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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Azerbaijan's Gathering Storm

Everything is calm in Azerbaijan at the moment. But it is time for the outside world to pay more attention to the storm that may be gathering in this oil-rich corner of the South Caucasus.

The situation is as follows: Presidential elections are scheduled for Oct. 15, but the country's 80-year-old president, Heidar Aliyev, is in a clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. Information on his condition is being withheld, but he has a history of heart problems and is clearly in very poor health.

Earlier this month Aliyev appointed his 41-year-old son Ilham prime minister, which puts him second in line constitutionally to his father. Both father and son are registered candidates for the October polls but everyone expects the elder Aliyev to step aside for his son. Ilham Aliyev is well-liked, but an entirely untested politician who lacks the skills of his father and may not cope with the burden of presidency.

His election would coincide with the beginning of construction on what is the biggest-ever infrastructure project to be built in the South Caucasus, the $4 billion Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which will take oil from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean and make Azerbaijan a major energy exporter to the West.

And to the south lies Iran, home to a population of around 20 million Azeris -- some three times more than live in Azerbaijan itself -- and facing its own time of troubles.

No one knows what the next few months will bring. With one interval, Heidar Aliyev, a KGB veteran, has governed Azerbaijan since 1969. He has been more or less a monarch. Every post in the land is filled by his personal appointees, every decision, large or small, passes across his desk. As one diplomat memorably said, "Every morning Aliyev looks in the mirror and decides he does not have enough control."

The big worry is that it is one short step from "l'?tat -- c'est moi" to "apr?s moi, le d?luge" and that a tide of pent-up problems will sweep through the country. Twice in the last three years riots, in the towns of Sheki and Nardaran, have been suppressed. In the main the protesters were desperately poor people, angry at being cut off from the country's growing oil riches.

What chance that these people will take to the streets once a vacuum appears at the top -- and can a police force and army, schooled in Soviet methods, refrain from a brutal crackdown if they do?

Azerbaijan is a corrupt and largely undemocratic country, but it is not a dictatorship and has a vocal opposition. They too will foment protest, if as seems likely, the governing regime tries to rig the October elections.

Finally, all this might be more or less containable were it not for the gravest danger of all, a resumption of fighting with the Armenians over the province of Nagorny Karabakh, the Armenian-populated enclave in Azerbaijan. Since the Armenians won the conflict over Karabakh in 1994, the South Caucasus has been scarred by a ceasefire line that cuts across Azerbaijan. There are no peacekeepers monitoring the truce, which is almost entirely self-regulated. This year has seen the worst violence for several years, as many dozen young soldiers have died in shooting incidents across the line.

The danger is growing that, as Azerbaijan's would-be presidents jockey for position, one of them will be tempted to play the patriotic card and launch a military strike against the Armenians. Before we know it, there might be a new war in the Caucasus, which would bring far greater loss of life than the 1991-94 conflict. Add to that the fact that at its closest point the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline runs only 30 kilometers to the north of the cease-fire line and the potential for global havoc is huge.

With some justification, Azerbaijan feels aggrieved about this much-ignored dispute. It still looks after hundreds of thousands of refugees and around 14 percent of what is internationally recognized as its territory is under Armenian control.

Yet under Aliyev, Azeris have continued to live by their myths and their leaders have signally failed to inform them what a peaceful solution -- and there is no other way -- means. Painful compromises have to be made to get the country's refugees home and most, if not all, of the land back. Azerbaijan also perpetrated aggression against the Armenians, and if it is to reclaim the Karabakh Armenians it claims to be its lost citizens, it will have to start a civilized dialogue with them, rather than accusing them of being "aggressors" or "fascists."

In these troubled times, it is the weary but essential job of outsiders to try and remind the Azeri political elite of their responsibilities to the region and their own public.

Hopefully that is the message U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage delivered when he met with Ilham Aliyev on Monday (the prime minister was in the United States to visit his father).

The country's leaders will be tempted to clamp down on dissent -- and to sell the repression to the oil firms and the West as a necessary act performed in the name of stability and the security of the pipeline.

Or to risk war with the Armenians by accusing them of breaking the cease-fire.

Both these courses could end in disaster. Fortunately Western governments still command respect in Azerbaijan, which also prizes its membership of the Council of Europe. Some robust diplomacy is needed to deliver the message that the West cannot afford more turmoil in the greater Middle East and the Azeri people deserve a fair deal from their rulers, if stability is to be maintained.

Thomas de Waal is author of "Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War" and Caucasus editor with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London. This comment appeared in Wednesday's edition of The Wall Street Journal.