An ode to Heydar Aliyev and Azerbaijan

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If he were alive today, in 10 days from today late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev would have been 100 years old. He would have been five years older than the Turkish Republic. It is a telling coincidence that we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the inventor of the motto “One Nation, Two States,” symbolizing the eternal union of Türkiye and Azerbaijan, and the beginning of Türkiye’s second century.

Heydar Aliyev came from the farthest point of Soviet Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan, in the dark days of Stalinism and World War II, to the highest point of adoration and admiration not only in his beloved Azerbaijan and Türkiye but all the members and observers of the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and Hungary. He represented the indomitable character of all peacemakers when he declared a cease-fire with the neighboring Armenia when it began occupying one-fifth of Azerbaijan, and he exemplified the shrewdness of all state-builders when he recreated Azerbaijan on the heels of disintegration and civil war.

When Aliyev became president of the autonomous Nakhchivan state, he unblinkingly signed a cease-fire agreement with Armenia that had started the First Nagorno-Karabakh War and was busy occupying Azerbaijani Karabakh, believing that fighting a war with the powerful and unified Armenians would result in more land losses, and perhaps losing the independence of the country. Very few believed him; his nemeses in Baku were accusing him of acting cowardly. He served in the cloisters of the communist system during the darkest days of the Soviet Union; he knew that Azerbaijan did not have an experienced army. The Soviets deliberately kept the Azerbaijani troops in the back service of the Soviet Army. Even in the hectic days of the Afghanistan occupation when the Russians needed every single man on the front to fight with the Taliban and Afghan resistance, the Soviet brass kept Azerbaijanis in the logistical services claiming that they would not fight with their Uzbek coreligionists. The Azerbaijani armed forces were neither armed nor forceful. The county had half of the oil and gas reserves of the Caspian Region but not one single refinery to produce its gasoline. It exported crude oil to Russia as cheap as dirt and imported gasoline at exorbitant prices. In order to rescue Karabakh, you had to have your house in order: an independent financial system and resources to maintain statecraft.

A will fulfilled

Years later, his son and his successor Ilham Aliyev would tell the world when he entered Shusha, the center of the liberated Karabakh, it was the will of his father that had been fulfilled 27 years later. Because it took almost that long to rebuild Azerbaijan, which has been devastated by the Soviet system and the corruption it sustained as its handmaiden. When he had served as head of the Azerbaijani KGB, Aliyev ran an anti-corruption campaign that made him the undisputed leader of Azerbaijan. He was elected first secretary of the Central Committee of the Azerbaijan Communist Party and made some progress in the fight against corruption: a number of people were sentenced to prison terms, and in 1975, five factory and collective farm managers were sentenced to death for gross corruption. In the early 1980s, Aliyev barred the children of the corrupted government cadres from attending law school to eliminate institutionalized corruption.

All these visionary efforts paid off in no time. After coming back to Baku after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and resuming the leadership of his country, Aliyev’s efforts led to considerably increased economic, social and cultural growth rates in Azerbaijan. After signing a cease-fire agreement with Armenia in May 1994, and as a result of the secure environment it created, Aliyev signed on Sept. 20, 1994, the “Contract of the Century,” the ground-breaking Production Sharing Agreement (PSA) between the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) and a consortium of 11 foreign oil companies from six nations for the development of an area that covered three major oil fields in the Azerbaijan sector of the Caspian Sea.

In an interview he granted to me when we visited the U.S. and the U.N., he simply delineated a road map not only for the development of his own country but also for the liberation of the Azerbaijani territory from the Armenian occupation. It was such a novel idea that Türkiye and Azerbajian were actually two states under one nation, my editors thought that we had a bad recording. We had to call back the Azerbaijani U.N. mission to verify the now-famous motto.

In the following years, Heydar Aliyev was busy having the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Security Council enact resolutions condemning the occupation of Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. But, alas, neither Armenians nor their patrons in France, Germany and Russia appreciated the value of this peaceful approach. Heydar Aliyev’s son and successor Ilham Aliyev had to put on the military boots his father took off when he signed the cease-fire agreement and walk to evacuate the Karabakh from the invading Armenians.

That second war in Karabakh had become the recapitulation of that now-famous description of the union between Türkiye and Azerbaijan. As President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed valiantly, “Everything Türkiye had belonged to Azerbaijan and everything Azerbaijan demanded would be theirs.” One nation of the two states removed the occupiers from what belonged to a brother state. Heydar Aliyev’s visionary ideal was also at work in creating the Turkic union in Central Asia.

Turks usually infer an attribute to the word “Azerbaijan”; we call it “can Azerbaycan.” “Can” (pronounced “jan” as in Azerbaijan), is one of those multiple-meaning words in the language, meaning sweetheart, life, spirit and many other things that seem related to love. Azerbaijan is all those and more for Türkiye. Heydar Aliyev is the reviver of the old flame that now rekindled that union.

Long live “Can Azerbaycan.”

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