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Azerbaijan: Will Aliev's Son Run For President?

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Azerbaijani leader Heidar Aliev's recent health troubles have triggered a whirl of speculation as to who may run in his place in presidential elections this October. Some press reports this week suggest Aliyev has chosen his only son to be his potential successor. But, as RFE/RL reports, political analysts are questioning whether, in the end, Ilham Aliyev will in fact be nominated for the presidency.

Prague, 23 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- On 20 May, Russia's Interfax news agency reported that Heidar Aliyev had decided not to run this October for a third term as president of Azerbaijan, and would instead stand down in favor of his son.

The agency quoted a high-ranking official in Aliev's office as saying the ailing leader would make his decision public "within the next few days." The source also said the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) party would nominate Aliev's 41-year-old son, Ilham, for the presidency some time next month.

Most Azerbaijani media outlets immediately picked up the story, which Aliyev aide Ali Hasanov rejected as a "lie" and a "provocation."

On 21 May, "Zerkalo," a Baku-based, Russian-language electronic daily, carried a report similar to that by Interfax. The report likewise cited an "informed source" at Aliev's office as saying Ilham Aliev's nomination would be announced immediately after the Milli Meclis (parliament) adopts a new election law.

Those leaks have been widely characterized as trial balloons designed to gauge both Azerbaijan's public opinion and foreign diplomats in Baku at a time when Aliev's faltering health is raising serious concerns among his supporters and galvanizing his opponents.

On 18 May, some 25,000 opposition activists demonstrated in the streets of Baku to demand Aliev's resignation.

Ali Karimli, the leader of the reformist branch of the Azerbaijan Popular Front opposition party, told the "Ekho" Russian-language newspaper this week: "The people [of Azerbaijan] understand that the current era of government is nearing its end and that changes are unavoidable."

But are reports about Ilham Aliev's presidential ambitions to be believed?

"If one takes into account first the fact that [Ilham] is the first deputy chairman of the Yeni Azerbaycan ruling party and, secondly, all the resources the [Aliev] family, the clan, has managed to concentrate in its hands since it has been ruling the country -- I mean here material and administrative resources as well as control over the majority of television channels and newspapers -- it seems to me that this is a rather plausible scenario. In this context, if Ilham is officially nominated and if he agrees to such a step his candidature might carry weight," says Rasim Musabeyov, an independent political expert based in Baku.

Despite a long history of heart trouble and other ailments, Aliyev has repeatedly said that he would seek a third consecutive term. Yet, Ilham has long been groomed to take over from his father, and rumors about his upcoming nomination have surfaced regularly at times of crisis -- only to be denied by the president himself. In addition to his position among the top leadership of Yeni Azerbaycan, Ilham is the first deputy chairman of Azerbaijan's National Oil Company. He also chairs the National Olympic Committee of Azerbaijan and heads his country's delegation to the Council of Europe.

Yet, unlike his father, Ilham is not a born leader and is said to lack both political skill and ambition. With very few exceptions, he has always carefully avoided contact with journalists, although his alleged indiscretions in Turkish casinos have often made the headlines of opposition newspapers in Baku.

Despite these shortcomings, Ilham is often cited as the ruling elite's preferred successor to Aliev.

Such a monarchial transition of power would have a valuable advantage in the eyes of the ruling team. Azerbaijan's political experts say representatives of Aliev's "old guard" believe that, should Ilham succeed his father, they will be allowed to either remain in their high-ranking positions for some time or quietly retire.

Hasan Quliyev, the head of the analytical department of Azerbaijan's independent Turan news agency, says that, paradoxically, Aliev's recent health problems could undermine Ilham's chances to be nominated for the presidency.

"I think that, if the present circumstances remain, it is unlikely [that Ilham will run for president] because his chances have always depended on his father's ability to remain politically active. Since the current information blackout testifies to the seriousness of Aliev's illness, I would say that Ilham's chances are now minimal. First, [for Ilham to be nominated,] his father must come back to political life -- which, of course, depends on his state of health -- and, secondly, he must be persuaded to relinquish power within a very short period of time. Aliyev has always had the same problem: he has always denied anyone, including his own son, the possibility of taking power," Quliyev says.

On 10 May, the Azerbaijani leader celebrated his 80th birthday at an Ankara military hospital where he had been admitted after collapsing twice during a public meeting in Baku. He recently returned to the Azerbaijani capital but has stayed out of public view since then.

State-run Azerbaijan Television on 16 May showed mute video footage of the veteran leader chairing a meeting of the National Security Council at his home. The broadcast came a day after Aliyev failed to meet NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, sparking a fresh wave of rumors about his health.

Apart from an official statement blaming Aliev's collapse on a sudden drop in blood pressure, the presidential administration has remained tightlipped about the state of his health. Relatives and officials maintain he is still suffering from minor injuries sustained during his fall and needs another two to three weeks to convalesce.

Earlier this week, Aliev's foreign policy adviser Novruz Mamedov said the president would go to St. Petersburg later this month to attend the ceremony marking the 300th anniversary of the Russian city. At the same time, Mamedov admitted that Aliyev was still unable to hold long meetings with foreign visitors.

The prosecutor-general's office issued a warning to the press saying it is unethical to speculate about the state of Aliev's health. But opposition newspapers have refused to drop the topic, demanding that the head of state be examined by an independent medical team. Adding to the general confusion, opposition media outlets have been carrying reports on alleged infighting among the ruling elite connected to a possible succession struggle and to an interim administration in case Aliyev is declared unfit to fulfill his duties.

Turan political analyst Quliyev says recent reports on Ilham's upcoming nomination stem from these power games. He says he believes Russia and pro-Moscow Azerbaijani officials could well have masterminded the latest leaks.

"In fact, for Russia, Heidar would be the most suitable candidate because all those political leaders who are active in the opposition -- be it [Musavat Party chairman] Isa Qambar, [Azerbaijan National Independence Party Chairman] Etibar Mammedov or [Azerbaijan's Popular Front Party reformist leader Ali] Karimli, for example -- are pro-Western. Should Heidar run for president [again], that would suit Russia, because under Heidar Russia and Azerbaijan have had a balanced relationship and [Azerbaijan] has done nothing to irritate Russia. But if we talk about post-[Aliev] Azerbaijan, then of course Ilham would be the most suitable option for Russia. The fact that Russian newspapers like 'Izvestiya' have published entire supplements devoted to Azerbaijan, publicizing Ilham and weighing his political chances is certainly not coincidental. Russian experts have never concealed their sympathy for Ilham," Quliyev says.

Political expert Musabeyov believes that, with his Russian education and his pro-Western views, Ilham would certainly suit both Moscow and Washington, which has large economic and security interests in Azerbaijan and has been closely watching developments in that country. Yet, he says, both capitals may weigh other criteria when the time comes to court a particular political contender.

"The problem is that neither Russia nor the United States can disregard the fact that [the] man [who will succeed Aliev] must be able to control the [general] situation [in the country] and, in particular, to control his own entourage," Musabeyov says. "What I mean here is that all these people who are now obeying Aliyev and fulfilling his orders -- which, by the way, may not be always legal -- could well adopt totally different behavior [in the future]. This is true even in the event that the reins of power find themselves in Ilham's hands."

Azerbaijan's current political situation is fraught with many paradoxes that stem largely from Aliev's strongly personalized 10-year style of government.

As Quliyev points out, the former Soviet Politburo member has created a political system "in which one could hardly find a single person bold enough to fill the current political vacuum." This circumstance, the analyst says, may drive the presidential team to support a candidate -- Ilham -- who many suspect would prefer to stay out of the political limelight.

Another paradox Quliyev points out, is that any official announcement regarding Ilham's nomination for the presidency must come from Aliyev himself.

"There were several instances in the past when the presidential team attempted to activate the 'Ilham' card and were rapped over the knuckles by the president, who declared the game over. In other words, they got their fingers burnt and, even under the present circumstances, no one would dare attempt anything. Every one expects the president to announce his decision himself. In any case, [some in the presidential team] would like to politically reanimate [Heidar] for [a short while] and have him express their wish before the entire population. In that case, yes, I think the process could be launched," Quliyev says.

Political experts generally believe that if Ilham runs for president and is elected, his ability to keep the favor of the ruling elite and run the country would largely depend on Aliev's backing.

In Musabeyov's view, the same goes for the run-up to the presidential poll, especially if one takes into account that Ilham has largely remained in his father's shadow. "As long as Aliyev is alive and retains his presidential seat, Ilham is the most suitable candidate for the ruling elite," he says. "What will happen after, however, is difficult to predict."

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