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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Anticlimactic Birthday Bash

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BAKU, Azerbaijan -- It was supposed to have been a grand, Soviet-style occasion. The roads had been resurfaced, public buildings repainted and the Philharmonic Hall -- little more than a pile of rubble for as long as anyone can remember -- transformed into a gleaming ochre edifice that some say rivals the Sydney Opera House.

Azerbaijan's president, Heidar Aliyev, turned 80 on Saturday, making him, by some estimates, the oldest "democratically" elected leader in the world.

The leaders of Russia, Georgia and Ukraine had promised to take time out of their busy schedules to come to Baku to congratulate Aliyev in person, and Mstislav Rostropovich, the world-renowned Baku-born cellist, was booked to play a one-off recital.

But Aliyev collapsed at the end of last month (he has a bad heart) and was flown to a hospital in Turkey a week before his birthday. He had hoped to return in time for Saturday, but he was too ill and so he spent his big day in bed. As a result, there wasn't much of a festive feel to Baku at the weekend. The Philharmonic Hall, which should have had its grand opening on Friday, stood forlorn and empty -- Rostropovich canceled his plane ticket when he found out Aliyev was too unwell to come to the concert.

True, there were flags up all over the city, but Friday was Victory Day and they'd been put up on Thursday evening. Most people seemed to be doing their shopping as usual.

Then at midday I heard the faint beating of drums outside the Palace of Sport, and I rounded the corner to see several hundred officers in freshly pressed uniforms and shiny shoes gearing up to march to Freedom Square. There were representatives of the army, the navy and the air force and three brass bands vying for attention. The musicians wore white spats over their shoes and white plastic helmets, like sewage workers.

They weren't quite up to the standard of the Coldstream Guards (one of the drummers dropped his sticks as they rounded the bend beside the State Oil Co.), but they played a rousing tune.

It's a shame no one was there to watch them. I'd expected ministers and children waving Azeri flags, and all the shopkeepers who have portraits of Aliyev propped up on jars of jam. But no one bothered to come. The police didn't even stop the traffic, so the officers had to battle against the sound of car horns as they paraded along the road.

Aliyev flew home in the small hours of Monday morning. I hope no one let on that people were too busy buying carrots to celebrate his birthday.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.