BAKU, AZERBAIJAN -- In this turbulent former Soviet republic, where uprisings, wars and demonstrations rather than elections seem to define the popular will, the new hero on the streets of Baku is a 35-year-old commander of a private army whose tanks have forced the legitimately elected president to flee.
Surat Huseynov, a onetime wool merchant who launched an armed revolt against President Abulfez Elchibey three weeks ago, is now widely regarded as one of the two most powerful figures in the republic. Talks have been underway since Sunday on the precise role he will play in the new regime, which is now headed by the chairman of the parliament, former Communist Party boss Gaidar Aliyev.
Far from displaying concern, residents of this congested, oil-drilling capital on the Caspian Sea walk calmly around armored vehicles on which rebels have scrawled, "Surat."
"Surat Huseynov is fighting for justice," said Bela Agaeva, who was shopping in downtown Baku. "So we are looking forward to the changes he will bring to our country."
The upheavals in Azerbaijan -- which has gone through five changes of government in the past 18 months and is fighting a war against ethnic Armenian separatists in a disputed enclave -- reflect the way in which politics is being conducted in many outlying areas of the former Soviet Union. In neighboring Georgia early last year, President Zviad Gamsakhurdia was chased out of the capital, Tbilisi, less than a year after being elected by a landslide. Last September, in the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, President Rakhmon Nabiyev was toppled by a coup. A month later, a bloody countercoup forced his successors out.
In large part, analysts say, the fall of elected governments during this period of economic and political disarray represents the failure of self-styled democrats to find effective, credible alternatives to the hard-fisted policies of the Soviet era.
Many politicians say they are alarmed by the tactics of intimidation employed by Huseynov during his lightning rise to power. Foreign diplomats too are worried about Azerbaijan's political instability. "There are no political rules in this game in Azerbaijan," said a Western diplomat. "If you have military force, that is enough to have power."
Elchibey, an academic who earned a reputation for being democratically minded when he supported Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's political reforms in the late 1980s, became president last June following a free election in which he won 59 percent of the vote. Many Azerbaijanis hailed the election of their nation's first non-Communist leader in more than seven decades as proof that democracy had finally reached this republic of 7 million people.
Elchibey's Popular Front party, composed mainly of academics and former dissidents, promised to eliminate the government corruption that marked Azerbaijan in the 1980s and to bring economic relief. It also vowed to resolve the five-year-old war in the mainly Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where the Azerbaijani army has suffered a series of defeats at the hands of ethnic Armenian separatists.
Instead, according to diplomats and Azerbaijanis, the corruption went on unabated, few economic reforms were enacted, and the military position deteriorated. By the time Huseynov's revolt broke out, Elchibey's popularity had plummeted.
Huseynov owes at least some of his present prominence to Elchibey, who appointed him overall commander for Karabakh a year ago and named him a "national hero" in October. In January, however, the ethnic Armenians in Karabakh began a new offensive, pushing back the Azerbaijanis, and the following month Elchibey relieved Huseynov of his duties.
The son of a wool tycoon, Huseynov grew up near Azerbaijan's second-largest city, Gyandzha, in the northwest, and followed his father into the wool business. In the economic free-for-all of the final years of Soviet communism, he was able to amass a sizable fortune of his own.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, Huseynov and others began buying weapons from financially strapped Soviet soldiers. Huseynov quickly built a de facto private army, according to Azerbaijani and foreign sources.
Because Azerbaijan lacked a national army, the elected leaders in Baku, the capital, gladly embraced men such as Huseynov who were willing to fight in Karabakh. Among these self-made battlefield generals, Huseynov built the largest force, with more than 3,000 men, according to diplomats.
After his demotion by Elchibey, who said he was responsible for the loss of territory in Karabakh, Huseynov became a rival for power. On June 4, his forces seized Gyandzha and demanded that the president resign. Elchibey fled Baku two weeks later after the ministries of defense, interior and state security said they would not defend him against the rebels, diplomats say. On Sunday, Huseynov entered Baku to negotiate for power with acting president Aliyev.
Ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, meanwhile, have taken advantage of the political upheaval in Azerbaijan. On Monday, they seized Mardakert, the last major Azerbaijani-held town in the enclave, the Associated Press reported.