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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Presidential Infirmity Completely Submerged

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BAKU, Azerbaijan -- On Thursday I attended the launch party of a new semi-submersible oil rig that promises to be the largest and most powerful of its kind in the Caspian Sea. It was a surreal affair.

Over the last two years, the rig has grown from a couple of steel girders to a towering giant that dwarfs even the minarets of the Bibi Heybat Mosque a little further along the shoreline.

Guests began to arrive an hour before the ceremony was due to start. The rig stands on a derelict stretch of coast peppered with hundreds of defunct oil wells. Refugees from the war in Nagorny Karabakh live in wooden shacks along a dirt track, and their washing flapped in the late afternoon breeze as dozens of cars sped past toward the construction site.

At the rig itself, officials were busy putting up giant posters of the Azeri president, Heidar Aliyev, above the makeshift stage. In the photographs, the president looked years younger (he turned 80 in May), was wearing an oil worker's hard hat and smiling broadly.

Other officials were handing out placards bearing the president's portrait to a crowd of pensioners who had just been bussed in.

"Hold it high and don't let it tilt," I heard one of them say to an ancient man with no teeth. His friends were given Azeri flags to wave.

As we waited, a two-man combo played popular tunes on a violin and an electric organ. "We dedicate this song to the Azeri president," they said for the umpteenth time.

At last the dignitaries arrived. A shabby-looking brass band -- it looked as though the uniforms had come from a dressing-up box -- struck up the national anthem, and the old men vied with one other to lift their placards higher than anyone else.

Then the guest speakers took to the stage. One by one they lined up in front of the microphone, each giving a more glowing homily to the president than the last. Natiq Aliyev, the head of the State Oil Co., made a speech so long and so fulsome that even the interpreter looked bored.

What every one of them neglected to mention was the fact that Heidar Aliyev is critically ill in the hospital and, although officials deny it, by many accounts has less than a week to live. It reminded me of the end of Leonid Brezhnev's life, when everyone carried on as usual.

I have memories of him being propped up on Lenin's tomb and having his arms waved around to make it look as though he was enjoying himself when he was clearly about to die.

I hope when Aliyev's end comes they have the decency not to do that to him.

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