BACKGROUND: On June 21, the Constitutional Court of Azerbaijan approved the draft bill of a referendum on the introduction of 39 changes and amendments to the Constitution, submitted by President Aliyev. The most important changes over which the referendum is believed to have been organized were the cancellation of the proportional electoral system which implied that deputies are to be elected only on the basis of single-member constituencies; the number of votes required for the election of President was reduced to simple majority whereas before two thirds of votes were required; transferring the execution of the duties of Head of State in case of the President's premature resignation to the prime minister instead of the parliamentary speaker; and to transfer authority to ban political parties from the Constitutional Court to public courts. "Time has passed. We became members of the Council of Europe and joined several conventions. That is why we need changes," President Aliyev stated in support of his proposal. But only pro-governmental parties and few independent observers believed this justification. Major opposition parties announced their boycott of the referendum, accusing the President of creating auspicious conditions for transferring power to his son Ilham, member of parliament and vice-president of the State Oil Company. International organizations took an ambivalent position. The Council of Europe expressed serious concern that official Baku did not consult with them concerning this issue. The U.S. Department of State softly advised Baku to postpone the referendum, but the government implemented its plan as it was designed. Based on earlier referendums and elections in the country, nobody expected that referendum would be held in a fair and transparent manner, and experts and observers only tried to assess the degree of falsification. But results of the referendum exceeded the expectation even of the most pessimistic experts. According to the Central Election Committee, 88% of eligible voters of the country took part, and 97% of them voted in favor of the changes. Even for non-specialists, it would seem strange that in a country with weak political culture and frail election traditions, such a large number of people would come to the polls.
IMPLICATIONS: It is obvious that President Aliyev tries to leave the power to his son Ilham. Earlier, everybody expected that he would make him Speaker of the Parliament. But President Aliyev chose another way. Due to the nature of power in Azerbaijan, the Speaker of Parliament has only a decorative function and does not control the core ministries - Internal Affairs, National Security, or Defense - that are the main supporters of any regime. Even if appointed Speaker, Ilham Aliyev would not wield much power. By appointing Ilham prime-minister, however, the President would gradually be able to transfer actual power to him, introduce him to government affairs, simply "teach" him how to rule. The President himself will be able to remain in the shadows, intervening only in an emergency situation. Another reason is that becoming a speaker of a non-legitimate parliament would be a very bad start for Ilham Aliyev, who needs an image of legitimacy and democratically appointed prime-minister and then consequently president. Even if his candidacy will not receive approval in the West, Aliyev senior will be able to apply Yeltsin's "Putin" model, appoint Ilham prime minister with a view to making him President and guarantor of the Aliyev family's security. It would be naïve to believe that President Aliyev went on such changes of Constitution and further falsification without notifying the West or the U.S. The majority of Azerbaijani politicians and experts are sure that all actions of President Aliyev are agreed with the West who needs relative stability in Azerbaijan and a calm succession of power. On the eve of the September 11 anniversary and a possible war with Iraq and tensions with Iran, Washington does not want to annoy official Baku with statements on democratic changes. But how far will the West tolerate the violation of democracy in Azerbaijan? It is not unlikely that in the future, the most radical opposition parties could be banned based on the decision of any court of the Azerbaijan republic and without wide-spread resonance. The West in Azerbaijan is making the same mistakes as it did in Iran, Central America, and Africa in the 1970s. As a result, the people are disappointed with U.S. policy and its popular respect is sharply decreasing in Azerbaijan. Of course, the referendum had positive features too. For the first time in several years, the Azerbaijani opposition, scared by the narrowing of the political struggle in the country, united on the eve of the referendum. If this tendency is to continue, it would be difficult for the current regime to falsify the next presidential elections that is supposed to be held next year.
CONCLUSIONS: The referendum on changes to the Constitution and the falsification of its results is one of the many domestic "victories" of the Azerbaijani President. It solves the main problem for the President - succession of power. President Aliyev paved the way for his son to succeed him while assuming more real powers on the way to the eventual Presidency. But it is clear that the future President of Azerbaijan, whoever he will be, will be faced with many other problems born by the changes and amendments. The opposition and international organizations will keep increasing their pressure. Another issue is that by giving the prime minister larger powers, the current government makes the situation difficult for the future president. For the last several years Azerbaijan has been accustomed to there only being one decision-maker in the country. Sudden changes in the political structure and the arrival of a figure with powers approaching those of the president could lead to unpredictable events, knowing the volatile type of Azerbaijani power. And this trap could unfortunately not be solved simply by a new referendum.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Anar Valiyev holds an MA in History from Baku State University and is completing an MPA degree at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs of Indiana University in Bloomington.
Copyright 2001 The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. All rights reserved.