BAKU – Western oil majors said yesterday they were sure of the long-term stability of Azerbaijan despite the failure of its ailing president, who dominates the country, to show up at a top energy conference. President Heydar Aliyev, 80, collapsed twice while making a speech in April and received medical care in Turkey, raising worries about a return to instability in the country, where there are no obvious other candidates for the leadership. Executives of some of the world’s top oil firms, involved in a dozen Azeri projects worth some $40 billion, said they believed any new government would guarantee investment stability and help Azerbaijan become a major oil producer. «I think it will be very unlikely that once there is a change of leadership in Azerbaijan there will be a big difference,» said David Woodward, the Azerbaijan head of BP and the most influential Western oil man in the country. «Anyone who succeeds the leadership in Azerbaijan is most likely to continue with (this) policy,» he told Reuters. Aliyev took power in 1993 after serving as head of the KGB and communist party in Azerbaijan. He has been one of the most successful former Soviet leaders in drawing foreign investment but has been criticized for his intolerance of dissent. This was the first «Oil and Gas of the Caspian» conference, which attracts top figures from the oil and gas world, that Aliyev has failed to attend due to ill health. Azerbaijan plans to triple oil output to 1 million barrels per day from 2005, when a BP-led group completes a pipeline to Turkey, and has hopes of being a major gas player when a Statoil-led group builds a pipeline to Europe via Turkey. Aliyev, whose role is seen as a key factor in stability, said last year he would run for a further five-year term in October 2003, but doubts emerged after his April collapse. The conference was marked by opposition protests against a new law which prevents the opposition from monitoring the presidential election later this year.