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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 November 2005, 16:54 GMT
Dead leader still influences Azeris
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Baku

Omar Eldarov with sculpture
Omar Eldarov's statues express lasting power of Heydar Aliyev

The image of Azerbaijan's former strongman Heydar Aliyev looms over the Caucasus republic in the troubled run-up to Sunday's parliamentary election.

Back in Soviet times Omar Eldarov used to sculpt communist idols.

These days, he seems busy carving just one face.

For Azerbaijan's leading sculptor, business is booming. Over the past two years, Mr Eldarov's studio alone has been turning out nearly a sculpture a month of the late Heydar Aliyev.

"He was a great man, a great politician. And a true father of the Azerbaijani nation," Mr Eldarov says.

In the early 1990s Heydar Aliyev - a former Politburo member and Soviet-era KGB boss - came back to Azerbaijan. Back then, the country was ravaged by war and the chaos that followed the collapse of the USSR.

Heydar Aliyev cleaned it all up. He established stability, signed a ceasefire with neighbouring Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and opened Azerbaijan's massive oil reserves to the West.

It was all going smoothly. The money started pouring in, as billions of dollars' worth of oil contracts were signed. British Petroleum led the way as Western companies came in to develop offshore Caspian oilfields.

Grandfather Heydar

But then in the spring of 2003 Heydar Aliyev clutched his heart and collapsed from a heart attack, live on television.

Poster of former Azerbaijan President Heydar Aliyev in Baku
There is no one like him in the current government and that's why cultivating his image is so important
Rustam Seydov,

The reins of power passed from father to son, in an election that observers said was marred by fraud and violence. Police beat up dozens of demonstrators and hundreds were thrown in jail.

Since then, Azerbaijan's rickety democratic record plummeted further.

Ilham Aliyev inherited a country of immense oil wealth. But it was also blighted by widespread poverty and rampant corruption, mass unemployment and a lack of democracy.

These are still major issues in the upcoming parliamentary election - the first since Heydar Aliyev's death.

Heydar Baba, or Grandfather Heydar, appears on street corners here, schools and parks are named after him. His face recently adorned TV screens in Azerbaijan as the new logo for state television.

Azerbaijan's First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva - a candidate in this election - is president of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation.

Several months ago, her husband, President Ilham Aliyev, became the first Azerbaijani to receive the country's highest medal - that of his father.

On many giant billboards across the country, Ilham Aliyev now stands next to his father. His arms folded across his chest, he looks pensive, as if listening carefully to Heydar Aliyev's advice.

The joke in Azerbaijan is that Ilham Aliyev is asking his father for help. And, for a dead person, Heydar Aliyev is doing a remarkable job of helping.


Rustam Seydov, an Azeri journalist and self-proclaimed biographer of Heydar Aliyev (there is, of course, an official one), says the government needs Heydar Aliyev's name to hang onto power.

The father of the nation looks down over school lessons
"Like most strongmen he did enjoy genuine popularity," Mr Seydov explains. "There is no one like him in the current government and that's why cultivating his image is so important.

"The government is trying to show that Aliyev is to Azerbaijan what Ataturk was to Turkey. What they don't mention is the fact that his real achievement is creation of the former Soviet Union's first dynasty and an immensely corrupt system."

But for many here, including the young, Heydar Aliyev is still the household name.

"He was a great man, he was a great leader and he put Azerbaijan on the right path," says 22-year-old student Ilona.

In School Number 164 on the outskirts of Baku, as in most schools in Azerbaijan, photographs of Heydar Aliyev fill the lobby.

The school prides itself on being a modern reformist institution, where they have introduced experimental classes in democracy.

And of course Heydar Aliyev is used as the main example.

Government tool

Heydar Baba glances up from the pages of textbooks and down from the classroom walls, watching a room full of eight-year-olds reciting poems about him.

From a very early age children in Azerbaijan learn about how Heydar Aliyev brought stability to Azerbaijan and got the West to invest in the country's oil riches.

And it is precisely this memory, and Heydar Aliyev's popularity, that seems to be the main tool of the government candidates in this election, while the opposition says it is time to leave Heydar Baba behind.

But following in his footsteps is the most important promise of the government candidates.

It is not clear this promise will be enough for Aliyev junior to secure seats in parliament.

And that means that until the election, Heydar Baba is the only man with a truly secure place in Azerbaijani politics.

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01 Feb 05 |  Country profiles


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