Ailing Azerbaijan leader won't seek re-election

Friday, October 3, 2003

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Azerbaijan's ailing leader Geidar Aliev on Thursday announced his withdrawal from the presidential election, passing the ruling party's mantle to his son in what could result in the first family succession in a former Soviet republic.

Opposition politicians and independent analysts have long predicted that Aliev, 80, would attempt to install his son, Ilham, as president.

However, the presidential administration previously denied such plans -- even as Aliev laid the ground for a transfer of power by pushing through constitutional changes, appointing his son prime minister and seeing to it that Ilham Aliev was registered as a candidate in the Oct. 15 election.

Geidar Aliev, meanwhile, has not been seen in public since he was hospitalized July 8.

"Unfortunately, the state of my health does not allow me to realize my plans," Geidar Aliev said in a message to the Azerbaijani people read on state television. "I declare that I am withdrawing my name in favor of Ilham Aliev. I trust him as I trust myself and pin great hopes on him in what concerns the future of Azerbaijan."

Geidar Aliev, a former KGB chief and Communist Party boss, has governed oil-rich Azerbaijan since 1993, overseeing economic growth and stability in the formerly restive Caucasus Mountains country.

But critics say his government has stifled the non-state media, and Western observers have said the country's previous elections have not met international norms.

Azerbaijan also is troubled by the unresolved status of Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave under control of ethnic Armenian forces. Stability in the country is of increasing interest to the West as construction begins on an oil pipeline from Baku to the Turkish port of Ceyhan for export.

Ilham Aliev already was on the ballot as a presidential candidate but has said repeatedly he registered simply to help his father's campaign.

The Azerbaijani opposition, which long has speculated that Geidar Aliev is in fact dead or incapacitated, said his withdrawal bodes well for its own chances in the election.

Isa Gambar, a presidential candidate and the leader of the main opposition party Musavat, called the withdrawal "a recognition by the ruling regime that the era of Aliev has ended."

"This will lead to the victory of democratic forces at the upcoming election," he said.

Speculation about a transfer of power intensified when Geidar Aliev collapsed while giving a televised speech in April and was hospitalized for 11 days, some of it in intensive care.

Geidar Aliev returned to work, but in July he was hospitalized again for heart problems, first in Turkey and then in the prestigious Cleveland Clinic in the United States.

Baku residents reacted calmly to Thursday's news.

Makhpuba Zokhrabova, a 36-year-old housewife, said she had expected Geidar Aliev to withdraw and that she supported his son.

"This suits us because we will be sure that there will be stability," she said.

Ilham Aliev, 41, who before his August appointment as prime minister served as first vice president of the state oil company and a member of parliament, speaks English, French and Turkish. He is highly regarded in the West, and President Bush took the unusual step of sending him a letter of congratulations when he was appointed prime minister.

In an August interview with The Associated Press, the younger Aliev said he was committed to moving the country forward on democratic reforms.

"It will be naive to expect a country only 11 years old, who suffered occupation, civil war, several attempts at coup d'etat, (with) still hostile groups inside the country and outside the country ... (to achieve) the same level of democratic development like you have in Western Europe," he said.

"But the important thing is we are moving in that direction."

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