Downing shot after shot of horseradish vodka at a posh midtown restaurant, Rasul Guliyev pauses to toast the large men standing near his table, hands tensed inside their coat pockets as they scan the room for trouble. “They are my armor,” he says. In unison, they flash a row of gold-capped teeth.
Guliyev has good reason to be grateful for their presence. Ever since being exiled a year and a half ago from his homeland of Azerbaijan, the former speaker of the nation’s parliament has ranked as Public Enemy No. 1 in the central Asian republic. Recently, President Heydar Aliyev accused him of fomenting a coup and plotting to down the presidential jet with a Stinger missile. And now the dissident believes his life is in danger.
“He has assassinated his opponents in the past,” Guliyev says of his accuser. “And he might again. America is such a large country. It is so easy to smuggle a killer in.” As he finishes the sentence, the sound of a dish clattering makes his guards flinch.
The vendetta has taken its toll on Guliyev: There are bags under his eyes, and his large hands tremble slightly. But despite his personal fortune (rumored to have been amassed during his tenure at the state oil company) and his advancing age, he continues to campaign against Aliyev, a former KGB boss, with a Trotsky-like stubbornness. Guliyev plans to return to Azerbaijan and run for president in the fall. “Whatever the risk, I will take part,” he says. “Ninety percent of the people support me.”
When not indulging his fondness for vodka and caviar, Guliyev has been meeting with foreign dignitaries in New York and making the rounds in Washington, presenting himself as the Gorbachev of Central Asia and touting a book he’s written on democracy. Though he is a man without a country, he claims to be getting a cordial reception – which may have something to do with the oil that lies under the Caspian Sea (the reserves are second only to the Persian Gulf’s). Several senators, he says, have penciled him in for meetings, and he’s planning to lecture in New York – all of which has put him in an expansive mood. Gesturing to the photographer who’s about to take his picture, he says to me in Russian, “Tell her that she is more beautiful than her camera.”
Then, summoning a waiter, he orders cognac. “The best,” he stresses, “only the very best.” After the ritual toast (to “friendship of nations” this time), he leans over to the photographer and invites her to join him on his trip back to Azerbaijan. “We need journalists to come along, to report the truth,” he says. Seeing her hesitate, a bodyguard interrupts: “We’ll be in the front of the plane,” he says, patting a bulge under his jacket, “to ensure that there is no trouble.”
Guliyev likes that. Beaming at her, he says, “It might be dangerous. But it will definitely be interesting.”