GAIDAR ALIYEV went as far in life as a boy from this obscure corner of the Soviet empire could go.
A decade ago the Azerbaijani strongman capped a lifetime of devotion to the communist cause with his appointment as a full member of the Soviet Communist Party Politburo, one of the 13 most powerful men in the Soviet Union.
Now Mr. Aliyev has returned to his roots. He has exchanged his Kremlin roost for a spare office in a two-story concrete building overlooking the central square of this dusty town of 70,000. His jurisdiction has been reduced to this small mountainous Azeri enclave, surrounded on three sides by Armenia and situated across the Araz river from Iran and Turkey.
Aliyev, who says he is no longer a communist, assails the bulky Slavs who once stood with him atop Lenin's tomb for "crimes against the Azerbaijani people." The man who is still revered in his homeland as the last and most powerful Turk in the ranks of the Politburo now calls some of his former comrades "imperialists." Surprising comeback
Aliyev was ousted from the Politburo's ranks in 1987 and apparently disappeared from political life. But since his return from Moscow two years ago, Aliyev has managed a surprising comeback. He was elected simultaneously to both the Azeri parliament and the legislature of the autonomous Nakhichevan region in 1990, becoming head of the latter in September of last year.
In the capital of Baku, talk of Aliyev returning to the helm has grown from a whisper to a virtual drumbeat. Since the government of President Ayaz Mutalibov fell in late March due to the growing war with Armenians in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, there is growing belief that only the old fox can save the country.
"Aliyev is very clever," says Misha, an Azeri refugee from Armenia now driving a Baku taxi. "He knows how to do many things.... If he became president, Armenia wouldn't have a chance. They would know who they were dealing with."
The former Communists, grouped around Azerbaijan's acting President Yagub Mahmedov, and the nationalist Popular Front are battling for power before an election set for June. But both sides joined in one thing - passing a constitutional amendment setting an upper age limit of 65, which bars Aliyev from the election. When Aliyev became head of the Nakhichevan parliament, they removed a provision that gives that office-holder the post of vice chairman of the Azeri parliament.
"They are afraid of Gaidar Aliyev," says Eldar Namazov, head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Baku - so afraid that they are careful to court him too. After taking office, Mr. Mahmedov, with the Popular Front's backing, restored Aliyev's parliament post.
While the turmoil deepens in Baku, Aliyev is content to rule his small land of Nakhichevan, home to 320,000 Azeris. Iranians and Turks cross the river to court him; the latter offer up to $100 million in aid.
Aliyev's hair has thinned and turned gray since the days he held sway in Baku. He walks into a room, wearing a well-tailored gray suit and blue-pattered silk tie, with the air of man in charge, shaking hands with each man in the small crowd gathered to seek an audience with him.
Aliyev smiles when a visitor recounts that in the capital, the politicians fear his intentions but the taxi drivers praise him.
The wily Azeri picks up a recent article on him in a Russian weekly and a front page story in a Turkish daily about his recent visit there. "Now much is being written about me," he says, clearly pleased with the attention while denouncing the "prejudices" of some the authors. "But I was always written about."
Aliyev's career runs remarkably parallel to that of the only other non-Slav to rise to Communist Party heights in the 1980s - former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who recently returned to political life in the nearby Trans-Caucasus republic of Georgia. Like the Georgian, Aliyev rose in the ranks of the security police, joining the local branch of the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs in 1941, and ultimately becoming chief of the Azerbaijan KGB in 1967. Two years later he became hea d of the Azerbaijan Communist Party, a post held until 1982.
Aliyev and Mr. Shevardnadze were both prots of then-KGB chief Yuri Andropov, also mentor to another rising star, Mikhail Gorbachev. All these men shared a commitment to a renewed Soviet state, combining economic efficiency and austerity. Aliyev and Shevardnadze won reputations as tough leaders fighting the corruption rampant in this part of the Soviet empire, and were credited with holding nationalist movements in check.
Andropov's moment at the top as party boss was cut short by illness, but Mr. Gorbachev picked up the cause after a brief interval. "In 1986-87, Gorbachev could have put his stake in Aliyev rather than Shevardnadze and Aliyev would have performed the same function," comments Isa Gambarov, the head of the Azeri parliament's foreign relations committee and a leader of the nationalist Popular Front.
Instead Gorbachev and Aliyev had a falling out in 1987 (something Shevardnadze avoided until three years later), with the Azeri leaving his party and government posts under a cloud of rumors about corruption.
Nonsense, retorts Aliyev, who puts the blame on Gorbachev's dicatorial behavior inside the party leadership and his "empire policy, his chauvinist sentiments toward the [non-Russian] republics," particularly the Muslim-populated states.
Gorbachev believed "that as long as Moscow decided something, that is enough," Aliyev says, anger rising in his voice. 'Imperialist policy'
Aliyev points to Gorbachev's 1986 leadership shakeup in the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan, where he replaced the Communist Party leader, Dinmukhamed Kunayev, with a Russian friend without any experience in the republic. When nationalist youth took to the streets in protest, they were brutally suppressed.
"Instead of realizing the mistake he made, Gorbachev took measures to prove he was right.... Those young people were called nationalists, criminals, drunkards, drug addicts," Aliyev says. "For the sake of Gorbachev's imperialist policy, the whole Kazakh people was punished."
Aliyev joined the Communist ranks in 1943, at the age of 20. "I believed completely in the ideals of the party and actively implemented into life all party plans," he says, still using the stiff language of party tracts and speeches. "Now this faith has completely crumbled."
The loss of faith was a process of many years, he says. There were events like the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan which Aliyev, then a candidate member of the Politburo, supported at first. But later, when much blood had been spilled, "I concluded a grave mistake had been made - maybe not a mistake but something characteristic of an imperialist policy."
For the son of this Middle Eastern edge of the Russian empire, the final straw was Gorbachev's dispatch of Soviet Army troops into the streets of Baku on Jan. 20, 1990 to smash nationalist disturbances. The use of force left more than 100 people dead, an event that remains the source of deep anti-Russian feelings in Azerbaijan. Aliyev leaves party
"On Jan. 21, I participated in a protest rally in Moscow," Aliyev recalls. "At that time, I made the decision to leave the Communist Party of the Soviet Union," but the pressures of his Politburo comrades made him put off the act until last summer.
When Aliyev returned to his birthplace, he was already talking of national independence from the Soviet Union. He regularly stood in the parliament to assail the Azeri Communist leadership for responsibility in the killing and loyalty to Moscow.
"From his first days as a people's deputy, his position has been identical to the Popular Front," Mr. Gambarov, the nationalist, acknowledges. "His words were sometimes supported by concrete steps," he adds grudgingly, "but we have a certain mistrust of all former Communist leaders of Azerbaijan."
Nonetheless, it seems few Azeris here hold Aliyev's past against him. Many seem eager to believe that communism was imposed by Russian invaders. "Communism in Azerbaijan never became a national ideology," asserts Mr. Namazov.