Azerbaijan's president, 79, collapses on TV

Problems during speech raise questions on health

April 22, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ISTANBUL, Turkey - The 79-year-old president of Azerbaijan collapsed twice during a nationally televised speech there yesterday, prompting fresh questions about the health of a leader considered integral to the stability of his oil-rich country.

President Heydar A. Aliyev was addressing a military audience in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, when he gasped, clutched his chest, complained of pain and fell. The live television broadcast of his remarks was interrupted while bodyguards rushed over to support him.

More than 10 minutes later, the broadcast resumed, and Aliyev continued his remarks, making light of the incident. "I have apparently been bewitched by the evil eye," he told the audience, according to Reuters. "But I'm fine, as you see."

But he was not. He collapsed again, this time hitting his head, according to different reports. The broadcast was again cut off, but later, it started yet again, and Aliyev, upright, finished his speech.

A statement issued by his news service said his health was normal and attributed the collapses to a "sudden fall in blood pressure" that caused him to lose consciousness.

Still, his obvious difficulties served as a reminder of his many health problems over the past six years.

In 1987, he had a heart attack, and two years later underwent bypass surgery at a clinic in Cleveland. Last year, he had prostate surgery at the same clinic and last month had a hernia operation there.

Although those health problems have fostered intense speculation in Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic, about how much longer he can last, his eventual demise is so unthinkable there that the local media refer to the possibility only as Event X.

Aliyev, a former KGB general and Communist Party chief, has dominated political life in Azerbaijan for three decades. He has been its president since 1993, overseeing its transition from communism to capitalism, and has announced plans to run for re-election in October.

Human rights groups complain that he has consolidated and maintained power by suppressing dissent, censoring the news media, rigging elections and doling out what wealth the country has to relatives and loyalists while most of his country's people live in poverty.

What he has not done, those groups say, is create durable democratic institutions that will ensure the country's stability once he is gone.

But many political observers nonetheless give him credit for saving the country from chaos after the fall of the Soviet Union and for orienting it toward the West by opening its oil and gas reserves in the Caspian Sea to Western companies.

In an interview with The New York Times in 2000, Aliyev compared his role in post-Soviet Azerbaijan to that of President George Washington in the fledgling United States.

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