The Twilight of Sovereignty in Azerbaijan

It’s January 2001, and George "Dubya" Bush has just been sworn in as president. The neocons are in charge of foreign policy, and one of the top items on their agenda is in the war-torn, ex-Soviet region of the Caucasus, where the Russians are resurgent.

The situation in the Republic of Azerbaijan creates the most immediate concern for the new administration. Aging Azeri President Heydar Aliyev looks weaker by the day, as open-heart surgery and the strain of government have taken their toll to slow him down and loosen his grip on power. Intelligence sources indicate the Russians are planning a coup to replace Aliyev with a puppet, who will bring the oil-rich state back under Moscow’s thumb.

Dubya doesn’t know where Azerbaijan is, but his advisers say it’s important. US oil interests have put a big stake in the country’s independence from Moscow and plan to build pipelines linking the Caspian (and ultimately Central Asian) oilfields to the West. Dubya checks his manifesto, A Charge to Keep, to see how he feels about all this, and comes across a relevant passage:

I lived the energy industry. I understand its ups and downs. I also know its strategic importance to the United States of America. Oil and gas are important pillars of our Texas economy. Access to energy is a mainstay of our national security.

Dubya doesn’t have time to critique the writing style of whoever penned this, so he goes ahead and makes a decision: Azerbaijan must not fall to the Russians. Plans are made to replace Aliyev with Washington’s hand-picked candidate, and to prop him up with any assistance he needs.

Unfortunately for Dubya, not only are the Russians closing in from the north, but renewed fighting has broken out to the West – on the militarized line demarcating Azerbaijan from the Armenian-controlled region of Nagorno-Karabakh and occupied territories to the south of it. Russian-armed Armenian forces are advancing east toward Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. Iran is reportedly aiding the Armenians from the south and has sealed its border with Azerbaijan. The Azeris are surrounded. Will Dubya ride to the rescue?


Tracing Azerbaijan’s history from the period immediately before and after the Soviet breakup, this semi-apocalyptic scenario can actually be appreciated as something vaguely approaching reality. In the early nineties, crowds of half a million frequently gathered in the streets of Baku to listen to speeches by leaders of the Azerbaijan Popular Front (APF), who railed against Russia and Iran and called for Azerbaijan to push toward Turkey and the West.

These scenes must have looked rather alarming in Moscow and Washington alike.

A nationalist government came to power under the presidency of democratically-elected ex-dissident Abulfaz Elchibey – chairman of the APF – in 1992. About a year later, Elchibey – who had expelled all Russian troops from Azerbaijan – signed an exploration and production agreement with a consortium of Western oil companies, and the ink was hardly dry when Elchibey was faced with a double coup d’etat. Russian-armed forces moved into Baku from the north, and forces loyal to the former Azerbaijan SSR First Secretary Heydar Aliyev – who had been residing in the Azerbaijan’s Autonomous Republic of Nakhichevan since Mikhail Gorbachev ejected him from the Soviet Politburo in 1987 – were also closing in. Elchibey fled the capital as Aliyev and the pro-Russian insurrectionists took joint control.


The West’s token complaints about the fall of Elchibey died down quickly. Heydar Aliyev – former KGB general and First Deputy Prime Minister of the USSR – was expected to bring calm to the place. East and west must have breathed a collective sigh of relief: indications were that Aliyev might be more conciliatory toward Moscow than Elchibey. After all, he had reached the commanding heights of the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) and spent many years chumming with the Brezhnevite elite in Moscow. So when he brought Azerbaijan back into the Russia-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which the fiercely anti-Russian Elchibey had refused to even consider, it looked as if everything would settle down again.

Aliyev had joined the NKVD’s military counterespionage section – "SMERSH" ("Death to Spies") – in 1941, at the tender age of 18. Death to Spies was headed by Viktor Abakumov, who – rumor has it – personally shot a Swedish diplomat in his Lubyanka office. Lavrenty Beria was NKVD chief of Stalin’s USSR at the time, and Azerbaijan was under the immediate leadership of infamous Beria protégé Mir Jafar Bagirov, the Azerbaijan SSR First Secretary (1933-53) who carried out the purges and terror in the republic.

By joining Death to Spies, Aliyev would play a role in rooting out "internal enemies" in the Soviet military, and in "supervising" the repatriation of over 1.5 million Soviet prisoners of war. He became chairman of Soviet Azerbaijan’s KGB in 1967, and was First Secretary by 1969. By some accounts, he was the number 4 man in the Soviet Union at one stage.

After taking power in 1993, however, Aliyev made clear he wasn’t going to be Moscow’s stooge. Reportedly, when Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev came to Baku to see the new president, he pushed open the door to Aliyev’s office and started laying down demands. President Aliyev – according to legend – looked Grachev in the eye (which in itself might not have been an enviable experience for Grachev, if one takes a good look at Mr. Aliyev’s eyes), and said something to the effect of: "No one tells me what to do here." Aliyev and his clan soon shoved aside the pro-Russians and assumed complete control.

Azeris repeatedly turned out en masse to support Aliyev. People who had voted for Elchibey in 1992 cast their ballots for the old CPSU secret police chief in 1993. When Aliyev faced a Russian-backed coup attempt in 1994, hundreds of thousands turned out in the streets of Baku in the middle of the night to rally around him. The image of such crowds cheering on an old Chekist who had been kicked out of the Kremlin by the cuddly Gorbachev must have alarmed US policymakers. But then, the alternative to Aliyev was someone installed by Moscow, which had sent special forces units into Baku as recently as January 1990 to gun down women and children. Significantly, Aliyev protested the act publicly, resigned from the CPSU, and left Moscow for Azerbaijan. So Washington may have figured it made at least a little sense for Azeris to line up behind their native strongman.


Within a year of taking power, Aliyev had signed an agreement very similar to the one that had prompted Elchibey’s ouster. Mobil, Exxon, BP, and the other big guns of the oil business set up plush offices in central Baku and began endless talks with the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) on how to bring the wonderful contract to fruition. Not to be left out of the party, Russia’s largest oil company – LUKOIL – established palatial headquarters in Baku, complete with pink marble fountains in the lobby.

The streets of Baku were soon made safe under Aliyev. Of course, the fellows in khaki fatigues and red berets on many of the street corners – Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders – didn’t look very "Western." But there were no gangs roaming the streets terrorizing people as had been the case in neighboring Georgia, where democracy had always flourished under Aliyev’s KGB colleague – Eduard Shevardnadze – according to Western reports. But then it could be asserted that while Shevardnadze has always appeared to be ashamed to be Georgian, the same could not be said about Aliev and his Azeri nationality.

Plus, heat and electricity soon came to be taken for granted in Aliyev’s Azerbaijan, unlike in neighboring Georgia, where dining by the fireplace – for much of Shevardnadze’s tenure – had not been merely romantic ambiance. Turkish restaurants and other establishments serving decent food and drink proliferated in Baku, and the city center actually had a bit of life to it.

In 1993 and 1995, when Aliyev held presidential and parliamentary elections, Western governments and Western-financed observer groups gave him a remarkably clean political bill of health considering obvious violations. Washington rolled out the red carpet for Aliyev when he visited the US, and was toasted by the US foreign policy elite. Aliyev’s past CPSU membership must have been encouraging to the West, which seems to view such experience as vital to a well-rounded political resume for any politician in the ex-USSR. The West appeared ready to overlook Aliyev’s past work for Death to Spies – which probably involved a few coerced confessions and some point-blank-range shooting. Aliyev was "one of us," and the West warmly welcomed him into the family of respectable national leaders.


But by 1998, when Aliyev won his second presidential election, the Azeri leader and the West looked fed up with each other. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Council of Europe stepped up activity in the republic in the run-up to the election, and some of the opposition candidates – including Elchibey – suddenly boycotted. A representative of Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission (CEC) commented that the head of the OSCE mission – a Bulgarian with thick, tinted spectacles – refused to look him in the eye during the weeks before polling day.

Aliyev wasn’t being particularly conciliatory toward the West at this point either. He had been complaining that Western oil companies hadn’t produced or exported anything significant from Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC) – the official name for the consortium of oil multinationals that signed the agreement in 1994 – was making excuses for its inaction that came across as unsporting in light of Aliyev’s having kept Azerbaijan under control so well. But then, perhaps Aliyev hadn’t done everything he was told.

When Aliyev won the 1998 presidential election, the lambasting he received from the OSCE and the Council of Europe looked like rather a stab in the Soviet elder statesman’s back. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) and other NGOs started touting other Azeri politicians, who were apparently much more popular and "reformed" than Aliyev. Yet, it did seem odd that such an ostensibly hated leader was able to walk through central Baku during his campaign virtually unguarded. Heydar Aliyev, who had only recently been received by the Queen of England and toasted by Zbigniew Brzezinski and Richard Cheney in Washington, had become persona non grata in the West.


Six years after Aliyev signed the contract of the century with AIOC, the volume of oil coming out of Azerbaijan to the West still hasn’t exceeded a trickle by the standards of the oil industry. Aliyev’s rule has brought peace and stability to Azerbaijan, and Baku is a much nicer place these days than the capitals of either of Azerbaijan’s Transcaucasian neighbors. But Azerbaijan hasn’t cashed in on its legendary offshore oil reserves.

Supposedly, the only pipeline route so far remotely acceptable to Washington has been through weak and dismembered Georgia, which shares a border with NATO member Turkey. Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor – Iran – is out of the question for Washington, and in any case is home to about 20 million ethnic Azeris and no fan of secular, independent Azerbaijan. Armenia has blocked Azerbaijan’s access to Turkey through its own territory since the 1992-94 war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh ended in a ceasefire (signed by Aliyev). A Russian pipeline traverses Chechnya, but even if that problem could be sorted out for good, Russian transit fees would leave Baku with pennies on the dollar.

So the great Azeri oil boom remains out of reach, and the Soviet-era oil derricks on the Caspian shore stand as rusting reminders of an unrealized dream. Heydar Aliyev is still undisputed leader of Azerbaijan but – at 77 – he has lost the love of the West. Whither Azerbaijan?


One of the items on the agenda for the last Clinton-Putin summit was the Caucasus. Apart from objecting to Russia’s human rights violations in Chechnya, Clinton expressed his hope that Russia could "participate" in the construction of a pipeline linking the Caspian to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. Such a pipeline, bypassing Russian territory, had always been a source of friction between Moscow and the West. Russia has military bases in Armenia on the border with Turkey to make sure Azerbaijan doesn’t export its black gold through Armenia and link itself to NATO member Turkey.

But with a little "friendship and mutual understanding," Washington and Moscow might be willing to reach some sort of deal over Azerbaijan, in which Azeris will almost certainly not have much say. One can almost hear Clinton, with his friendly drawl, saying: "C’mon Vlad, I know we can work this thing out." Putin, on behalf of his financial oligarch puppet-masters, would respond: "I’ll think about it, but keep your filthy NATO paws off the Caspian." And so it would go, back and forth, until some sordid compromise was reached.

Such deal-making would naturally be geared toward a post-Aliyev Azerbaijan, since both Russia and the US probably assume that whoever follows Aliyev will be easier to put in someone’s pocket. The only questions that may remain for the two big powers to sort out will be which Azeri, how to put him there, and how big the pie slices will be.


Moscow hasn’t liked Aliyev since shortly after he took power in Azerbaijan. He had to put down a couple of coup attempts that were evidently Russian-backed, and a curfew was in effect in Baku until late in 1995. The Russians would almost certainly rather have someone else in power in Azerbaijan, and another coup attempt could be in the plans.

Washington appears to be doing Aliyev in as well. On May 24th, among the Azeri political opposition figures to testify on human rights and democracy in their country before the Helsinki Commission on Capitol Hill was ex-Speaker of Parliament Rasul Guliyev, wanted in Azerbaijan for misappropriating hundreds of millions of dollars. NDI has described Guliyev – a Soviet-era oil industry official – as one of the most popular politicians in Azerbaijan, and touted his Democratic Party as a serious force in Azeri politics. Maybe ex-President Elchibey shouldn’t have felt the need to ask the Commission: "Are you supporting the democrats?" After all, Washington supports Guliyev’s "Democratic" Party, and has extended American hospitality to Guliyev since he fled his country in 1996.

The Helsinki Commission, chaired by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-CA), did its tsk-tsk and head-shaking while the oppositionists railed against Aliyev. These were the same oppositionists who said they suspected Washington and Moscow had cut a deal back in the Bush years to keep the Caucasus under Moscow’s thumb, and that they therefore supported Aliyev’s foreign policy, though not his domestic administration. The Commission then issued a stinging report of the Aliyev regime’s progress toward democracy and human rights, and rewrote history by saying it recognized none of the three national elections in Azerbaijan under Aliyev – two presidential and one parliamentary – as free and fair.

One Azeri oppositionist described the situation in Armenia and Georgia as favorable, and even said Georgia had "50 independent television stations." Perhaps he was referring to foreign channels available by satellite at the Sheraton in Tbilisi? More important, being a live Azeri oppositionist – apparently well-dressed and well-fed – and able to return from America to Mercedes cars and cell-phones in Baku, must be a fate worse than death. In Georgia, the only serious opposition to Shevardnadze went six feet under many years ago.

The Clinton administration chimed in with the Helsinki Commission’s castigation of Aliyev, and the Azeri government started indicating that it was leaning politically toward Moscow and away from the West. Then the pompous and ever-sanctimonious Council of Europe did an about-face by agreeing to admit Azerbaijan as a member at the same time as Armenia, contrary to its earlier stated intent. A little push, a little pull. A little give, a little take. Washington looks like it’s trying to weaken Aliyev bit by bit without delivering Azerbaijan up to the other side. The game continues, but where will it lead?


Watching history repeat itself requires strict discipline, because if one gets caught up in the cycles of history one’s stomach often starts turning as well. Some 80 years ago, the first secular majority-Muslim state in history – the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) – was in its infancy and desperately trying to keep its head above water as the Russian Civil War raged to the north. In 1918, a British expeditionary force under Maj. Gen. W.M. Thomson was assigned to Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, to ensure that the British Empire was supplied with a bit of oil from the area, and that the Bolsheviks were not supplied with any.

Thomson considered the Transcaucasus to be a part of Russia, and thought it should be handed back to a reestablished Russian state after the civil war ended. Neither he nor his masters recognized the legitimacy of the independent ADR. After Thomson and his troops abandoned Azerbaijan in August 1919, the ADR had only a few months of unoccupied independence before the Red Army closed in from the north. The dreams of Azeri independence, democracy and prosperity were dashed for 70 years.

Heydar Aliyev – man of history – has in a way been an inconvenient historical figure. Had he not reemerged to assert control, history might so easily have done its usual repetition in the early Clinton years. The Russians were always ready at a moment’s notice to come back to Azerbaijan, and the West never even had as much inclination as Maj. Gen. Thomson to come to its defense. After Soviet OMON troops entered Baku in January 1990 and massacred about 120 civilians, President George Bush publicly commended Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for the way he was handling the national situation in the republics. Elchibey couldn’t hold onto power very long, so had it not been for Aliyev, Russian troops might once again be patrolling the border with Iran.

Of course, it’s always possible that Western governments and the oil multinationals on whose behalf they act may ultimately view the Caucasus as more trouble than it’s worth. The Caspian Sea is not the Persian Gulf, after all, and the problem of maintaining a pro-Western Azerbaijan must look like a colossal headache to our policymakers. In which case, although the West would surely like to have its own pliant client heading up Azerbaijan, if it came down to a showdown in Russia’s backyard, we could count on the West sticking to its usual cowardly ways and allowing the Russians to force their way into Baku again.

In any case, there will likely be no British expeditionary force – or Turkish, or American – to come to Azerbaijan’s defense if Aliyev’s grip becomes weak. For the sake of the world, maybe we should all feel fortunate. Instead, the agents of the West will come quietly, with smiles. To replace him with the corrupt oil man Rasul Guliyev or some other "democrat," they will try to subvert, corrupt and co-opt under Aliyev’s nose. The Bulgarian from the OSCE is at it again, commenting that his organization "deplores" the new election law. In 1999, the head of NDI’s office in Baku did his best to appear indignant, because Azerbaijan’s CEC chairman had publicly accused him of being a "spy." No, really?


Heydar Aliyev – Heydar "Baba" – will be getting weary about now. He may be in the unfortunate situation of having a brain far stronger than his body, because those who have met the septuagenarian say his mind is fully alert and active. These days, Aliyev is perhaps thinking of a line from a tune by another "old blue eyes," Frank Sinatra: "And now, the days are short, and I’m in the autumn of the year." And he may be wondering whether he can hold onto power until his heart gives out.

However repulsive Aliyev may be in some ways, there is something more repulsive – and that is imperialism. The alternative to Aliyev – or someone else who refuses to bow his head to a foreign state – is a loss of Azerbaijan’s sovereignty. Democracy is not the only prerequisite to the Rule of Law. Sovereignty is as well. While Azerbaijan may have little of one, it may soon be about to lose the other in all but a formal sense – and hence all hope.

A scumbag from the oil industry picked out Washington’s hat to head up Azerbaijan would be rather tragic for the war-torn country. It would go the way of all those dumps in the Balkans, eastern Europe and the ex-USSR where "democracy and human rights" are blossoming according to the West’s official line. So while sanctimonious Western commentators proclaim their disgust, carp, and whine about Aliyev’s "Byzantine" regime, clan-like economy, corruption, etc., etc., there is reason to cheer Aliyev on – quite apart from the impulse to oppose the lying Western governments and NGOs. Aliyev may be a dictator from the nomenklatura, but at least he is nobody else’s dictator. Furthermore, as Prof. Audrey Altstadt says about Aliyev in her brilliant 1992 study of the country, The Azerbaijani Turks:

Because Aliyev cannot be regarded as weak, uninformed, lax, or obtuse, it can be supposed that he permitted, perhaps even encouraged, this upsurge of national self-investigation, this exploration of historic identity, and this expression of national pride. If Aliyev approved this process, then his era and his legacy are indeed complex.

Also, Altstadt writes:

Some policies – the return of folk music to local radio, the flourishing of Azerbaijani literature, and the study of history – were attributed by Western observers to Gorbachev’s "new thinking." In fact, they were phenomena of the Aliyev period.

Aliyev obviously cannot conceive of what is necessary to build the Rule of Law, but he is surely always aware of the extent of his country’s sovereignty because – despite the constant external threats to his control – he still holds that sovereignty in his aged hands. As he prepares to shake off this mortal coil, therefore, maybe he will try to eliminate Azerbaijan’s "internal enemies" – much in the way he was trained to do as a SMERSH agent all those years ago – in order to keep the locus of Azerbaijan’s political power in Azerbaijan. Maybe, as the foreign agents inch closer, he will consider unleashing a sweep operation to rid Azerbaijan of the danger once and for all. Operation "Death to Spies," for instance?

Author: Ira Glunts

Ira Glunts first visited the Middle East in 1972, where he taught English and physical education in a small rural community in Israel. He was a volunteer in the Israeli Defense Forces in 1992. Mr. Glunts lives in Madison, N.Y., where he operates a used and rare book business.