Unknown in June, woman now a leader in Azerbaijan

August 16, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Ross Perot, meet Lala Gajiyeva.

In June she was a little-known doctor who hadn't lived in Azerbaijan for almost two decades.

Then she was interviewed on TV.

Today, she is this troubled country's state secretary, the No. 2 person in the government and the highest-ranking woman in Azerbaijan's history.

"She said what everybody here was thinking but nobody else was brave enough to say," said Tofic Abbasov, who conducted the 45-minute interview on state television. "As we say here, she called a dog a dog. She said Azerbaijan was in its most serious crisis of the last 100 years, but nothing was being done to solve our problems because incompetent, weak people were in power."

Dr. Gajiyeva said the military rebellion in early June, led by a disgruntled army colonel who is now prime minister, was inevitable and would be followed by other uprisings if things weren't brought under control soon.

Dr. Gajiyeva denounced the incompetence and corruption of the elected government.

The interview was a sensation because the media had stopped reporting honestly on the country's problems. Even the bad news from the front is sparse and played down.

When it was filmed, cameraman Etiram Nazirov told the interviewer, Mr. Abbasov: "We can't cut a word of this. The people need to hear this."

The people heard, and they reacted. "It was like a bomb," Dr. Gajiyeva said, laughing.

The interview was broadcast June 29. The next day, a flood of phone calls and telegrams swept down on Dr. Gajiyeva, the TV station and the office of the newly installed president, Geidar Aliyev.

"People were so happy that someone had finally told them the truth," Mr. Abbasov said. "They demanded she be given an important job in the government."

Dr. Gajiyeva, 42, who was visiting Azerbaijan on vacation,

received more than 30,000 telegrams, most of them urging her to stay in Baku and help tackle the country's steadily worsening problems, the legacy of more than five years of bloody conflict with neighboring Armenia.

"The phones rang off the hook all day long" at the TV station, Mr. Abbasov said. "There was so much reaction that even Aliyev noticed."

Mr. Aliyev announced July 7 that he was naming Dr. Gajiyeva state secretary, in effect, Azerbaijan's vice president.

"I never wanted something like this," said Dr. Gajiyeva, who had been a democratic activist in Moscow since 1991. "The only reason I'm doing this is because Azerbaijan is in very grave danger, and I feel I have to do whatever I can to help."

The appointment of a politically independent woman to such a high-level post was intended by Mr. Aliyev to help rally the nation behind the war effort at a critical moment. After months of Armenian gains in and near the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan is on the brink of a humiliating defeat that could plunge the country into chaos.

But many Azerbaijanis are skeptical that Dr. Gajiyeva will be able to wield real authority.

Women in Azerbaijan long have enjoyed a more liberated status than in many other parts of the Islamic world, but true political power always has been beyond their reach. Under communism, women sometimes were placed in visible positions, but they were only window dressing.

Dr. Gajiyeva insisted that won't be her fate.

"I could never be just a figurehead," she said. "I'm too independent, too strong-willed, and Geidar Aliyev knows it. I wouldn't put up with anything besides real power."

Those who know her from her work with the Moscow-based International Movement for Democratic Reforms agree she would walk away if Mr. Aliyev treated her like a token.

"She won't play that kind of role," said Alexander Zharnikov, the group's deputy president. "She's a very strong, intelligent person, and she'll know very quickly whether they are playing games with her. It won't be easy to manipulate her. She'll just quit."

Dr. Gajiyeva likes to say that the number of women in high office is one of the truest indicators of how democratic a society is.

"We don't have a problem here with women getting higher educations," she said. "The problem is that, after they are educated, women sit at home with their diplomas, doing housework. Partly that's due to Islamic tradition, which always .. told women to put their families first."

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