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Azerbaijan Election Marks End of an Era

October 14, 2003

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) _ In a shop in Baku’s Old City, there is only one carpet left with a portrait of President Geidar Aliev, Azerbaijan’s leader for most of the past 35 years.

But shopkeeper Spartak Kerimov says orders are already pouring in for carpets showing Aliev’s son Ilham, the leading candidate in Wednesday’s presidential election.

Geidar Aliev, who has not been seen in public since he was hospitalized abroad in July, pulled out of the race this month for health reasons.

``There’s no one else besides Ilham,″ said Kerimov, dismissing the other seven candidates. ``If (Aliev’s) son continues the same policies, it’s good enough for us.″

The election marks the end of an era in this former Soviet republic of 8.2 million. Geidar Aliev, 80, has held power here virtually uninterrupted since 1969 when he became head of the Communist Party. He worked his way up the KGB ranks before ascending the heights of Soviet power as a Politburo member.

His absence since he collapsed during a speech six months ago has left this oil-rich country on the Caspian Sea feeling rudderless and on the brink of change _ even if power stays in the family.

On election day, ``history won’t end, it’s only the beginning,″ said Eldar Namazov, an independent political analyst who heads the Public Forum for Azerbaijan.

Namazov said the elder Aliev had been like a lid on a boiling pot of tension, using the force of his personality to stem the outbreak of further war after a conflict with a mostly ethnic Armenian enclave broke out as the Soviet Union headed toward collapse.

Without Geidar Aliev, ``this pot will get even hotter,″ Namazov said.

Already, Namazov said, power is shifting toward the opposition and creating a potentially dangerous situation _ especially if Ilham Aliev’s opponents feel the election isn’t legitimate.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, deploying more than 600 observers here in one of its largest-ever monitoring missions, has already noted numerous campaign violations _ including violence at opposition protests incited by police or pro-government provocateurs, intimidation of opposition sympathizers and biased media coverage.

Opposition parties have called on supporters to surround polling places Wednesday and remain there until the results are known to prevent any foul play.

Aliev worked his way up the KGB ranks before ascending the heights of Soviet power as a Politburo member. He took the helm of independent Azerbaijan in 1993 after a bloodless military coup, and quickly sought a cease-fire in a war with ethnic Armenian separatists in the Nagorno-Karabakh region _ ushering in a period of relative stability and foreign investment, mostly in the oil industry.

After collapsing in April, Aliev was treated in Turkey and returned home only to be hospitalized again July 8 _ first in a Turkish hospital and now at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

Aliev pulled out of the race less than two weeks ago in an announcement read on state television. Officials have repeatedly pushed back the date of his homecoming while insisting his condition is ``normal.″

Ilham Aliev, 41, was named prime minister in August, ensuring power would stay in the family if the elder Aliev had died or was incapacitated before the vote. A top official at the state oil company, Ilham Aliev was educated in Moscow and has worked in Turkey. He speaks Azerbaijani, Russian, English, French and Turkish.

He has pledged to follow Geidar Aliev’s policies. ``Today’s independent Azerbaijan is his masterpiece,″ Ilham Aliev said Monday of his father.

At Kerimov’s carpet shop, the hand-woven Geidar Aliev carpets that once fetched up to $15,000 during the economic boom of the mid-1990s now sell for as little as $600.

Kerimov, 28, said he would vote for Ilham Aliev, mainly because he hopes he will maintain peace.

``It’s not so much that I trust Ilham, but I’m worried that if the others come into power things will get worse,″ he said.

But Tahir Hasanov, 60, another carpet seller passing by Kerimov’s store, said he has never sold Aliev rugs and would vote for Isa Gambar, leader of the opposition party Musavat, or Equality.

``He’s the father of corruption,″ Hasanov said, pointing to the Aliev carpet. As an example, he cited the labyrinth of bureaucracy and fees tourists must navigate to take carpets out of the country _ and even then customs officers try to extort bribes.

``There needs to be some change in power, we need something new,″ Hasanov said.

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