By Svante E. Cornell (8/13/2003 issue of the CACI Analyst)
BACKGROUND: Ilham Aliyev has long been groomed for the Presidency in Azerbaijan. His appointment to the positions of first deputy chairman of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, first vice president of the state oil company (SOCAR), president of the National Olympic Committee, and Member of Parliament and head of the Azerbaijani delegation to the Council of Europe indicated that President Aliyev was creating opportunities for his son to gain experience in state management and expand his networking both in the international arena and within the ruling elite. Indeed, within ten years of Aliyev’s Presidency, Ilham transformed from an unknown person to many in the country to one of the key leaders in the government.
BACKGROUND: Ilham Aliyev has long been groomed for the Presidency in Azerbaijan. His appointment to the positions of first deputy chairman of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, first vice president of the state oil company (SOCAR), president of the National Olympic Committee, and Member of Parliament and head of the Azerbaijani delegation to the Council of Europe indicated that President Aliyev was creating opportunities for his son to gain experience in state management and expand his networking both in the international arena and within the ruling elite. Indeed, within ten years of Aliyev’s Presidency, Ilham transformed from an unknown person to many in the country to one of the key leaders in the government. As the ailing 80-year old President remained in the Turkish Gulhane military hospital under intensive medical care for most of July and was then transferred to a clinic in Cleveland, it came as no surprise that he appointed Ilham Prime Minister, giving him the ultimate power to run the country in his absence.
The most striking element of the appointment, which surprised local observers, has been the seeming unity, at least on the surface, of the ruling elite. The ruling New Azerbaijan Party has been known for its internal fragmentation since the mid-1990s. These divisions are partly along regional lines, and partly along generational lines. Powerful figures of the old guard such as the President’s brother Jalal Aliyev, his Chief of Staff Ramiz Mekhtiyev, and National Security Minister Namik Abbasov are often mentioned as possible contenders for political power, and have all been known to be opposed to Ilham’s succession to his father. Ilham Aliyev, on the other hand, is viewed as a member of the younger and reformist wing of NAP.
His approval speech was a clear move to placate internal tensions, noting that some political forces are trying to plant seeds of discontent inside the ruling party, but that there is only one team in Azerbaijan – Heydar Aliyev’s team, and that he is a member of this team and does not have a team of his own. He also added that he would continue his father’s policies, and, most significantly, that he will not introduce major staff changes in the government – easing fears of a major shake-up.
A distinct challenge to Ilham Aliyev originates from the political opposition, whose leaders see the upcoming presidential elections as their last chance to come to power after ten years in opposition. However, they have failed to overcome their strong, mainly personal differences in spite of urges to unite and field a single candidate. This has strongly weakened their support base in the population in the last one to two years, making the opposition less of a relevant factor in the power struggle in Azerbaijan. While containing the opposition is a major task for Ilham Aliyev, it has become less of a threat to his position than was expected. Likewise, there is no tangible negative public reaction in Azerbaijan to his appointment. Outside opposition circles, the population is complacent, while some place a hope for change for the better in Ilham’s appointment.
IMPLICATIONS: The appointment of Ilham Aliyev as Prime Minister paves the way for his eventual election to the Presidency. With control over the administrative resources and the state hierarchy and bureaucracy, Ilham Aliyev will be in a most advantageous position for the victory. His appointment significantly reduced the chances of the opposition parties, who are already weak in financial resources and in their ability to mobilize the population. The fact that the opposition parties did not offer much resistance to the appointment shows their total lack of preparation for this situation and, consequently, their acceptance of it. This, in turn, has lowered the morale and hope for victory among the members of opposition parties. If Ilham Aliyev manages to prevent major street violence and chaos on the eve of the presidential elections, the opposition is unlikely to pose a major challenge to him.
What might pose a bigger threat to Ilham Aliyev is his own party. There are some powerful figures within the ruling elite who see Ilham as a threat to their economic interests and therefore will not accept him as a leader. At the same time, there are forces within NAP, who believe that it is in their best interest to unite behind Ilham Aliyev and maintain control over the political power and economic resources of the country than start internal fighting and loosing everything. Should these forces manage to prevail, Ilham Aliyev’s power will be further strengthened and there would remain no doubts about his election in October. At present, time seems to be on his side. The deadline for the registration of candidates for the Presidency ended on August 7, hence there will be no other candidates from the ruling party expect Heydar and Ilham Aliyev. This enhances his chances of rallying even reluctant members of the ruling elite behind him.
CONCLUSION: Ilham Aliyev’s ability to consolidate political power will depend on his ability to secure the unity of the ruling elite, which will become clear within the next two to three months. Influential members of the ruling party are unhappy with his appointment. Yet on the whole, they have no better choice than supporting him, because at least Ilham Aliyev guarantees their current status, whereas any opposition party, should it come to power, will pose a threat to their position as well as financial interests. Meanwhile, as the elections near, the opposition will have less and less chances of victory. Their only chance lies with a possible destabilization of the political situation in the country, something that Ilham Aliyev and his team will likely not allow.
In this situation, the attitude of key regional players such as Russia, the U.S., and Turkey and Iran toward Ilham Aliyev will be crucial. Should an external player throw in their support for another candidate, the incentives for a coup will be higher. Avoiding destabilizing interference from Iran and Russia is a priority issue, that can be balanced only through active support for stability on the part of Turkey and the United States.
AUTHOR BIO: Svante E. Cornell is Deputy Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Editor of the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. He most recently authored, with Fariz Ismailzade, the chapter on Azerbaijan in Freedom House’s yearly publication Nations in Transit (www.freedomhouse.org/research/nattransit.htm).