The president of the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan has died, ending a political career of more than three decades. Heidar Aliyev, who was 80 and had a long history of medical ailments, died in a hospital in the U.S. city of Cleveland, less than two months after his son was sworn in as his successor.
Born in 1923, in a remote corner of Azerbaijan, Heidar Aliyev scaled the heights of political power during his life, ruling Azerbaijan under both communism and independence for a total of nearly 30 years.
Alexei Malashenko, an analyst who focuses on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Institute in Moscow, says he thinks Heidar Aliyev will be remembered more for the stability he fostered in Azerbaijan than for any other accomplishment. "I think that Heidar Aliyev leaves a high level of social and political stability in his country," he said. "Besides, he leaves a normal situation in the economy, perhaps not because of his own line, but because of oil. And, anyway, you have to recognize, if we compare the situation in Azerbaijan with the situation in Georgia, he did some things. Despite some tricks, he did some things. Of course, Azerbaijan is not Switzerland, or even Russia, but something has been done under his rule."
Mr. Aliyev got his start in the notorious Soviet KGB security police, rising quickly through the ranks to head Azerbaijan's wing of the service. He used the post as a springboard to the republic's top Communist Party job in 1969, which he held for 20 years. It was the era of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, and Mr. Aliyev was one of his most ardent followers.
In 1982, at the age of nearly 60, Heidar Aliyev was appointed to the Soviet Union's ruling politburo in Moscow, a rare honor for a member of an ethnic minority. But it was an honor that was to last for just five years, before Mr. Aliyev was shoved aside, amid the new reforms (perestroika and glasnost) initiated by then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Mr. Aliyev also suffered a heart attack during this time. So, he quietly returned to his birthplace, Nakhchivan. But by 1993, Azerbaijan was on the brink of civil war, and Mr. Aliyev was asked to return to the capital, Baku, by then-president Abulfaz Elchibey.
President Elchibey first made Mr. Aliyev the speaker of parliament. But the president was later forced to flee a revolt by Azerbaijan's army, which drove him into internal exile. Several months later, Mr. Aliyev officially became president, after an election in which he faced no serious opposition. At a party Congress that followed, President Aliyev declared that Azerbaijan had been saved from chaos.
Since communism's collapse, President Aliyev said, he sought to align his country with the West. At the same time, he added, he worked to retain sufficient ties with Russia, as well as manage equally delicate relations with Iran, Azerbaijan's neighbor to the south.
Mr. Aliyev has been most widely credited with bringing a measure of economic stability to Azerbaijan through the forging of joint ventures with Western oil companies worth billions of dollars.
Azerbaijan's offshore Caspian Sea oil and gas reserves have long been seen as the backbone of the country's future economic development. But in his later years in power, Mr. Aliyev said his government was working to develop other sectors of Azerbaijan's economy. This, after the president's critics claimed that little of the promised wealth from the so-called "black gold" was trickling down to the public.
The political opposition also accused the president of controlling the media, stifling dissent and doing little to stop widespread corruption.
The late president liked to claim that his greatest success was brokering the 1994 cease-fire with Armenian forces in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the mostly Armenian-populated enclave located in Azerbaijan. Mr. Aliyev said he brought his people peace and silenced the guns.
Tens-of-thousands of people have been killed in the conflict over the years, and a peace settlement remains elusive.
Still, during his day, the man many in Azerbaijan called Baba, or grandfather, had a mild cult of personality. Two museums are devoted to his life and works. He also has a mountain and a star named after him. And in 1999, parliament approved a law making the anniversary of his effective return to power an annual holiday, known as National Salvation Day.
President Aliyev had two children with his late wife, a daughter and a son. But it is his son, Ilham Aliyev, who has stepped into the political spotlight. He was inaugurated president after an election in October, which opposition parties claimed were rigged and international observers said was not free and fair.
The elder Mr. Aliyev suffered several bouts of illness toward the end of his life. He collapsed twice during a televised speech in April. He went to the United States for medical treatment in August.