Death of a Patriot

The death of former President of Azerbaijan Abulfaz Elchibey on Tuesday, August 22, passed quietly in the news. Given Western media’s penchant for sensation over substance, this shouldn’t have been too surprising, but it should have at least raised an eyebrow or two. Back in May of this year, at a conference in Washington devoted to the dispute over the Armenian-inhabited region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azeri speaker said: "I know Americans don’t believe in conspiracies, but I come from a part of the world where they are real." He was referring to the shootings in the Armenian parliament in October 1999, which he lamented for their deleterious effect on resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute on terms favorable to Azerbaijan. But his words may have been unintentionally prescient with regard to the fate of his country’s ex-president as well.


Abulfaz Elchibey – born Abulfaz Aliyev in 1938 – was Azerbaijan’s most famous dissident during the Soviet period. A scholar of Arabic history and language, Elchibey was imprisoned in 1975 for speaking out against the Soviet regime. By 1988, he was the most prominent nationalist in Azerbaijan and played a key role in organizing huge demonstrations in the capital, Baku, calling for independence from Moscow.

Elchibey came from the mountainous Azeri enclave of Nakhichevan, cut off from the rest of Azerbaijan by a strip of territory known as Zangezur. Stalin’s Armenian henchman Anastas Mikoyan secured Zangezur for Soviet Armenia shortly after Lenin’s death (Mikoyan also recommended to Lenin that Nagorno-Karabakh be included in Azerbaijan). Sandwiched between Armenia and Iran, the Autonomous Republic of Nakhichevan shares a tiny border with Turkey – a border whose political significance far outweighs its actual size. Unlike the Russian-speaking residents of the USSR’s fourth largest city (Baku), the inhabitants of Nakhichevan – the "Nakhichevantsy" – speak exclusively Azeri, a language very like Turkish. The disproportionate influence of the Nakhichevantsy in Azeri politics has led some to joke that the country should have been called the Republic of Nakhichevan, and the rest the "Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan."

Elchibey became chairman of a political movement known as the Azerbaijan Popular Front (APF). The more literal translation in English would be "National Front," but apparently for reasons of Western political correctness this was not the name used in English reports. In 1992, Elchibey was elected president by a believable percentage – about 60%.

Democracy can look ugly to many, and it certainly did in Azerbaijan. For the entire Soviet period, the Azeri residents of Baku – the "Bakintsy" – had become used to cosmopolitan life in their charming capital, mixing and even intermarrying with Russians, Armenians and other nationalities living there. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the APF came to power, Azerbaijan’s villagers – the "peasantry" – asserted their influence on society in the new independent state. Russians, Armenians – even Azeris – started packing their bags and leaving Baku as the people from the countryside – gold teeth a-glinting – moved into the capital. The rural intellectual Elchibey seemed to personify a transformation in Azeri society that much of the urban intelligentsia found abhorrent.

During less than a year as head of state, Elchibey’s government introduced a national currency, created a national army with a minimum conscription age, reintroduced the Latin alphabet for the Azeri language, and transferred jurisdiction of the penitentiary system from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) to the Ministry of Justice. Elchibey also codified the legal rights of Azerbaijan’s ethnic minorities, allowed freedom of assembly and mass media, and ordered the removal of all Russian troops garrisoned within Azerbaijan’s borders.


Elchibey’s tenure in office witnessed an intensification of Armenian military offensives in the west. With heavy military assistance from Russia, the Armenians drove over a million Azeris out of their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding territories, leaving some towns looking like "ethnically cleansed" forerunners of Grozny, Chechnya, after the Russian offensive of 1999. The effect on morale was devastating. One Azeri colonel from the city of Ganja, Suret Husseinov, had managed a string of victories against the Armenians on the battlefield before retreating. In Ganja, Russian troops evacuated their barracks leaving behind an arsenal of weapons. Husseinov and his men picked up the cache of guns and marched on Baku to oust Elchibey.

At this time point, former Azerbaijan SSR First Secretary Heydar Aliyev – a 70-year-old ex-KGB general and USSR First Vice Premier – emerged from the wings. It was officially reported that Elchibey had "invited" Aliyev to Baku to take charge of the government. Elchibey boarded a plane back to Nakhichevan as Aliyev took the reins of presidential power and Husseinov became premier. Aliyev later imprisoned the pro-Russian Husseinov after the latter’s involvement in a coup attempt.

Elchibey retreated to the village of Keleki in the Ordubad district of Nakhichevan. He stayed there for four years until 1997, when he finally accepted Aliyev’s invitation to return to Baku. From 1993-95, one Western government after another withdrew recognition of Elchibey as legal head of state.


I traveled to Keleki in 1995 with one of two remaining members of parliament from the APF. An elaborate collection of passport stamps was necessary to make it to Nakhichevan, including a special visa for the autonomous republic. The road to Ordubad from the city of Nakhichevan paralleled the border with Iran. I was told that a sign reading "Death to Americans" had long been visible to Azeris venturing to a distant customs checkpoint. It had formerly read "Death to Americans and Israelis," but political circumstances had changed slightly to merit the crossing-out of the other enemy of the Islamic Republic.

It took about an hour and a half – far up a narrow dirt road through the mountains – to reach Keleki from Nakhichevan by car. Along the road to Keleki were one or two small villages, where gaunt inhabitants could be seen peering out of their stone homes to witness the approaching car. My companion informed me that all these people were "Elchibey’s," and that even if the government could get military vehicles up the rocky, winding track, the locals would block their path and rain rocks down on them. By the looks of things, however, these people and the lightly armed Elchibey loyalists at the guardpost near Keleki would not have five minutes in the event of a shoot-out with Aliyev’s forces.

The scenery became increasingly stunning as the little Soviet fiat chugged up toward the snowcaps near the Armenian border. There could be no more bucolic atmosphere for a political figure in exile. Inside the tiny village, a complex of white wooden buildings was shaded by large apricot trees, and a small river meandered loudly off to one side. One house was immediately recognizable as a "working" building, with the blue, red and green tricolor of independent Azerbaijan hanging over the front porch and two satellite antennae pointing upward from the structure’s right side.

Elchibey’s appearance and demeanor immediately made me aware that I was not dealing with a politician. A tall, wiry, bearded man with frizzy gray hair and long, spindly fingers, Elchibey did not cut a typically "presidential" form. His slightly wild gesticulations reminded me more of an eccentric Latin professor furiously trying to explain the complexities of the subjunctive than someone who had made a life in politics. He had an air of erudite gentility about him that contrasted sharply with the Azeri political mold of the day. This was not someone who had scraped and back-stabbed his way up Soviet Azerbaijan’s political ladder.

His speech was honest and straightforward, and his face, despite showing the wear and tear of KGB prison time, was warm and sympathetic. His frequent smiles revealed the odd gold tooth, and his body was fidgety and animated. A portrait of Mehmed Emin Rasulzade, president of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic from 1918-20 hung on the wall behind his desk. Aliyev has always preferred to have a picture of himself hanging behind him to eliminate any chance of mistake about the identity of the greatest Azeri who ever lived.

Elchibey spoke about the state of democracy in the Caucasus, and said that none of the three republics could be a democracy unless each was. He spoke in very harsh terms about the role of Russia in the Nagorno-Karabakh war and in the Caucasus generally. He viewed Heydar Aliyev’s regime as a "temporary setback" to the development of a "self-governed society" in Azerbaijan, and spoke optimistically about the advent of democracy in the republic in the near future.

I asked him whether he thought Azeris had confidence in him after he fled the capital in the face of the Ganja revolt. "If I had stayed in the capital there would have been civil war," he replied. "I always knew that civil war in Azerbaijan would start not in the regions, but in the center." Elchibey may have reflected on events in Georgia in January 1992, when democratically-elected President Zviad Gamsakhurdia had bravely hunkered down in the presidential palace as forces acting on behalf of former Georgian SSR First Secretary Eduard Shevardnadze advanced down Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare. The historic buildings of Rustaveli Street were partially demolished by rebel tank shells before Gamsakhurdia escaped, and the resulting civil war lasted well over a year. Gamsakhurdia was eventually hunted down and murdered in western Georgia. "The situation looked hopeless, and I decided it was better to leave than precipitate the destruction of Baku by tanks and artillery," said Elchibey. "I think the people believe what I did was right."

Despite his appearance, Elchibey said he had not grown tired of politics. "I still have a dream of a united Azerbaijan," he said, with an air of naiveté. In 1828, following the second Russo-Iranian War, the Russian and Persian empires partitioned "Azerbaijan." By the early 1990s, over 20 million ethnic Azeris lived within Iran and only 7 and a half million in the ex-Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. "Every empire disintegrates sooner or later, and Russia and Iran are no exceptions."

His big regret was never having passed a new electoral law during his time as president. He had aimed to destroy the Soviet system of procurators, "where one man has power to decide guilt or innocence with a phone call." But he refused to conduct a witch-hunt against communists of the old regime, and 80-90% of government bureaucrats were allowed to stay on in their posts. He suggested that this may have been a mistake, but that he had always "trusted people" and assumed that at heart most of them really desired to "build democracy."


Elchibey checked into Gulhana Hospital in Ankara, Turkey, under a cloud of contradiction and confusion. Some APF officials were indignant at the suggestion that their leader was seriously ill, and claimed he was fine. He had been in Turkey for a month before his hospitalization, which made the reports that cancer was the specific reason for his trip rather suspect. Apparently, he had been unconscious at the time he left Baku. Shortly after entering hospital, Turkish doctors announced that Elchibey had "inoperable" prostate cancer. Still, on August 15th the Turkish Health Minister stated publicly that Elchibey’s condition was "good," that he was walking around, talking and receiving visitors. Even the most pessimistic forecasts gave Elchibey several months to live. So it was rather curious that only a week later Elchibey was dead.

Cancer varies from victim to victim, but generally it kills slowly. Even when the diagnosis is terminal, people usually survive at least a few months. All reports were that Elchibey had been up and about before being whisked off to Ankara, and certainly as recently as a year ago he appeared full of vitality. It may not have been significant that he was taken for treatment to Turkey, although certainly most political figures of influence seem to travel to America for their operations. Aliyev had gone to Turkey for a checkup, but only after receiving heart surgery in Ohio. Yet Elchibey – whose party had evidently experienced a large injection of funds in the previous couple of years and could certainly have afforded the trip across the Atlantic – ended up making Ankara his final destination, and was never seen alive again.


Who had most to gain from Elchibey’s death? It’s possible that the old KGB chief Aliyev was behind it. However, Elchibey was a useful presence to Aliyev. As long as Elchibey was alive, Aliyev could point to a genuine "opposition" within Azerbaijan. It might be a stretch to suggest that Aliyev and Elchibey were relatives, but they did share the same real last name and hail from the same region. It is not impossible that in a society as opaque as Azerbaijan’s, Aliyev and Elchibey were actually cousins. Even if Aliyev were not averse to bumping off a kinsman, many Azeris in Baku used to say Elchibey was "Aliyev’s man" because Elchibey’s pro-Turkish stance and widespread popularity served Aliyev’s interests in pursuing a pro-Western foreign policy. Elchibey’s followers may not have liked Aliyev, but they appeared to dislike Russia even more, and therefore generally sided with the ex-nomenklatura president over people like Suret Husseinov. Aliyev had little to gain from having Elchibey killed.

What about Moscow? Recently, supporters of pro-Russian Azerbaijan SSR former First Secretary Ayaz Mutalibov – who recently established a website with a picture of himself impersonating Elvis Presley ( – staged a demonstration in Baku calling for a renunciation of the "Azeri nationality" and closer ties with Moscow. Again, this would appear unnecessary. Elchibey was popular, but had been politically incapacitated by a combination of Aliyev’s power and his own lack of political savvy. Even if Moscow were so inclined, it is doubtful the Russians would spirit Elchibey away to Turkey. Better to involve him in a car "accident" or a gangland-style shooting.

Ironically, the death of Elchibey served the interests of many within the APF itself. The party had recently split into two factions: the "traditionalist" wing under Elchibey, and the "progressive" faction under dapper young First Deputy Chairman Ali Kerimov. Reports of fights breaking out between the bodyguards of Elchibey and Kerimov had appeared in the press during the weeks before Elchibey’s death. Kerimov had recently been implicated in the disappearance of $154,000 from a "Presidential Fund" established by Elchibey. The entire contents of that fund, estimated at up to $30 million, are now gone.

Furthermore, while even those Azeris who didn’t agree with Elchibey’s politics never disparaged the character of the man himself, the same was not true of other high-level APF functionaries. The most common criticisms of the APF government were not directed at Elchibey, but at the "people around him." Indeed, there was always something eerily incongruous about the fact that Elchibey championed the Turkic character of Azerbaijan while many of his immediate deputies were Russian-speaking city slickers. Many Azeris had only harsh words for the trustworthiness and reliability of the APF leadership.

In 1995, the headquarters of the APF was a run-down old dump that smelled perpetually of urine – as though the police never wanted them to forget what they were in the eyes of the authorities. In 1999, the APF’s offices featured a sparkling conference room with wall-to-wall carpeting, new furniture, computers and glitzy glass partitions. The members of the party had traded in their shabby attire for designer suits and expensive watches. They had cell phones and rode around in big cars. Money had been coming in from somewhere.

If Washington was using money to raise the hopes of the APF progressives, a rude political awakening may be about to interrupt the dollar signs ringing up in their eyes. Washington undoubtedly never had any intention of seeing the APF return to power despite the enduring popularity of Elchibey. The West had little time for Elchibey’s government from 1992-93, and there is no reason to suppose it wants even a fraction of the upheaval that occurred during that time to be revisited. So if the APF progressives were involved in a plot to kill Elchibey – or were being paid to turn a blind eye – they may have won leadership of the party, but dashed their chances of leading a new government.

Last year, the NDI’s representative in Baku said that the APF and Musavat’s support in Azeri society was significant but not quantifiable, although he never revealed the source of his information. He said that these parties did not have the popularity or "organizational apparatus" of the Democratic Party of Rasul Guliyev (who hadn’t even been in the country for three years) or National Independence Party of shady political straggler Etibar Mamedov. Clearly Washington was not backing Elchibey. So unless the APF progressives were either stupid or just in it for the money with no hope of ever getting back in office, they couldn’t be the prime beneficiaries of murder. In fact, they would be well advised to watch their backs from here on out.

That leaves the West, for whom Elchibey was a distinct inconvenience. With parliamentary elections scheduled for November, Elchibey and the Democratic Congress looked to have a shot at a large percentage of seats in the Milli Mejlis (national legislature), second only to Aliyev’s Yeni Azerbaijan Party. Yet former Speaker of Parliament and Soviet-era oil industry official Rasul Guliyev – who had been residing in the United States since fleeing Azerbaijan in 1996 (reportedly with several hundred million dollars in state funds) – had recently registered as a candidate. NDI had been touting him as the most popular politician in Azerbaijan, and Elchibey represented an obstacle to the success of Guliyev and his Democratic Party – success that Washington may have viewed as essential to installing Guliyev as president later on.

Without Elchibey, the Democratic Congress – a coalition of opposition parties including the Popular Front and Musavat – would have no charismatic, unifying force to lead it to victory at the polls. Furthermore, a dead Elchibey would leave Aliyev the usurper conspicuously alive to take the blame in the eyes of many Azeris, and the West grew sick of Aliyev a couple of years ago. Elchibey might have become fed up with Aliyev’s ubiquitous "minders," who, while keeping an eye on Elchibey for security reasons, might have been keeping him out of harm’s way – even if only incidentally. If Elchibey had succeeded in shaking off Aliyev’s goons once and for all, he may have done himself in, leaving Aliyev looking like Cain to Elchibey’s Abel. This strategy may already be working. At a memorial service in Baku, 50,000 Azeris turned out to pay their respects to their fallen leader. Heydar Aliyev was roundly booed when he made his appearance.

In Ankara, capital of a reliable NATO member, US and Turkish intelligence officers could have put an end to Elchibey more easily than in Baku. Under the pretext of opening him up to check the spread of cancer (if, indeed, he ever had it), an "anesthetic" could have been administered by means of a mask placed over nose and mouth. A burly MIT (Turkish secret service) agent dressed as a hospital orderly could have achieved the same outcome with a pillow. But the gas mask method would have been preferable because it could have been effected right under the noses of Elchibey’s bodyguards without arousing suspicion that anything untoward was going on. Then again, his bodyguards may have been bought and paid for as well.


Elchibey will probably not be remembered long in the West. His passing represents the end of a dying breed – the Soviet dissident who fought for freedom, only to be stabbed in the back by the US and allies. Yet even those who believe "the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim" would have found it hard not to like Elchibey. He was a decent, civilized man who had a dream for his country and tried to see the best in others. That his struggle did not fit in with Western plans for "stability" in the Caucasus did not mean he deserved to be murdered in a Turkish military hospital.

We should remember the fallen champions of democracy like Elchibey and Gamsakhurdia, even as war clouds gather on the horizon in the Caucasus. Russia did not like these leaders because they encouraged their people to vent pent-up Soviet frustrations by expressing national pride. But those of us who view war as an unacceptable evil should keep in mind that these figures were not convenient to the "War Party" in the West either. They were popular, and therefore as long as they were in power they diminished the West’s ability to control the area.

The Gulf War and the NATO offensive in Kosovo – featuring prime time ads for defense manufacturers – were televised high-tech firework displays that gave big weapons technology firms a chance to show off their wares to the rest of the world at the expense of ordinary folk on the ground in distant, largely forgotten countries. The more human among us tend to assume our governments will go to any length to avoid war, but that obviously isn’t the case. There is much at stake in Azerbaijan – enough to merit another months-long commercial for Western arms-makers in addition to the usual sleazy deals over oil between the West and big regional powers like Russia and Iran. As we gear up for a possible Kosovo II in the Caucasus, perhaps this time with a demonized regime in Azerbaijan if Washington fails to install its own stooge in power there, let’s remember those who valued human freedom over power and money – people like the late Abulfaz Elchibey.

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.