By Lada Yevgrashina
BAKU, (Reuters) - Azeri President Heydar Aliev, who has ruled his oil-rich nation with an iron grip for nearly a decade, collapsed twice before reviving to complete a televised speech on Monday.
The 79-year-old president was addressing a military audience in the capital's Palace of the Republic when he suddenly gasped, clutched his heart and collapsed. Live transmission ended abruptly as bodyguards rushed to support the man who has established an unassailable hold on
power since becoming president of the ex-Soviet Caspian state in 1993. Broadcasting resumed 12 minutes later as the frail-looking leader, whom many Azeris call "Baba" (Grandfather), reappeared to a standing ovation from the hall.
"I have apparently been bewitched by the evil eye. But I'm fine, as you see," he said before resuming his speech.
But minutes later he collapsed again, knocking his head on the podium. Transmission stopped and the audience was led from the hall. Aliev, who has a history of health problems, seemed to have lost consciousness both times. Shortly afterwards the army officers and cadets were ushered
in again and live broadcasting resumed as Aliev went back on the podium to finish his speech.
"Let me congratulate you once again. Thank you for your attention," he said to the crowd.
He then left the Soviet-era concrete-slab building, waving to bystanders before getting into a car. Aliev was Azerbaijan's leader under Soviet rule and returned to power in 1993 amid turmoil in the country of eight million which followed the fall of communism. He is seen as pivotal to stability in the energy-rich state, whose oil reserves the United States sees as an alternative to crude deliveries from Saudi Arabia.
Aliev, who plans to run for another five years as president in October, has had a number of medical problems, requiring heart surgery in 1999 and a hernia operation last month in the United States. He strengthened his position last year by securing a big "yes" vote in a referendum amending the constitution and making the prime minister the second most important figure in the
Opponents alleged the vote was rigged and that the changes enabled him to appoint as prime minister and eventually as president his son, Ilham, now a senior official in the state oil
Last month 10,000 demonstrators paraded through Baku demanding he resign. Speakers accused him of failing to solve a long dispute with neighboring Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Aliev, who aides have said has a photographic memory and can remember the names of people he met only briefly years ago, got his start in the notorious Soviet KGB security police, rising to run the Azeri wing of the service. He used the powerful post as a springboard to the republic's
top Communist Party job in 1969, serving until 1982 when he was appointed to the Soviet Union's ruling politburo, a rare honor for a non-Russian.
After he left for Moscow, a relative held the Azerbaijan post but Aliev was assumed to be still calling the shots. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sacked Aliev in 1987, apparently for not sharing his enthusiasm for reforms. Some believed the last chapter had been written on him.
Instead, Aliev returned from Moscow to his native Nakhichevan region, a remote enclave cut off from the rest of the republic, and quietly planned his political comeback. Leading politicians all but begged him to return to the capital when the country was on the brink of civil war in 1993,
saying he was the only man who could save the day. He quickly consolidated his grip, playing off rivals against one another. After an alleged coup and assassination plots in 1994 and 1995, his position became all but unassailable.