(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration’s new ambassador to Azerbaijan raised eyebrows this week with a gesture interpreted by some as paying homage to the country’s late dictator – a one-time KGB general installed by military coup who oversaw an autocratic regime before handing power to his son.
“The new U.S. envoy to Azerbaijan, Richard Morningstar, has honored memory of national leader of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev,” the Azeri news site News.Az reported.
“The newly appointed ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the United States in Azerbaijan visited the monument to great leader in the park in front of the Heydar Aliyev’s Palace. Morningstar honored the memory of the national leader and laid flowers to the monument.”
A photograph released by the national news agency shows Morningstar standing in front of a statue of Aliyev with head bowed. Aliyev died in 2003.
Azeri Report, a pro-democracy news service attached to the non-profit group Azerbaijani-Americans for Democracy (AZAD), commented that the ambassador had “bowed to Heydar Aliyev’s monument, setting a new precedent for the U.S. diplomats.”
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell disputed that Morningside was bowing.
“I talked to our embassy, and our understanding is that he was just placing flowers there, as has been standard practice for ambassadors [to Azerbaijan] who are accepting their credentials,” he said during a press briefing Tuesday.
“And our understanding is that there was no bow; he was simply placing flowers there, which is – has been done by his predecessors as well.”
Morningstar, who was confirmed by the Senate last June, is a former U.S. special envoy for Eurasian energy who served under the Clinton administration as ambassador to the European Union and as a special envoy to the newly-independent ex-Soviet states.
“I am not sure how such an experienced diplomat as Ambassador Morningstar found himself in this uncomfortable situation,” AZAD vice-chairman Gorkhmaz Asgarov told CNSNews.com late Tuesday.
“Symbolism matters in these things, and no wonder that the Azerbaijani state media was so quick to advertise the photo of the American envoy, representing the world’s strongest democracy, paying homage to their ‘great leader,’” he said.
“Even if intended only as a show of diplomatic politeness, that is not a good image in the eyes of Azerbaijani democrats – nor would it be a pleasing scene, I believe, for those Americans who understand the importance of America’s moral leadership in the world.”
Morningside visited the statue in the capital, Baku, on Monday after presenting his credentials to Heydar Aliyev’s son, President Ilham Aliyev.
Heydar Aliyev was a KGB general and head of the Communist Party in Azerbaijan when it was part of the Soviet Union. During the 1980s he was appointed to the highest position an Azerbaijani had ever held in the Soviet hierarchy – a member of the Politburo and first deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union.
According to his official biography he was conferred with the Order of Lenin four times, and twice with the Hero of Socialist Labor award.
After the fall of the Soviet Union Aliyev was out of power in newly-independent Azerbaijan for a short period until a military coup in 1993 paved the way for his return. Elections that year, and later, entrenched his position, although international observers said they were marred by irregularities.
He was reported to have won 99 percent of the vote in 1993 and more than 75 percent in 1998. In parliamentary elections in 1995, his party received most seats, after five opposition parties and some 600 independent candidates were prohibited from participating.
In 2003, an ailing Heydar Aliyev named his son as the ruling party’s sole presidential candidate, assuring the presidency stayed in the family. Ilham Aliyev was reported to have won 77 percent of the vote.
Under both Aliyevs, Azerbaijan has scored poorly in annual rankings calculated by the democracy watchdog Freedom House. Based on grades for political rights and civil liberties, Azerbaijan has been designated “not free” for 13 of the years since independence in 1991, and “party free” for the other eight years.
“The corrupt and repressive regime he [Heydar Aliyev] founded in Azerbaijan is based on personality cult of the ruling family and resembles that of North Korea’s Kim dynasty and Syria’s father-and-son Assad dictatorship,” said AZAD vice-chairman Asgarov.
On his arrival at Heydar Aliyev International Airport last week, Morningstar told reporters he has been visiting Azerbaijan since 1995.
“I can remember fondly my many visits with President Heydar Aliyev, and, in recent years, with President Ilham Aliyev and many other members of the government,” he said.
Morningstar said he was looking forward to working with the government of Azerbaijan, listing among his priorities regional stability, energy, counterterrorism and “making Azerbaijan a very strong, transparent modern democracy.”
Asgarov said that shortly before going to Baku, the new ambassador had met with AZAD chairman Elmar Chakhtakhtinski.
“Ambassador Morningstar gave assurances that he considers democracy and human rights as important as other priorities in the U.S. relations with Azerbaijan and will try to effectively promote democratic development in his capacity as the U.S. ambassador,” Asgarov said.
“I still sincerely hope that he delivers on this promise, in spite of a rather bumpy start of his tenure.”