Install

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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE GREAT GAME: Baku Buzzes With Its Own Health Scare




We had our own presidential health scare here last week in Baku and it proved much more exciting than the Yeltsin watch. When a dictator looks like quitting the scene, the whiff of change is both exhilarating and frightening.


Azeri President Heidar Aliyev was rushed off in a plane to Turkey last Sunday and, in an unprecedented move, the Ministry of Health put out a statement about his health. He had an acute respiratory viral infection. Nevertheless, he was responding to treatment and his condition was "completely satisfactory," it said.


The Turkish President Suleyman Demirel sent a team of doctors when he learned of his friend's ailment. Doctors also flew down from Moscow. But then suddenly they decided to fly him off to Turkey for treatment. The old fox walked onto the plane unaided and posed for photos in Turkey but he is still in the hospital and the local press are saying that it is serious and his heart is affected.


Who knows, but the event has suddenly stirred up the succession debate. The struggle will make fascinating watching, with such a lineup of colorful, grasping characters. It suddenly made me not want to leave. I am out of here as early as next week, off to a different job in a different place. But I will be watching them all from there, to see who comes out on top.


Leading the race is the president's gambling son, Ilham Aliyev, already groomed by his father to take over. A party boy with a dissolute face, he keeps saying he is not interested in politics but few believe him.


What we do not know is whether he has his father's steel to hold on to power. But the incentive is there. He has been raking in the money thanks to his family connections, as has his entourage, and that will be incentive enough to try to stay on top of the pile.


Then there is Rasul Guliyev, widely tipped to win whether it is an even contest or not. A former Soviet boss, speaker of the parliament and once crony of old man Aliyev, he became extremely wealthy from managing (or mismanaging) Baku's main oil refinery.


Then he got too ambitious and was pushed out. He is living in exile in the United States and risks arrest for corruption if he returns. He still has many friends in power though, and many are likely to support him when the time comes to jump.


Then there are the democrats, namely former President Abulfaz Elchibey, who can still bring a crowd of thousands out on to the streets. Not like his heyday when a million flooded Baku's Freedom Square, but still a force. Many supporters are from the regions and fought in the Karabakh war and they carry hate in their hearts for the current regime.


You can feel the war is close beneath the surface here. This week the country mourned its dead from Karabakh and from that black day, Jan. 20, 1990, when Soviet tanks crushed some 130 people in the streets of Baku.


Watching the tens of thousands of mourners swarming all day through Baku's main cemetery, weeping over graves of sons and comrades and laying red carnations on the pavement over the mass grave, I found myself thinking it would not take much to stir these people up. We could easily see violence here again.