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PRELUDE TO SUCCESSION STRUGGLE IN AZERBAIJAN By Emil Sanamyan While the presidential elections in Azerbaijan expected this autumn are not likely to bring any surprises, and the current president, as long as he is alive and well and continues in office, the Azerbaijani political scene can not be considered entirely stable and predictable. The main source of tension and potential future volatility is the uncertainty surrounding the issue of succession to Heydar Aliyev. As different political groups and personalities begin to position themselves for the coming struggle, the presidential campaign may become a proving ground of sorts for forces both outside and within the ruling elite who are looking beyond October 1998. Overview President Heydar Aliyev continues to preside over a large political machinery that currently controls nearly all spheres of the Azerbaijani economic and political life. The President's family and his closest allies within the presidential staff and government are the nexus of that power, while the cabinet and parliament (Milli Majlis) are merely the implementation and rubber-stamp entities respectively. With the exception of Suret Husseinov, who served as prime-minister in 1993-94 and is currently in jail on treason charges, the other two premiers appointed by Aliyev -- Fuad Guliyev (1994-96) and Artur Rasizade (1996-to date) -- have had virtually no political weight or even control over cabinet activities. The national security and economic policies are determined and coordinated by the president and his closest advisors (Vafa Guluzade and Vahid Akhundov respectively). Several veteran ministers, such as Abbas Abbasov, Abid Sharifov, Ramil Usubov, and Namik Abbasov, are entrusted with overseeing specific policy areas, like relations with Russia, development of the transportation infrastructure, or keeping political opponents at bay. Aliyev's son, Ilham, serving in the capacity of deputy director of the state oil monopoly SOCAR, oversees the international oil agreements and their implementation. Other family members hold key diplomatic and political positions. Through the Yeni Azerbaycan party (YAP), created while Aliyev was still in Nakhichevan in late 1992, this machine maintains control over the Milli Majlis, where YAP and its allies hold an overwhelming majority. After years of political persecution, weakened and fractured, and largely discredited, the Azerbaijani political opposition has to contend itself with a marginal voice in the parliament (seven out of 122 members) and popularization of its views through the newspapers that authorities often censor. The main opposition grouping, called "Democratic Congress", unites two of the most influential opposition parties, the Popular Front (or Halq Jibhasi, HJP) and Equality (Musavat), along with their smaller allies. The "Congress" is co-led by two Azerbaijani ex-presidents, Abulfez Elchibey (Aliyev) and Isa Gamber(ov)(1). The Azerbaijani Democratic Party (ADP), backed by the ex-chairman of the Milli Majlis Rasul Guliyev, has recently emerged as a new, serious player on the political scene. The ADP, much like the rest of the Azerbaijani opposition, is oriented towards the West, and enjoys both open and tacit support from government and NGO entities in Turkey, Europe, and the United States. Russia's failure to support and encourage the pro-Moscow political forces still present in Baku, as well as Aliyev's efforts to cripple that segment of the opposition, resulted in a situation where groups like the Communist, Social-Democratic, Unity (Vahdat), and Liberal parties are pushed off the political center-stage and forced to either pledge loyalty to Aliyev or search for support elsewhere. Azerbaijan's Islamic party, whose leaders are in jail for their ties to Iran, has not yet become a serious political force. Old and New Opposition Azerbaijani opposition parties have recently been successful in coordinating their efforts in the run-up to presidential elections. Nearly all of them have joined in the movement "For Democratic Reforms and Democratic Elections", which the authorities and their loyalists have already condemned. Since the opposition was not likely to agree on a single candidate anyway, their strategy appears to be to nominate several candidates that may improve their chances in forcing the election into the second round (which remains unlikely). Some of the likely opposition candidates are Elchibey, Gamber, one of R. Guliyev's proxies (ADP's Ilyas Ismailov(2), for example), and Lala Shovket (kyzy Hadjiyeva)(3). The Social-Democrats' Zardusht Alizade(4) and the National Independence (or Milli Istiklal, AMIP) party's Etibar Mammadov will also run, but since they continue to stand closer to authorities than the opposition, their participation will only serve to split the non-Aliyev electorate. In addition to recurrent government attacks, the opposition continues to suffer from internal disunity rooted in personal and ideological differences of its leaders. The fact that the "Democratic Congress" could not agree on a single presidential candidate testifies to those differences. A significant number of nationalist opposition members, especially Musavatists, believe that Elchibey already had and blew his chance in power, and are backing Gamber. At the same time, the 'reformist' element within HJP, which is led by its first deputy chairman, young and capable Ali Kerimov, sees Elchibey as the only compromise candidate between the 'reformist' wing on one hand, and more 'conservative' HJP members and Musavat, which represents a more traditionalist blend of nationalist and Islamic values, on the other. Before his expulsion from power 'due to health reasons' in 1996, Rasul Guliyev, serving as a head of Azerbaijani oil-refining industry, vice-premier, and Majlis chairman (#2 position in Azerbaijan), had mustered an impressive economic and political capital, at least some of which he was able to retain. Guliyev today emerges as the greatest threat to Aliyev's regime. He is a persona non-grata in Azerbaijan, where his relatives and allies are harassed, and where he is wanted for embezzlement and misappropriation of state funds (a standard accusation against out of favor state officials in Azerbaijan) and is even accused of attempts to kill Aliyev. Guliyev in turn busied himself with issuing counter-charges of corruption, and criticism of Aliyev's authoritarian regime, which he says is "worse than Stalin's." He now spends most of his time in the US and Turkey. Guliyev may count on the backing of certain circles in both countries, who see him as an acceptable successor to Aliyev and a more flexible and liberal politician to deal with. Guliyev's most recent visit to Turkey coincided with several, possibly government-sanctioned, leaks that implicated Heydar Aliyev's son and other government members in compromising activities and ties to Turkish narcomafia. At the same time, the West and its agents in Azerbaijan, the oil companies, are not likely to directly challenge Aliyev, fearing destabilization in the country. But they are sure to become more involved in the determination of a successor to Aliyev. Guliyev's de-facto party, the ADP, has become markedly more active recently, conducting hunger-strikes and pickets in defense of Guliyev, his family, and imprisoned ADP members. Guliyev is known to have allies in the Milli Majlis and government, and could forge an alliance with the nationalist opposition. However, Guliyev's return to Baku is out of question for the near future, as Aliyev himself branded him a 'top criminal'. What is more likely is that Guliyev will continue his activities from overseas, financing his supporters and forging alliances to prepare to challenge Aliyev and his future successors later. Will Aliyev's Machine Survive Aliyev? The oppositions' chances for success will depend significantly on whether the current Azerbaijani elite allied with Aliyev's family will support the designated successor to the president. Ilham Heydar ogly Aliyev, 36, a graduate of USSR's elite diplomatic school, and de-facto head of Azerbaijani oil industry, is widely believed to be the most likely successor. The junior Aliyev has recently emerged from his father's shadow and has seen his profile visibly raised. His name is now often mentioned in the state media, his most recent trip to the US included not only the regular economic, but also top-level political agenda as well. But I. Aliyev so far lacks the experience and toughness of his father, that are absolutely necessary for the job. Heydar Aliyev's son-in-law, 1st deputy foreign minister and ambassador to the United Kingdom Mahmut Mammadguliyev is seen as another possible candidate of the 'family in power.' Their chances would greatly depend on their political skills and loyalty of Heydar Aliyev's political machine. But that loyalty is not entirely guaranteed. During his stint as Azerbaijan Communist Party 1st Secretary (1969-83), Aliyev made it a part of his power strategy to periodically purge all levels of power under a pretext of fighting corruption in the republic. This served as a preventive measure against his potential and real rivals, and was effective in the Soviet system, when Aliyev's power was ultimately guaranteed by his KGB buddies in Moscow.(5) Continuation of that strategy under current conditions, however, has harmful consequences for his power base. Rasul Guliyev's ouster in 1996, Hassan Hassanov's(6) firing earlier this year, and the possible departure of other heavy-weights, such as the chief of presidential administration Ramiz Mehtiyev(7), before the autumn elections, demoralizes Aliyev's camp, and gives ammunition to his opponents. The unhealthy atmosphere of insecurity, that has developed within the machine, is reflected in the constant bickering and accusations of corruption, ties to Armenians(?!), and, worst of all, disloyalty to Heydar Aliyev, that lower and mid-level bureaucrats in the government and the YAP level against top officials, including ministers and advisors. Many of these officials would rather opt for a more predictable ruler, and that sentiment is shared by the foreign oil companies, who would then be able to deal with only a single set of corrupt bureaucrats. And that is when Rasul Guliyev, or another figure from within the Aliyev machine, could come into play. Some Conclusions Heydar Aliyev will most likely remain in power as long as his health allows, but any successor he designates would have to prove his ability to deliver to the multitude of Aliyev's loyalists, foreign countries with a stake in Azerbaijan, and, what is sure to become more complicated, the Azerbaijani population at large. Two things today keep a relative order among the hundreds of thousands impoverished Azeris: general respect for authority and respect for Aliyev, specifically; and hope that they too would benefit from the Caspian oil. Amidst the growing economic disparity and dimming hopes for a prosperous future, the succession struggle at the top threatens to unleash the popular rage that has so far been possible to suppress. Aliyev's imminent departure from political scene is sure to open serious cracks in the current system, which has not experienced and is not prepared for peaceful transition of power. In the ensuing struggle for succession, a crucial role is to be played by those in control of Azerbaijan's main wealth, the Caspian oil deposits, and their foreign partners. In any event, the successor is likely to come from within the elite. Chances of the nationalist opposition, led by Elchibey and Gamber, to come to power are minimal, and that can really only happen through a violent and more successful than in March 1995 coup. The traditional opposition role would thus be limited merely to pronouncements of its views, such as calls for government's resignation, voicing territorial claims against Armenia, Iran, and Russia. (1) Gamber(ov) served as acting president between May and June 1992, and as Majlis chairman during Elchibey's presidency in 1992-93. (2) Ismailov was a presidential candidate in 1992 elections, when he collected about one percent of votes. He served as Justice Minister between 1993 and 1995. (3) Hadjiyeva served as Aliyev's state secretary until the end of 1993, and proved to be an unusually active and capable official. (4) By far the most progressive Azeri politician, Alizade had traveled to Stepanakert during the war and shortly afterwards to negotiate with NKR leaders. (5) Primarily Azeri, and later union KGB head Semen Tsvigun, and union KGB head and CPSU general secretary (1983-84) Yuri Andropov. (6) Hassanov was a secretary of Azerbaijani Communist Party in late 1980s, prime-minister in 1990-92, Ambassador to UN in 1992-93, and Foreign Minister in 1993-98. He has now been thrice 'passed over' for the country's top job (1990, 1992, and 1998). (7) Mehtiyev served as AzCP secretary for ideology in late 1980s, which used to be a #3 position in the Soviet Azerbaijan. ------------------------------------------------------------------- Emil Sanamyan is a political science student at the University of Arizona.