Azerbaijan Democrats On Verge of Losing Power

With the elevation of old Communist boss to a top post, this ex-Soviet republic seems poised for a return to the policies of the past

AS rebel forces gather within striking distance of Azerbaijan's capital, a former Communist leader has been elected back into power in a bid to restore a semblance of order. Geidar Aliyev, former first secretary of Azerbaijan's Communist Party and one-time Brezhnev strongman, accepted the post of chairman of parliament Tuesday after the incumbent, Isa Gambarov, resigned.

The military uprising began two weeks ago after government troops attempted to retake a rebel-held garrison in Azerbaijan's second city, Ganja. The uprising has gained widespread popular support and the Popular Front government has been thrown into disarray.

Clashes on June 4 between government forces and insurgent troops based in Ganja in western Azerbaijan left 68 dead and over 200 wounded, including many civilians.

Antigovernment resentment spread so quickly to neighboring regions that Azerbaijan's prime minister was forced to resign. But forces belonging to the insurgent military commander, Suret Guseinov, took several more towns in western Azerbaijan and continue moving toward Baku, meeting little resistance.

United States Embassy officials in Baku confirmed that troops from Ganja have reached towns barely 60 miles from Baku.

After a two-week standoff, the Popular Front government of President Abulfaz Elchibey appears to have given up the struggle. "It's the end of the Popular Front," said Jehangir Husseinov, editor of the Baku daily newspaper Ayna. "Elchibey might stay on as a figurehead, but he will have no real power."

"It's like a play - the plot is unfolding day by day," he said. "Suret Guseinov was manipulated from the start. The whole thing was arranged to bring Geidar Aliyev back as a national hero." Brezhnev crony

Mr. Aliyev was a senior Politburo member in Brezhnev's Soviet government. Now 70, he has ruled the autonomous republic of Nakhichevan with an iron fist since 1991 as chairman of parliament. He remains very popular among the older generation of Azerbaijan, who see him as a strong leader and a reminder of better times.

"He will bring back very pro-Russian policies," said Leila Aliyeva, deputy director of Baku's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We thought we were so secure in our new democratic republic. Now all the old Communists are coming back."

The parliament has already decided to abandon President Elchibey's plan on leaving the ruble zone within two weeks. Azerbaijan's own currency, the manat, is firmly attached to the Russian ruble, although Azerbaijan's Ministry of Finance had instructions to cut free from the ruble as soon as possible. Soaring inflation rates reaching 1,300 percent are largely imported from Russia.

Suret Guseinov has used public dissatisfaction over the economy and loss of territory to Armenia to rally support throughout Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has been fighting a five-year war with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, but Armenian forces have captured many neighboring regions and now control 10 percent of Azerbaijan. State-run television in Baku reported on Sunday that Armenian troops had taken advantage of Baku's internal crisis to begin new offensives in the Agdam region borde ring Karabakh.

"We believe that we must win the war in Karabakh, not give away our country to Armenian like the government in Baku," Suret Guseinov said in Ganja.

But some observers believe Geidar Aliyev might try to seek a compromise with Armenia over Karabakh. "He has retained good contacts with the Armenian government during his time in Nakhichevan," said Leila Aliyeva.

Earlier this week, Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan managed to persuade the more militant Armenian forces in Karabakh to accept the terms of a peace plan brokered by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. But the Karabakh government asked for a month to assert control over its own rebel military units, who oppose the peace plan. CSCE officials reportedly agree to the postponement. Anti-Baku feeling

Antigovernment feeling in Azerbaijan has been growing for months, but the recent government attack on the Ganja garrison provided a focus.

"We have no democracy," said Ganja school teacher Maharam Binatov. "We have no right to hold meetings, we cannot speak our minds. We have elected none of the government in Baku. These people simply occupied the posts when the Soviet Union collapsed. They are not leaders."

Elchibey himself continues to believe he will remain in power. "Whatever happens, I will be president," he said the day before the Ganja assault. "This parliament cannot restrict or put an end to my power. We are trying to create a democratic state," he added, "so we should be more tolerant of criticism."

Eichibey is not a career politician. He was a dissident under the Communist regime and was jailed for his defiance. As co-founder of the Popular Front movement, he was at the spearhead of the Azerbaijani independence struggle. Although his knowledge of Russian is perfect, he will speak only the Azeri dialect of Turkish in public. A book of Omar Khayyum poetry and a portrait of Mamed Amin Rasulzade, founder of the first Azerbaijan republic, hangs over his desk.

"People expected too much of the government," says Ali Kerimov, No. 2 man in the presidential apparatus. "They wanted everything to change immediately. Of course, it's not so easy."

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