To hear Ilham Aliyev tell it, the scene last weekend at a Turkish military clinic was right out of a soap opera.
His father, Azerbaijan's strongman president Heydar Aliyev, was lying in a bed there, seriously ill after mysteriously disappearing from public view for a month. Now, the 80-year-old veteran of Soviet Politburo intrigues was engineering one final political stroke: the ascension of Ilham to the post of prime minister and officially designated heir.
"My father told me, 'I believe in you. I'm sure you will manage to cope with the situation,' " Ilham recalled in his first interview since the hospital handoff. "I told him I will not let him down."
The next day, Azerbaijan's parliament approved his father's wish without a single dissenting vote, and Ilham Aliyev effectively took day-to-day control of the country, which has major oil and gas deposits. By Wednesday, President Aliyev was headed to the United States for treatment.
"In all my life I tried to look like my father," said the junior Aliyev, 41. "He is the example for me."
Theirs is the first family dynasty to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the transfer of power from father to son is being carried out with a carefully orchestrated campaign. Depending on whom you talk to, it is either a case study in the corrupt, insider-driven politics that have dominated the region since communism's fall, or the coming of a new generation of world-savvy leadership to the volatile South Caucasus region.
Azerbaijan under the elder Aliyev has been a democracy in name, an autocracy in practice. Now, members of the political opposition call his son's ascension the start of a monarchy, an affront to Azerbaijan's democratic aspirations by a leader who "at the end of his days appoints his successor, like an emperor or a king," as Ali Kerimli, leader of the Azerbaijan Popular Front, said.
But friends and allies said Ilham Aliyev's rise is the advent of a Western-oriented "liberal with a global outlook," as senior presidential aide Ali Hasanov put it.
The making of a future president, Azerbaijan-style, has been a long-planned family project.
"I have chosen this life consciously," Ilham Aliyev said in the interview, which took place in his office overlooking the Caspian Sea drilling rigs that mark the country's claim to geopolitical significance. For nearly a decade Aliyev has taken on a carefully chosen portfolio of official jobs -- vice president of the state oil company, deputy chairman of the ruling party, president of the national Olympic committee -- designed to prepare him to rule. World leaders, including Vice President Cheney and French President Jacques Chirac, many of them keenly interested in Azerbaijan's oil and gas reserves, have warmly received him.
Some acquaintances said Aliyev has never shown much zeal for stepping into his father's post. He denies that. "I can tell you Ilham Aliyev is not a new figure in Azerbaijan politics," he said, ticking off the items on his resume.
He has had to contend with the long shadow of his father, who has run Azerbaijan for the better part of three decades. "In all my life since early childhood," he said, "I tried not to do something so my father will suffer from that."
Heydar Aliyev, a onetime KGB general who was appointed Communist Party leader of Azerbaijan in 1969, returned to power in 1993 after two years of post-independence chaos and war with Armenia. He has touted "stability" as his main accomplishment, turned Azerbaijan into a key U.S. ally, strategically placed between Iran and Russia, and opened Azerbaijani oil fields to Western companies for development. He tolerated dissent and a lively opposition press, but never held elections that international observers considered free.
Now that he's about to get his chance at power, friends and colleagues are happy to list the virtues of the younger Aliyev. They rave about his fluent English, the humorous poems they say he writes in Russian and Azeri, his skill at soccer, swimming, chess and backgammon.
"A wonderful, natural-born negotiator," enthused Chingiz Huseinov, his deputy at the Olympic Committee, who credits him with the country's two gold and one bronze medal at the 2000 Games. He's also got a "great memory," "organizational skills," "ability to think logically" and "in-depth knowledge of the Azeri language."
Ilham Aliyev is married to an eye doctor, and they have three children. He is a reserved man who wears a mustache and favors conservative blue suits, an accomplished linguist who trained to be a Soviet diplomat. His friends say he is funny, though he smiled only once during the interview, conducted in English, when asked about his reputed skills at the billiards table. "Yes, I'm very good at it," he said.
In the interview, he called Azerbaijan "a country who has made its choice to become a democratic society," but his first act as prime minister was to announce he would make no changes "in the policy of Heydar Aliyev." He will keep the same advisers and strive to "preserve stability," he said. As police have clashed with opposition demonstrators in the streets this week, he denounced rivals as professional "victims" who have "no chance to come to power."
Critics talk of his gilded lifestyle and the inappropriateness of displaying it on television. Aliyev was recently shown riding in a Rolls-Royce; his constituents make do on salaries that average $60 a month. Many believe he lacks the bare-knuckle will to hold Azerbaijan together the way his father has.
"Heydar Aliyev has built a system of administrative command not any different than the one we had under Brezhnev," Eldar Namazov, a former Aliyev aide who now runs the Public Forum for Azerbaijan, said referring to the former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. "Aside from some atmospherics of democracy, his party is an exact copy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and this system will be pulled apart as soon as he dies because there is no person who can preserve it. It was held together by authoritarianism, violence and the charisma of Heydar Aliyev."
Even some of his backers acknowledge that the younger Aliyev has come late to his calling.
"He's turned himself around in many ways," said Stanley Escudero, a former U.S. ambassador here and a friend of Ilham's who has hunted wild boar and pheasant with him. "Ilham was a member of the gilded youth of the Soviet Union. Anything he wanted as a young man he could have, literally anything. Ilham liked the ladies, liked gambling. About five years ago he had an epiphany. He was reluctant to do it" but he understood that "if he didn't take over, the country would be at risk of collapse."
Aliyev denies any playboy past, dismissing as "falsification" reports of huge gambling debts that caused a scandal in 1998 and led his father to close Azerbaijan's casinos. "He used to joke about that," said his friend, Anar Mamedkhanov, a member of parliament from the ruling party. "He said the worst thing about it was that they always said he lost at gambling."
The next act in this family drama is the scheduled Oct. 15 presidential election. For now, both Aliyevs are registered candidates, though many people here expect that the president, sidelined since he collapsed during a televised speech in April, will withdraw in favor of his son. If the senior Aliyev dies, Ilham Aliyev as prime minister would automatically become acting president under constitutional changes pushed through by his father last year.
Opposition leaders described the young Aliyev's rise to prime minister as a rich example of the family's heavy-handed ways. They question whether the president, in ill health, was legally competent to sign the order. Then, when parliament was called into emergency session to confirm it, Ilham's nomination as prime minister was approved before the incumbent, Artur Rasi-Zade, had resigned. A few hours later, he did step down, on grounds of "ill health."
The opposition soon uncovered a legal flaw: Aliyev could not be both prime minister and a presidential candidate, according to the Azerbaijani election code.
At first, Aliyev aides were dismissive. But by Wednesday, Ilham Aliyev announced he was taking an unpaid "leave" from the prime minister's post that would last until the election. Rasi-Zade, who on Monday was said to be too ill to continue as prime minister, got his old job back -- as acting prime minister while Aliyev is on leave.
"So he's taking a two-month vacation after being prime minister for one and a half days!" Namazov said. "It's the psychology of administrative command -- first they do what they want, and then they start thinking how that corresponds with the law."