Experiencing Life Through Another’s Eyes
UPDATE: Just after I posted this, news came that the world has lost another leader, Nelson Mandela. To the people of South Africa, we extend our sympathies and hope these words will ring true for you too. I am reminded of the 80s song, “Abraham, Martin and John” – today could be about Nelson, Heydar and John.
____Ich bin ein mit Ihnen, I am one with you______
Have you ever been at an event, feeling like you were witnessing something important, but didn’t know just why?
Ten years ago this week, that was me, an eye-witness to history. I didn’t know exactly what it meant then, but I see the parallels now.
As we recently remembered anew U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s death, I saw how America grieved and still maintains a deep connection. I remembered the Presidential funeral I attended in Baku and the crush of emotions that day.
Image Reference: DWT2003039G1215A/0079 (PAR263155) © Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
I was there, inside this building, seated among the crowd of mourners at the Republic Palace, watching the assemblage of world leaders file across the stage, each kneeling before the body of the late president, paying tribute to Heydar Aliyev. I saw the import of the day in those passion-filled faces, and the millions of others gathering outside in the squares, lining every road the caisson would pass on their walk to his final resting place.
This was something beyond my American understanding of death, so cut and dried. I couldn’t perceive the depth or full meaning of the loss at that moment. This was their loss; I was a spectator. I was there simply by virtue of being a prominent American ex-pat in Baku… right place, right time, as they say.
I had never witnessed this depth of sorrow, being only a small child when our president was killed. But I’ve seen in our country how seemingly isolated events can become pivotal moments in a culture. Certain lives alter the course of history and world standing. And so it has become for Azerbaijan.
December 12th will mark the 10th anniversary of the passing of Heydar Aliyev, their guide for many of his 80 years, through good and bad, the architect and father of modern Azerbaijan.
A presidential funeral in Baku may not seem like a big event on today’s world stage seeing as not many people even know that Azerbaijan exists, having been so long shrouded in garments of Soviet secrecy.
But, if not for a few key details in Azerbaijan’s modern history, strategists agree, the region, and our world, could look a lot different today, so pivotal is this small country.
Imagine… a world where Hitler won the war. Imagine his Third Reich regime expanded unfettered across Europe. We could well be speaking German these days…
- By 1900, the oil fields of Baku were producing almost half of the world’s oil – with over 3,000 oil wells.
- Hitler was determined to capture the oil fields of the Caucasus, in particular Baku, as it would provide much-needed oil-supplies for the German military which was suffering from blockades. At that time, 90 % of all Soviet tanks and airplanes were powered by fuel from Baku. Had he been successful, it could have altered the outcome of the War.
- A German offensive plan for September 25, 1942 was to attack Baku. Anticipating the upcoming victory, Hitler’s generals presented him a cake of the region, and the piece showing ‘Baku’ was given to Hitler.
Getting from then to now came at a price; holding a fledging democracy together required a deft touch.
Charles King, in his 2008 book The Ghost of Freedom, noted the numerous coup attempts: “Actual or alleged coup d’etat became an almost annual occurrence – in 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1998 – but in the aftermath of each one, Aliyev was able to augment his power over both rivals and past associates.”
When experts say that history could have been much different if not for this man’s vision and clout, it’s not hard to understand in just how many ways things could have gone off track for this region, and perhaps the rest of today’s world, as a result.
In the vacuum of power that was left by the collapse of the Soviet Union, keeping Iran at arm’s length in the region was important- as we are seeing from recent news. Culturally and ethnically related, it would have been an understandable bid to reunite the two states, which could have had serious effects on the world. Likewise if Russia had made a bid, that would have tipped the scales in the opposite direction and would have drawn the western powers into an unwanted power struggle.
In a shrewd political move in 1994, just a few short years from rising out of the ashes of collapse, amid continued government instability, then-president Aliyev orchestrated the “Contract of the Century” with much consultation. In 1995, the Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC) was organized, originally composed of eleven major international companies that represented the UK, US, Norway, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. Iran was dealt with separately to keep peace among the AIOC partners. That everyone was invested made it a more secure footing on which to build a country. That move alone changed the country’s history.
I don’t want to say that Heydar Aliyev is Azerbaijan’s John F. Kennedy, but I would go so far as to say that as men of vision, they have given their countries much to remember.
When John F. Kennedy told the people of Berlin, “”Ich bin ein Berliner,” he actually said “I am one with the people of Berlin.” As we continue to remember friends struggling around the world, we can say, “Ich bin ein mit Ihnen,” I am one with you. Be safe and grow strong.