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Azerbaijan: Analysis From Washington -- The Passing Of The Revolutionary Generation

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 30 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The death of former Azerbaijani President Abulfaz Elchibey removes from the political stage a distinguished representative of those popular revolutionaries who captured the imagination of the world at the end of the Soviet period.

Elchibey, who died of cancer at the age of 62 in an Ankara hospital, had a remarkable political career, one few would have predicted as recently as two decades ago. Jailed by Soviet officials in the 1970s for his political activities, he helped to found the Azerbaijani Peoples Front and lived to see his country become independent and to serve as its first elected president.

During his brief time in office, Elchibey succeeded in getting Russian troops to leave Azerbaijan, establishing a national army, and introducing a Latin-based rather than Cyrillic-based alphabet. And he reoriented his country toward Turkey and the West and away from dictatorship toward democracy.

But Azerbaijani military failures in the war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and his own loss of control of the situation contributed to instability in Baku, ultimately sparking a military revolt against him. To spare his fellow Azerbaijanis further bloodshed, Elchibey decided to hand over power to Heidar Aliyev, who had been Azerbaijan's Communist Party chief in Soviet times.

After leaving office, Elchibey spent four years in a kind of much-criticized internal exile in his native village in Makhchivean, the non-contiguous portion of Azerbaijan, before returning to Baku in 1997 and resuming a more active political role as head of the Azerbaijani Peoples Front during the last years of his life.

In many respects, Elchibey did not achieve his own political goals or match the expectations of his followers. But the outpouring of respect on the occasion of his death from both the current Azerbaijani government which gave him a state funeral and thousands of followers showed how much of an impact Elchibey had had on his people and his country.

One of the mourners spoke for many when he said that, "Elchibey was the only politician who had a conscience bigger than his ambition." And yet another said that "he was the one politician that I really believed in, really trusted. He had the type of integrity that few other politicians have today."

Beyond these biographic specifics, Elchibey was very much part of the group which played a dramatic role in the 1980s and early 1990s but now appears to be departing from the scene. These were the dissident outsiders who attacked the edifice of the Soviet state in the name of democracy and freedom but who often found themselves unable to manage the results of the revolution they had begun.

Like Elchibey, these charismatic leaders in many of the other former Soviet republics and Baltic states inspired enormous affection and respect both in their countries and abroad. They were democrats unsullied by the Soviet past, but at the same time, they often lacked the kind of political skills necessary to manage the successful revolutions which they themselves had promoted.

And they often have failed to deliver what they had so clearly promised. Sometimes, this was the result of personal failings and sometimes because of the absence of the necessary support domestically and from abroad.

But regardless of the cause, many of them have yielded their positions to members of Soviet-era elites with the political skills, if not always the democratic convictions, apparently required to manage post-Soviet regimes.

Consequently, the mourning over Elchibey represents more than sadness over the loss of one remarkable individual. It also reflects a growing awareness by many in both the former Soviet republics and the West that those who made the revolution in 1991 are passing from the scene and that they are being succeeded not by their own democratic progeny but by members and offspring of the ancien regime.