The Blog

Nepotism, Azerbaijani Style

In a strategically important state, power is handed from the father to the son.

12:00 AM, Aug 20, 2003 • By GERALD ROBBINS
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A MAJOR DEVELOPMENT in post-Soviet affairs recently occurred when Heidar Aliyev, the ailing octogenarian leader of oil-rich Azerbaijan, ceded authority to his son Ilham. Although the dynastic aspect of this transition is less notorious than Saddam Hussein's clan or Syria's Assad family, it is nonetheless a regionally significant event. Surrounded by Russia, Turkey, and Iran, a bumpy transition period in Azerbaijan poses a grave challenge to Western policy planning.

Azerbaijan is a less repressive society than many of the other ex-Soviet republics. It has a vocal political opposition and an independent media--both of which are virtually nonexistent in the other "Stans." But these bright spots belie the nation's authoritarian infrastructure. Corruption permeates the system, and many core democratic concepts, such as the rule of law, are little more than fanciful phrases. While the handover signals a transitional phase in Azerbaijan's administrative development, will progress and stability inevitably proceed under family rule?

Recent history doesn't paint a promising picture. Azerbaijan's energy wealth and geostrategic location are both blessing and burden. For the 41-year-old Ilham, whom a recent news analysis criticized for lacking "his father's charisma, political skills, contacts, experience, stature, intelligence and authority," questions abound as to whether he can handle this inheritance. Filling the shoes of what one analyst called a "larger than life" figure will be the criteria by which Ilham is judged.

Heidar Aliyev dominated Azerbaijan's politics beginning in the 1960s, first as the local KGB chief and eventually its Communist party boss. Many Sovietologists felt Aliyev was the Brezhnev era's best regional leader, prompting speculation that he was destined for a senior position within the Kremlin.

Glasnost and the Soviet Union's demise brought Aliyev's career to an end, but only temporarily. The newly independent Azerbaijan was a disaster, led by an unwieldy coalition of nationalists and intellectuals lacking governmental experience. The nation was embroiled in a costly territorial conflict with Armenia over the disputed status of Nagorno-Karabakh, creating a severe refugee crisis and near-state of anarchy. A stabilizing presence was needed and Aliyev came to the rescue.

Heidar Baba ("father" as he is affectionately called by fellow countrymen) steadied Azerbaijan through the initial turbulence. But even so, the region remains tense. The Nagorno-Karabakh issue lingers without any foreseeable resolution and only a select few have benefited from the country's highly touted petroleum reserves (a sore point for Ilham, since he previously directed Azerbaijan's national oil company).

Routing is another problem. There is cutthroat competition between Russia and Turkey over who will handle the lion's share of Azerbaijani crude that's bound for Western markets. One of Heidar's most noticeable accomplishments was his ability to balance constant Russian and Turkish pressures while maintaining Azerbaijan's sovereignty. This nimbleness begot periodic coups and assassination attempts that emanated mainly from Moscow, where exiled plotters are probably getting ready to test the son's mettle.

OPPOSITION to the Aliyev family isn't confined to assassins and international intrigue. There are established, domestic parties and alliances challenging what they feel is a growing monarchy.

The most prominent anti-Aliyev politicians have united to form an organization called the Opposition Coordinating Center (MKM), in preparation for Azerbaijan's October 15 presidential election. Pooling resources in the hope that there will be a free and fair campaign seems an intelligent move, yet no single candidate has been chosen. All of the MKM's luminaries have registered to run, each believing themselves to be best-qualified for representing "democratic forces."

It's also worth noting that Ilham's appointment produced only one mass protest. Although MKM officials made the excuse that coordinating a public demonstration takes time, in the past, anti-Aliyev rallies were quickly organized. The muted response suggests there is tension and even possible discord within MKM ranks.

The anti-Aliyev movement is hampered by history, too. Several of its figures were involved with running Azerbaijan during the early, chaotic independence period. Deprivations that were caused by the Soviet Union's downfall, along with the previously mentioned Nagorno-Karabakh crisis and maladministration, tarnished many reputations. As the Azerbaijani version of John Q. Public sees it, Heidar Baba came in and stabilized matters after his opponents nearly ran things into the ground.