BAKU – “So who pocketed the US$25 million?”
In the end, it was up to bluish video footage of the most scrutinized medical in history. Disheveled hair, biblical beard, the most wanted man on earth – apart from one similarly biblically-bearded Saudi, Osama bin Laden – the “epitome of evil” has finally been “smoked out” of his hole in the ground, with someone presumably pocketing the handsome reward money offered by the United States.
Meanwhile, in this Caucasian capital of Azerbaijan by the Caspian sea, by a historical coincidence, the images flooding the networks and the Internet from Baghdad are interspersed with images of Heydar Aliyev, the president and “father of the land,” a former Soviet apparatchick, who died in the United States at the age of 80 on Friday.
The whole country had started seven days of mourning when suddenly attention was diverted from the Caucasus to Mesopotamia. Baku is not that far away from Baghdad – or from explosive Chechnya for that matter. Both Baku and Baghdad sit on a wealth of oil. But the destinies of their respective tyrants couldn’t be further apart.
All television channels in Azerbaijan – including Russian and Turkish – have been broadcasting the same images since Saturday: an immense cortege laying flowers and then paying their respects in front of Alyev’s coffin, sliding their right hand downwards over their faces as a sign of grief. A multitude also congregates in front of Alyev’s formation, the New Azerbaijan Party in downtown Baku, exchanging the latest political gossip. In every street the national flag is at half-mast. Even the tankers and ferry boats in Baku’s harbor are standing still.
The Azerbaijan hotel, formerly the Intourist, is a Soviet monster on the Caspian shoreline, complete with dreadful plumbing, mute telephones, soiled carpets and perilous balconies with a Caspian view. The hotel has been literally hijacked by competing mafias, who have taken over whole floors and rent their own rooms for a monochromatic cast of characters – short, stocky, shady, smelling of bad cologne – involved full time in drug, prostitution and “protection” deals in the corridors and in the 4th-floor cafe, with the complicity of the inevitable floor ladies always ready to offer “a good madam.”
These characters are as skillful in business as Bechtel and Halliburton executives are of those US companies. An informal inquiry yields some very interesting results, not least the key question posed by one of the businessmen: “So who pocketed the $25 million?”
The businessmen at the Azerbaijan hotel all mourn the death of Alyev – who as the patriarch of the clan skillfully preserved order by ruling with an iron fist. They are not sure about the political ability of his son Ilham to promote a generational change, and at the same time keep under control the competing interests of diverse clans.
They also feel that something of a shady deal might have played out in Tikrit – where Saddam was found – which might surface much, much later – with wily Saddam himself, a former darling of the West, being able to buy out his life, unlike his slain sons Uday and Qusay in Mosul in a hail of US gunfire. The American military did not need the services of a bunch of ragged Peshmerga paramilitaries to find Saddam’s hole near Tikrit. As Asia Times Online has already reported, everybody in the Sunni triangle knew or suspected that he had been holed up in the Tikrit area for the past eight months, since the war “ended,” defying the Americans to find him.
Azerbaijani state TV, in its wall-to-wall funereal mode, also makes the point of including photos of Aliyev getting cosy with George W Bush under a portrait of George Washington. Alyev always played his cards very wisely. He tirelessly courted the Americans, and was the main instigator of the controversial Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, which will be the first, when it’s ready in 2005, to actually deliver Caspian oil to Western markets, totally bypassing Russia and Iran. Conveniently, his son Ilham, a fluent English speaker, used to be an oil executive with the state oil company SOCAR. When the elder Aliyev – unlike his Georgian neighbor Eduard Shevardnadze – read the writing on the wall and saw that it was time to step down, he steered the country to rigged elections in October which ensured a dynastic succession – the first in the post-Soviet sphere. The international community barely gave a peep. If only Saddam had been so pliable.
The international community also doesn’t mind that Aliyev failed to find a solution for the war with neighboring Christian Armenia over Upper Karabakh, an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. Almost a million Azerbaijanis became refugees because of this war. There had been insistent rumors that the elder Aliyev might end up giving Upper Karabakh to the Armenians – something that is anathema in Azerbaijan. Ilham Alyev in fact met Armenian President Robert Kocharyan in Geneva only one day before his father’s death was officially announced. Upper Karabakh still has the potential to end up being Ilham’s nemesis. But no one in the West cares – as long as somebody is in charge to deliver the oil.
In the 1980s Saddam himself was a great ally of civilization as he was needed to keep revolutionary Iran bogged down in an incredibly messy, bloody, costly war. When Saddam gassed the Kurds, the Pentagon dismissed it as “Iranian propaganda.” It was only when Saddam went after Kuwait’s oil – and Kuwait had historically been a province of Iraq anyway – that he became evil. In another dynastic family saga, the obsession to get rid of evil passed from Bush father to Bush son. But most of all, former American agent Saddam committed an unforgivable sin: he decided to sell Iraqi oil not in dollars, but in euros.
So amid all the jubilation emanating from the White House and the Pentagon – after all, they finally shot the missing scene from the screenplay – this is the message to tyrants the world over, from the military junta in Myanmar to Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov. The elder Alyev understood it very well – so he will officially go down in history as “a great statesman” and “an ally of the West.” You may be neo-Maoist or post-Soviet, you may exterminate vast swathes of your own population, you may be democratically sitting to the right side of Genghis Khan. But if you have oil, you’d better not even think of selling it in euros, or crossing in any way the will of the “Masters of the Universe.”
And the question still remains: “So who pocketed the $25 million?”