Aliev In Britain
By Mark Almond

The Daily Mail
July 20, 1998

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Tomorrow New Labour’s ethical policy will drown symbolically in a poisonous cocktail of blood and oil when the Queen shakes hands with Azerbaijan’s President Aliev. Her Majesty may be forgiven for thinking this is one export-driven photo-opportunity too many. The Queen has dutifully entertained tyrants of all stripes but she has never had to shake hands with a SMERSH agent before.

Heydar Aliev from oil-rich Azerbajan, deep beyond the Caucasus in the south of the old Soviet Union, started his climb to the top of the greasy _ and in his case grisly _ pole as agent in the most feared unit of Stalin’s secret police in 1944. As fans of James Bond remember, SMERSH stood for "Death to Traitors." Its agents were hand-picked to be killers of Stalin’s enemies, real and imagined. Aliev’s rapid rise up the KGB’s hierarchy suggest that he was rewarded for his handiwork at the "wet" end of its deadly business. In more than fifty years of serving then exercising absolute power, Aliev has been ruthless abo ut getting his way. Whether hands-on as a young man or from behind a KGB bureaucrat’s desk, he has callously despatched unknown thousands to their fate.

Today, as President of Azerbaijan his secret police regularly arrest scores of critics allegedly plotting against him and thousands languish in his old haunts, the ex-KGB prisons. Others simply disappear. Yet Aliev’s Azerbaijan is respectable. There is one word to explain
this bizarre fact: Oil. 

Aliev’s is a rags to riches story _ but one built across the bones of rivals and the backs of his own people. A poor boy from one of the most remote Soviet regions he clawed his way to the very top in the Kremlin. In person he possesses the hypnotic charm of a Caucasian snake. He can smile but when he bites, it is in the throat. Whether as a servant of Stalin, crony of Brezhnev or master of his own would-be Kuwait on the Caspian Aliev has always mixed guile with gut-wrenching ruthlessness in order to get his own way. 

Under Brezhnev, Aliev’s sinsister fawning on the corrupt and senile Communist boss saw him rise through the KGB to become leader of the Azeri Communist Party. He repaid Brezhnev with a diamond studded gift worth $30,000 and put up a palace in his capital Baku for when the old man came snuffling for more trinkets. Nowadays visiting Western politicians and oil merchants vie with for the dubious privilege of sleeping where Brezhnev snored off a vodka-drenched banquet in his honour.

Aliev made it into the Politburo itself. He was the first Azeri, indeed, the first man of Muslim origin to enter the Kremlin’s holy of holies. But the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev catapulted Aliev from power and privilege. He was made the scapegoat for the rampant corruption gnawing away at the Soviet system.

Back home in remote Azerbajan, Aliev seemed finished. But the fund of connections and cash built up there over years at the top meant that he had the launching pad for a comeback once Gorbachev fell and the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991.

Aliev bided his time and then with the aid of a mixed gang of local mafiosi and ex-KGB he struck. Although he likes to describe himself as stepping into a power vacuum in June, 1993, in fact his elected predecessor, Elchibey, was toppled by a coup on the eve of just the sort of signing ceremony which fills Mr Aliev’s week in London. Suddenly the old Soviet boss of oil rich Azerbajan was back at the helm. Being a man who moves with the times and recognizing that lip-service to democracy is now the spirit of the age, Aliev decided to have himself elected president in October, 1993. As he remarked at the time, "I was always a democrat. It’s just that you didn’t notice."

Azeri democracy was uniquely Aliev-style. Arriving as an observer in one polling station, my passport details were entered in the voters' register then the ballot paper was filled out for me _ in Aliev's’ favour. My protests that I was a foreigner unable to vote were laughed off:  "The whole world wants Aliev to win."

Two Turks _ more in tune with the local customs _ voted several times for Aliev. Despite such farcical scenes the Western election observing agency, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, from describing Aliev’s electoral shenanigans as the "unimpeded expression of people’s choice." A few more impediments would have made for more democracy. But oil decreed that Aliev had won 98.9% of the votes _ a modest 1% fall from his last Soviet-era total. Aliev is up for re-election in October. I wouldn’t be surprised if Robin Cooke isn’t given a special postal vote to mark of Aliev’s approval of his well-oiled ethical foreign policy.

A gaggle of ex-Tory Mps and former Foreign Office diplomats know the value of keeping in with Aliev. So does a host of stars of George Bush’s Administration. Aliev retains ex-Secretary of State, James Baker and Ex-National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and a galaxy of Washington insiders to polish his image and oil access to the levers of Western power.

No doubt none of these grand panjandrums would have touched Aliev the KGB general with a barge pole. But you can take the man out of the KGB, can you take the KGB out of the man? His ability to tap into Western politicians’ greed for consultancy fees is a sinister omen of the waning of our establishment’s ethical defences against taking foreign despots’ money since the Cold War.

The West’s oil men in Azerbajan itself are insulated from the terrible hardships of ordinary people there. No trickle down effect is noticeable so far as fat fees are paid up front to Aliev’s favoured few, especially family members like his son who run the local oil industry. Inside hospitals without basic equipment or Aliev’s overflowing prisons where TB is rife, Britain’s ethical foreign policy is likely to be regarded as a hollow joke.

Leaving ethics aside is Britain backing the future? Even Smersh agents die. Aliev is an astoundly lively seventy-five year old, but old men pass away. He has been careful to purge potential successors as likely impatient rivals. All the deals being signed this week could be so many pieces of paper if Aliev turns toes up. Once his predecessor, Elchibey was toppled his memos of understanding with Western companies went into the dustbin of history.

Cynical Bill Clinton has already started lining up a successor to Aliev even while his friend, Tony Blair is wining and dining Aliev. Clinton’s candidate is no natural democrat. Rasul Guliyev one of Aliev’s former aides as speaker of the Azeri Parliament, now spends a lot of time in the USA badmouthing his former boss. Denouncing corrupt oil deals is certainly popular among ordinary Azeris.

It could be that currying favour with Azerbaijan’s boss turns out to be worse than unethical. It might not even be profitable. The first act of any successor, democratic or otherwise, will be to rip up this week’s deals. That will be enormously popular with the long-suffering people of Azerbaijan. It would not be the first time oil companies have backed a corrupt regime only to see it toppled by revolution. Iran is just across the southern border. Twenty years haven’t passed since the Shah’s regime there fell in ignominy only months after he was received with pomp in the White House.

My guess is that once the infrastructure for Azerbajan’s twenty-first oil industry is in place. Aliev will fall or die _ or both (as is the way in that part of the world) _ and Western investments will be nationalised by his successor. Whatever you call its policy, the Foreign Office is likely to be left with oil all over its face.

Mark Almond is Lecturer in Modern History at Oriel College, Oxford. He has observed elections and visited prisons in Azerbaijan in 1993 and 1995.