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Across the Former Soviet Union in Azerbaijan, Jews Are Happy with Devil of a President They Know

October 9, 2003
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At the Or Avner school, the first Jewish day school in the capital city of this former Soviet republic, the presence of Heydar Aliyev, the country’s president, is hard to miss.

Large photos of a smiling Aliyev — a former KGB general and Communist party leader of Azerbaijan, who has ruled the country for the past 10 years — are found in almost every classroom.

The school’s entrance features a wall-sized photo of Aliyev shaking hands with Israeli philanthropist Lev Levayev, who sponsors the Or Avner network of schools operating in the former Soviet Union.

While showing a visitor around Or Avner, Meir Brook, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi from Israel who is the school’s founder and principal, stops by one of the photos.

“I’m not political,” says Brook, a gregarious 27-year-old. “I’ve got one picture of him and one of him,” he says, pointing first to a framed photo of Aliyev and then to one of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Chabad movement’s late leader.

But with Azerbaijan’s presidential elections scheduled for Oct. 15, Brook can’t seem to stop himself from making a political endorsement.

“That’s the current president,” he says, pointing again to Aliyev, “and, God willing, that is who will also be the next president.”

In fact, Aliyev, 80, will not be on the ballot, having withdrawn due to bad health, but his son Ilham will represent him in the election.

International observers have called previous elections in Azerbaijan grossly unfair, and many expect this one to be no different. But the country’s opposition, sensing the end of an era with the elder Aliyev out of the race, has been mounting a vocal campaign.

Azerbaijan’s Jewish community, which has enjoyed a close relationship with the Aliyev government, is approaching the impending elections with concern, local leaders say.

“The whole community is worried. Some people feel that the situation will not be as good and stable as it is now under Aliyev,” says Lazar Tsukerman, director of the Baku office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has been working in Azerbaijan for the last 10 years. “Mainly we realize that this stability was reached under the last 10 years of the Aliyev government.”

The past decade has seen a revitalization of Jewish life in Azerbaijan after decades of Soviet rule.

Along with the Or Avner school, a new, gleaming synagogue recently has been built for Baku’s Ashkenazi and Georgian Jewish communities, and a Jewish community center is in the works.

International Jewish organizations like the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel have been free to work in the country, providing a variety of services for Azerbaijan’s 18,000 Jews, who live among a population of more than 7 million.

A predominantly Shi’ite Muslim country — albeit with a strong secular streak — Azerbaijan neighbors both Iran and Russia and has had diplomatic relations with Israel since 1992.

While it has had political stability, Azerbaijan has been struggling economically. Despite having large reserves of Caspian Sea oil, the average salary is estimated at approximately $50 a month.

Corruption also is a major problem, with the watchdog group Transparency International rating Azerbaijan as the third most corrupt country in the world, following Nigeria and Cameroon.

Seeking better opportunities elsewhere, mostly in Israel and the United States, an estimated 40,000 Jews have left Azerbaijan since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

That exodus has created a strain on Azerbaijan’s small Jewish community.

“The mass of people who left where the wealthy ones, so the ones left behind were the unemployed, the ones lacking finances,” says Semen Ikhilov, a Jewish leader in Baku.

At a recent Friday night gathering of Baku’s Hillel, a group of some 40 young Jews complained about the country’s economy. But few of the young adults present say they would like to see a change of government.

“We need economic changes, higher salaries,” says Natella Yusufova, 19, who is studying to be a teacher. “I want to leave my country. I don’t like it here.”

Still, Yusufova believes any new government would be worse than the Aliyev regime.

“Aliyev is already full; he has enough money,” Yusufova says. “The new people will be hungry for power and money and will suck everything from the state.”

Alex Seytlin, 24, says he also is contemplating leaving.

“If there were more opportunities here I would stay, but I might go to another country,” says Seytlin, who studied to be a psychologist but is currently working as a translator.

But Seytlin says he, too, would not like to see a new president elected in Azerbaijan.

“We’re not concerned about getting a new government,” he says with a smile. “It’s quite stable here and we’re happy with that.”

Analysts warn, though, that the country’s stability may not be built on a solid foundation.

“This stability is very shaky. We are sitting on a seismic plate and an earthquake can happen any time,” says Vafa Guluzade, one of the country’s leading political analysts and a former foreign policy adviser to Aliyev.

Several international election monitors in Baku have expressed concern that, in an effort to make sure that Ilham Aliyev succeeds his father, the upcoming vote will not comply with democratic standards.

Members of Azerbaijan’s opposition say this could be a recipe for disaster.

“The opposition is very stable and they are not going to be intimidated, but the government is trying. This is causing instability,” says Novella Jafaroglu, the leader of a Baku-based human rights organization and who is in close contact with opposition leaders. “It will be big trouble, chaos, if there is falsification in this election.”

That’s exactly the kind of scenario Jewish leaders in Azerbaijan are concerned about.

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