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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Azeri Leader Calls For Equal Footing in CIS

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- President Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan, a wily veteran of Soviet politics and the KGB, has cautioned President Vladimir Putin that he must deal with former Soviet republics as equals, not as erstwhile client states with interests and policies subservient to those of Moscow.

"President Putin's program to have closer cooperation among the countries in general is useful, but it must be based on the principles of equality and mutual benefits," Aliyev said in an interview. "It cannot allow the hegemony of any country, including Russia."

Moscow's recent push to regain control of the country's far-flung regions and to recapture lost influence in former Soviet republics presents a new challenge for Aliyev, at 77 a crafty survivor of Kremlin intrigue who moved from KGB general to head Azerbaijan's Soviet-era Communist Party.

Aliyev, president since 1993, has sought to align his country with the West while retaining sufficient ties with Russia and managing equally delicate relations with Iran, Azerbaijan's neighbor to the south. Some Azeris fear Iran wants to export more radical Islam to this Moslem nation while at the same time hindering development of Azerbaijan's oil and natural gas reserves.

Aliyev has been credited with bringing a measure of economic stability to this country of 8 million people, particularly by forging joint ventures with Western oil companies to exploit Caspian Sea oil and gas reserves.

He also negotiated a cease-fire in the war with Armenia over the mountain enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, although a peace settlement remains elusive.

Critics complain that little of the promised oil wealth has trickled down to the general population. Some also accuse Aliyev of stifling political dissent by keeping opposition parties weak and substituting his strong personality for lasting institutional change.

The president, blunt and confident, scoffed at such criticism in an 80-minute interview last week in the presidential palace overlooking dozens of aging, abandoned oil derricks. He portrayed himself as the only leader with the ability and experience to guide Azerbaijan through the transition from communism to capitalism, at one point comparing himself to George Washington.

Rejecting concerns about his age and quadruple bypass surgery last year, he vowed to run for re-election in 2003, though some question whether the Azeri Constitution allows this. And he sharply chided the U.S. Congress for blocking government assistance to his country, blaming this on the influential Armenian-American lobby.

Under sanctions imposed by the U.S. Congress in 1992, Azerbaijan cannot receive direct financial assistance or training from the U.S. government. Armenia, on the other hand, receives $100 million a year in U.S. aid. The situation rankles Azeris at all levels of society and has made it more difficult to deal with the country's 1 million refugees.

"Your Congress, which likes to give lessons to the world about human rights, is ignoring human rights in this instance," Aliyev said.

Despite his confidence, Aliyev has difficulties at home. In the late 1990s, Baku was awash with dreams that huge oil strikes would transform the poor country, but those dreams have not come true, as the biggest recent oil finds have come on the other side of the Caspian in Kazakhstan.

"Expectations were so high a year ago, and only now are people realizing that you have to develop other sectors of the economy, too," said Haver Kambaizadeh, a former history professor who now works for a Western oil company.

Aliyev appeared aware of the disappointment, saying that 60 percent of the foreign investment in the country last year went into sectors other than energy.

However, some of that increase stems from a drop in energy-sector money. Some Western companies have cooled on Baku recently because of concerns about Aliyev's health and the lack of a clear successor.

In the interview, Aliyev seemed conscious of those fears. He boasted that his health is excellent, confirming statements by his aides that he has not taken a day off in seven years and intends to remain in office. "I will always be the president here," he said with a laugh.