By Hrach Melkumian and Emil Danielyan
Armenia sent no representatives Monday to the funeral of Azerbaijan’s former President Heydar Aliev, despite conveying official condolences to his son and successor who now faces the daunting challenge of tackling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict without fatherly guidance.
In a message to Ilham Aliev, President Robert Kocharian expressed his “sincere sympathy” for the family of the veteran leader who was his most frequent foreign interlocutor in recent years. Diplomatic sources in Yerevan said Kocharian’s or any other Armenian official’s presence at the funeral services in Baku would have been problematic given the continuing state of undeclared war between the two countries.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of mourners filled the streets of the Azerbaijani capital to pay their last respects to the man who has ruled their oil-rich country with an iron fist for much of the past 30 years. Life in the city came to a virtual standstill as Aliev was buried at the Alley of Honor with a five-gun artillery salute.
The ceremony, broadcast live on state television, was attended by foreign dignitaries, including the leaders of neighboring Russia, Georgia and Turkey. “I am certain that his memory will live on, not only in Azerbaijan,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The Turkic world has lost an outstanding individual,” Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said upon arrival in Baku.
In Yerevan, leading pro-establishment politicians also paid tribute to the elder Aliev, emphasizing the fact that he gave up attempts to win back Karabakh after Azerbaijan’s humiliating defeat in the 1991-94 war. They also pointed to his success in restoring political stability in Azerbaijan.
“I think that Aliev’s departure wasn’t quite good for further peace talks,” Galust Sahakian, the parliamentary leader of the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), told RFE/RL.
“He has done a lot of positive work for his people and his country,” said Levon Mkrtchian of the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), the HHK’s junior coalition partner. “He was also able to shake the hand stretched by Armenia and move the [Karabakh] conflict into a phase of peace negotiations.”
Nevertheless, many in Armenia would agree with the assessment made by the Armenian Assembly of America, an influential Washington-based lobbying group.
“During his tenure, President Aliev missed a great opportunity to bring peace to his people, and to his neighbors in the Caucasus,” the Assembly’s executive director, Ross Vartian, said in a statement. “He refused to accept that the people of now independent Nagorno Karabakh had peacefully and overwhelmingly opted to be free from Azerbaijani rule and had successfully defended that choice on the field of battle.”
Aliev’s death at a clinic in Cleveland, Ohio was announced on Friday, the day after Ilham and Kocharian held their first tete-a-tete talks on Karabakh in Geneva. The timing of the news could reinforce suspicion, voiced by the Azerbaijani opposition, that the 80-year-old ex-president was seriously incapacitated before formally transferring power to his son in August in the first dynastic succession in the former Soviet Union. The process was completed with a disputed presidential election last October.
Aliev junior’s ability to impose his authority on Azerbaijan’s ruling clan is seen as an important condition for the success of the Karabakh peace talks that began under his father who had met Kocharian on about two dozen occasions between 1999 and 2002. The Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents left no indications about the future of the internationally sponsored negotiation process after the Geneva meeting.
Armenian officials say they hope Ilham will have the domestic clout to resuscitate far-reaching Karabakh agreements reportedly reached by his father and Kocharian on the Florida island of Key West in 2001. “If [Ilham Aliev] stays the course and refrains from policies that can produce seeming results but entail great losses in the longer term, then Azerbaijan will be able to build normal relations with its neighbors with the groundwork laid by Heydar Aliev,” Dashnaktsutyun’s Mkrtchian said.
Aliev senior was also repeatedly accused by the Armenians of backtracking on the reported Florida agreements -- a charge reiterated by Vartian. "Walking away from the Key West understanding was Aliev's greatest diplomatic blunder,” he said.