerbaijan must suffer with the troubles and choices of an ailing autocracy. If actions are taken in Aliyev's absence, it will give confidence that the country can carry on. But any such steps may only hasten his political demise. To wait while Aliyev recovers would show the power of his rule, but it would also leave his government at the mercy of opponents and events.

According to observers, the Caspian region is now struggling with a series of problems that may cause it to mark time, despite the political push to channel its oil into pipelines toward the West.

The Azerbaijan International Operating Company has just voted to place its operations entirely under BP Amoco and to cut costs under a plan that could reportedly delay its production schedule by six months.

Repeated shutdowns of the Russian pipeline to Novorossiysk are reminder that the Caspian's own arteries are clogged, while the new line from Baku to Supsa may be only a short-term bypass.

Last month, a protocol for the Baku-Ceyhan main export pipeline was hastily signed before Turkey's elections to avoid another six-month delay during the transition to a new government. Participants in the trans-Caspian gas project also vowed last week to speed up their efforts. But experts say there may be little progress without a personal agreement between Niyazov and Aliyev on a division of Caspian oilfields. Aliyev's illness may mean another delay for that.

Caspian developers are also waiting to see whether gas or oil comes out of the Shah Deniz offshore field before deciding whether oil volumes will justify major pipeline investment. Results could be known this month, but this is the same field in which Iran owns an interest. The list of troubles suggests that faith in the future may be the Caspian's most valuable commodity. Political observers in the West say Aliyev's illness would have created fewer doubts if he had taken a chance on delegating authority through the democratic process.

In the absence of stable institutions, experts say investors will inevitably worry about whether he will survive or who will succeed him. And worry may well cause them to wait.

Aliyev's illness could be just another heart tremor in a region that is full of them, say observers. But because he has deliberately made himself the anchor of U.S. policy and Western investment, it may be something more.

The Clinton administration has also come to base much of its regional policy on Aliyev. It may be about to find out whether it has relied on him too much.