President Haidar Aliev, a 75-year-old Brezhnev protege who suffered a heart attack ten years ago, returned to Baku after three weeks of medical treatment in Turkey for “bronchitis.” His adversaries were active in his absence.

The leader of a 1995 attempted coup appeared in Iran, preaching rebellion. A former Azerbaijan KGB chief (a successor to Aliev in that capacity) was in Moscow, seeking funds and recruits for a new opposition party. Also in Moscow was a former chairman of Azerbaijan’s Communist Party, which Aliev banned in 1993, planning a comeback. In Washington, the exiled former speaker of the parliament let it be known that he may return to Azerbaijan within a month. Inside the country the opposition was more restrained, a tribute to Aliev’s back-to-basics approach to dealing with political enemies.

Azerbaijan may be moving toward a succession crisis under difficult circumstances. The promise of oil wealth which helped to sustain Aliev’s leadership is receding, a casualty of low oil prices and high political risk. Ethnic separatism is a challenge in the north, along the Russian border. Russian arms shipments to Armenia, and Russian forces stationed in Armenia and Georgia, are a serious military threat. These pressures have lead to growing calls for closer relations with the West. A presidential adviser recently urged the United States, NATO and Turkey to establish military bases in Azerbaijan, specifically an airbase on the Absheron peninsula. His remarks were echoed by the president’s chief of staff.

New York Times columnist William Safire recently suggested the existence of an unacknowledged “phantom alliance” among the United States, Turkey and Israel. If the alliance exists, Azerbaijan wants in.