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Azerbaijan Mourns Former President Aliyev - 2003-12-15


Heads of state have joined hundreds of thousands of people in Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, for the state funeral of former president Heidar Aliyev, who died during the weekend in the United States following months of treatment for congestive heart failure.

Massive crowds thronged past Heidar Aliyev's closed casket in Baku's Palace of the Republic, where the late leader lay in state. His coffin was draped in the red, blue and green Azerbaijani flag and flanked by honor guards.

Azerbaijan is observing a week of national mourning as it prepares to bury the man, affectionately known as Baba, or grandfather, who led the nation for more than 30 years.

State television is broadcasting round-the-clock tributes to the late Mr. Aliyev, while radio stations are playing only somber classical music.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was among the neighboring leaders who joined mourners in Baku to pay final tribute to the elder Aliyev, a man he called a great friend of Russia. President Putin said he liked and respected the late Mr. Aliyev very much and that his death was, in his words, a bad loss.

At the same time, Mr. Putin said the primary task now is to intensify Russia's relations with Azerbaijan on the basis of Heidar Aliyev's efforts and ideas.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and neighboring Georgia's interim president, Nino Burjanadze, were also in attendance at the services in Baku.

The only neighboring leader noticeably absent was Armenian President Robert Kocharyan, whose country is locked in a bitter battle over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The United States was represented by Deputy Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones, as well as former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas.

The elder Aliyev's son, President Ilham Aliyev, sat in the front row of the huge auditorium with his wife and children.

The younger Aliyev came to power in October in a widely disputed presidential election, just months after his father ensured in his last public act that his son was installed as prime minister, creating what the political opposition called a political dynasty.

The opposition also accused the late president of controlling the media, stifling dissent and doing little to stop widespread corruption.

Yet supporters and even some critics credit Heidar Aliyev with bringing some measure of economic stability to Azerbaijan through the forging of multi-billion dollar joint ventures with western oil companies.

The question now, according to analysts, is: can Ilham Aliyev do the same?