Tue, Oct 14, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Azerbaijan increasingly polarized

CONTRADICTION The country's poorest will probably vote in tomorrow's election against outgoing President Heidar Aliyev's son, part of the nouveau riche generation

AFP , IMISHLI, AZERBAIJAN

A man with a small portrait of Isa Gambar, a presidential candidate and the leader of the main opposition party, Musavat, pinned to his clothing, shouts during an opposition rally on Sunday to mark tomorrow's presidential vote in downtown Baku. A poster showing Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev is in the background.

PHOTO: AP

When the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan chooses a new president this week voters will have to grapple with a contradiction: their country has fabulous oil wealth and a booming economy, yet half its population live in poverty.

This contradiction is illustrated by the starkly different lives of two people with the same name. One Ilham Aliyev is a presidential candidate and the son of outgoing President Heidar Aliyev. The other Ilham Aliyev is a desperately poor refugee living on handouts.

The first Ilham Aliyev was born into privilege. His father, then a senior functionary in the Soviet Union, made sure he went to the best schools and that he wanted for nothing.

He developed a taste for high-living. Rumors -- denied by officials -- have it that in his youth he blew large sums of money in casinos.

At his father's side, he helped bring about an economic revival, largely fuelled by oil exports and the billions of dollars invested in the country by western oil companies like BP, ExxonMobil and Total.

He is the poster boy for a generation of wealthy Azeris who drive around the capital, Baku, in top-of-the-range Mercedes Benz saloons and spend small fortunes in the city's many posh restaurants.

A recent example: at a wedding in Baku this summer, performers including the Gypsy Kings and Eros Ramasotti were reportedly flown in by the high-rolling bride and groom for the occasion.

Ilham Aliyev's namesake can only dream of such luxury. The other Ilham Aliyev used to live in Nagorno-Karabakh, the enclave taken over in the early 1990s by ethnic Armenian separatists, forcing 800,000 Azeris to flee.

He resettled in Horadiz, near Azerbaijan's border with Iran. Wearing a shiny suit jacket that had clearly seen better days, he said his family has to survive on US$25 a month, the allowance the government gives all refugees.

It is known as bread money, because it is enough to buy bread and precious little else.

"No one I know has any work," Aliyev complained.

His friend and fellow refugee, Arzuman Kerimli, interrupts him. "We do not get anything. No one works. I keep a few goats and that is what we live on. I only have enough money to buy bread. Our house is falling apart."

Ilham Aliyev is not a big fan of his namesake. He had traveled to Imishli, a town near his home, to attend a rally in support of Isa Gambar, a leading opposition challenger for the presidency.

In fact, he was initially too embarrassed to reveal his name.

"Fate was playing a dirty trick on me when it gave me this name," he joked.

He is typical of millions of Azeris. The national average wage is just US$50 a month. According to UN figures, 50 percent of people live below the poverty line and a quarter of all children are malnourished.

The government says it is doing what it can, that only in the past few years has it has been able to exploit the oil wealth and that it will take time to filter down to the poorest people.

Critics of the Aliyev regime blame corruption on a breathtaking scale, with officials allegedly creaming off oil revenues for themselves.

Despite this, Ilham Aliyev the president's son is widely expected to win the Oct. 15 election. Some international observers fear there will be ballot-rigging to skew the result in Aliyev's favour.

But anyway, many voters mistrust the opposition, they respect President Heidar Aliyev and hope his son can deliver on his promises.

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