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Azerbaijan: President's Health Problems Again Raise Issue Of Succession

Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev is in Turkey for medical treatment, two weeks after collapsing during a public appearance. The 79-year-old president, who has ruled the Caucasus republic for much of the past three decades, has said he intends to run for re-election in October. RFE/RL looks at Aliev's long history of health problems and how it could affect the issue of succession in Baku.

Prague, 5 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Several thousand opposition supporters marched through the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, yesterday to demand early elections and the resignation of President Heidar Aliev.

The rally came a day after the 79-year-old Aliyev flew to Turkey for a series of tests on his heart. Azeri officials yesterday said Aliyev had checked into the Gulhane military clinic in Ankara as a precaution ahead of a demanding round of public engagements at home later this week.

Azerbaijan's ambassador to Turkey, Mehmet Aliev, assured reporters that Aliev's health is "very good," Anatolia news agency reported, describing the treatment in Turkey as a "routine check."

Azerbaijani Health Minister Ali Insanov said today in Baku that there are "no problems with the president's health." He said there is no need for surgery and that Aliyev will return to Baku in the "very near future."

The demonstrators, which Agence France Presse said numbered as many as 5,000, refused to believe such assurances, deeming Aliyev too ill to carry out his duties.

Two weeks ago, Aliyev collapsed during an event being broadcast on national television. Officials said the incident was caused by a sudden drop in Aliev's blood pressure. Aliyev had been convalescing at home to recover from a cracked rib and bruises to his back sustained when he collapsed.

Mevlut Katik is a London-based analyst specializing in Eurasian affairs. He said it is "interesting that these demonstrations yesterday were asking for his resignation. He publicly fell down while giving a speech. It was on TV, and everybody saw that. So that has shaken his authority in a sense because that has never happened before. People may start questioning his immortality. However, it is still difficult to judge to what extent such demonstrations could have an impact on his intention to remain in power. I think what will be determinant will be rather his health than the opposition's demonstrations."

Aliyev has a history of ill health. In 1999, he was treated for a bronchial infection at the same military clinic in Ankara and underwent heart bypass surgery at a hospital in Cleveland. He later had prostate surgery and was treated for cataracts at the same American clinic. Two months ago, he underwent surgery for a hernia, also in Cleveland.

Katik said Aliev's current hospitalization has been surrounded by a veil of secrecy. "[Aliev] has a history of heart attacks over the past few years. However, remarkably, he made a comeback after each operation when there was more and more speculation about his future in power. But this time it was interesting that there was no official statement [or] any public announcement about his arrival in Turkey and in the hospital. But then his press office confirmed [this] on Sunday [yesterday], the day after. And then some sources the media quoted said that he's in Ankara in a military hospital for a medical checkup. But no details have been announced so far," Katik said.

Azerbaijani presidential administration chief Ali Hasanov last week confirmed that Aliyev still plans to run for a third presidential elections scheduled for October, rejecting speculation that the president is too frail.

Aliev's latest health problems are once again calling into question his ability to continue in office, however.

Aliyev has no obvious successor and some analysts are predicting a power vacuum and political turmoil if he leaves office. Aliyev has run the oil-rich Caucasus republic for most of the past 30 years.

Katik pointed out that Aliyev plays a "pivotal role" in Azerbaijani politics and that when he falls ill, the political stability of the country is called into question.

"So far, he hasn't prepared a political transition period. He even declared that he would run for the next president elections," Katik said. "The reason why he wants to carry on, he said, is because he wants to prepare a proper ground for a more peaceful country both at home and abroad. By abroad, I [refer to] problems with Azerbaijan's neighbors, particularly with Armenia. Inside the country, he tries to ensure domestic stability while also trying to have his son accepted by different political forces as a possible future president."

Many believe Aliev's 41-year-old son, Ilham, is being groomed for the presidency. But other observers predict a chaotic tussle for power if Aliyev leaves office. Ilham is one of the vice presidents of the state oil company, and Katik said: "He has been giving some political speeches and statements over the past few years. He has got even his own website where he also makes lots of political statements and expresses his own views about the future of the country and about various domestic and external issues. Therefore, he has been preparing himself with his father's support. But the problem is to what extent he will get accepted by different political parties and especially the ruling clan, which is the Nakhichevani clan. Aliyev comes from the Nakhichevan autonomous republic."

The more immediate concern, however, is whether Aliyev will be back in Azerbaijan by 9 May for celebrations marking his 80th birthday. Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with other heads of state from the region, are expected to attend the festivities.

(RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report.)