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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.

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Emil Sanamyan is a political science student at the University of
Arizona.

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