Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE GEARE GAME: Azeri Leader Riding High In 75th Year




Seventy-five is a ripe old age and certainly worth some party. Last Sunday, the great survivor of Azeri politics, President Heidar Aliyev, celebrated his 75th birthday.


The former KGB chief and politburo member is firmly in place to rule into the next millennium. In keeping with his important persona, the celebrations were elaborate.


Aliyev told the television cameras, which faithfully relay his every move, that he had thought to celebrate by having a quiet little lunch party with his family. "But, well," he smiled, "people thought otherwise." Butter would not melt in his mouth.


Foreign dignitaries, including the presidents of Turkey and Georgia, arrived to congratulate him. I'm sure they did not come without an invitation. Ivan Rybkin came from Moscow and handed over an armful of red roses so big that neither he nor Aliyev could clasp their arms around it. They looked like they were hugging a tree.


Aslan Maskhadov, president of Chechnya, came offering his own Stechkin pistol that he carried with him throughout the war against Russia. He hoped peace would prevail in their two countries, he said, adding that he had never fired from the pistol.


The locals went even further in their search to do something special. Seventy-five climbers scaled the peak of a mountain in Azerbaijan and renamed it Heidar Baba, after the man many Azeris regard as a fatherly figure.


Some more enterprising guys were peddling Aliyev watches that bore the presidential signature across the face. People were snapping them up at $500 apiece, no doubt seeing them as a valuable collectors' item. The watches turned out to be fakes, which makes the story all the more glorious. Not everyone is a sycophant in Azerbaijan, but many are happy to go along with it if it helps them.


But Maskhadov's present of his own pistol goes deeper. It was a very personal gift and he is a very sincere man. I would expect him to give that pistol to his most trusted aide, one of the men who guarded his back through the war and stuck with him through what he has described as the grimmest moments of his life.


Instead, he chose to give one of his most important belongings to a man who is seen by many people as an old Brezhnevite crony, who is spoiled for gifts and compliments.


Watching Maskhadov on television it occurred to me that perhaps he had nothing else to give, so poor is his government and his war-wrecked country. Perhaps he also really owes Aliyev a huge debt. The Chechens always tell me Azerbaijan helped them in the war much more than ever will be admitted.


Aliyev is said to have given them the green light to move men, arms and money through Azerbaijan during the war. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of wounded Chechens fighters were cared for in Baku's hospitals.


But probably Maskhadov was acknowledging what all the other foreign dignitaries were. Oil-rich Azerbaijan is going to be a very wealthy country in future decades, a source of jobs, trade and support for Chechnya and the central hub of all business in the Caspian region.


There is only one man who matters in Azerbaijan, and only one man to talk to. That is Aliyev. If he likes gifts and flattery, it is hard to imagine who would deny them to him.