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Azerbaijan: Is President Ilham Aliyev's Power Base Wobbling?

Members of the Azerbaijani government and other state officials have been trading accusations of corruption and other misdeeds through the media for the past few weeks. Indications that political jockeying among the ruling elite may be intensifying have, in turn, fueled speculation about President Ilham Aliyev's ability to control his team.

Prague, 11 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In Baku, a power struggle among the country's top leadership is the talk of the town.

The political jockeying kicked off a few months ago with a media campaign directed at Baku Mayor Hacibala Abutalibov.

The "Azerbaycan" official newspaper published an article criticizing Abutalibov for failing to regulate the city's expansion and improve communal services. Other attacks soon followed, blaming the Baku mayor for building fountains during a water shortage and demolishing the city's commercial kiosks, a move that left many unemployed.
"Everyone was expecting that after the October elections Ilham Aliyev would launch a few purges and that all of those officials who were tainted with corruption and bribe-taking...would be progressively replaced with younger reformist cadres. Unfortunately, [Ilham Aliyev's] cadre policy is the same as that of the previous president."

A former deputy prime minister, Abutalibov was appointed Baku mayor in January 2001 by then President Heydar Aliyev.

Like the late head of state, Abutalibov was born in Nahcivan, an Azerbaijani exclave in Armenia that has been virtually cut off from the rest of the country since the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict broke out in the late 1980s.

Abutalibov reportedly belongs to the so-called Nahcivani clan, an informal grouping of political leaders that dominated Azerbaijan's political life for most of Heydar Aliyev's rule.

For many years, a power struggle positioned representatives of the Nahcivani clan against government officials originating from Armenia, known in Azerbaijan as Yeraz.

Fragmentation along regional lines has also affected the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) party.

Yet, Heydar Aliyev never allowed infighting to become public, let alone to make headlines. But his son, Ilham, who took over the presidency after last October's disputed polls, has failed to prevent the feuding from coming into the open.

Eldar Namazov, who served as a close aide to Heydar Aliyev in the 1990s, tells our correspondent the political succession brought a major change in domestic politics.

"That at the top of the executive different groups are vying for influence has long been an open secret. These groups do exist, and in this respect Azerbaijan is no exception. The problem is that Heydar Aliyev, who was a shrewd politician, was able to arbiter these conflicting interests. Never before had this infighting become so obvious. In any case, it had never made the headlines of newspapers or was discussed on television. But the situation has changed since the last elections. These groups are now openly trading accusations, and the problem has become much more acute than it used to be under Heydar Aliyev," Namazov said.

Since the first attacks targeting the mayor appeared in the media, Baku residents have witnessed a string of campaigns aimed at vilifying a number of government officials, including Education Minister Misir Mardanov, Transport Minister Ziya Mammadov, Health Minister Ali Insanov, and Customs State Committee Chairman Kamaletdin Heydarov.

Media reports indicate the current dispute once again pits members of the Nahcivani clan against their traditional Yeraz rivals. However, "blood connection" is no longer a deciding factor.

Sahin Abbasov is deputy editor in chief of the Baku-based independent "Ekho" newspaper. He says political clans are no longer solely organized along regional relationships.

"The situation is much more intricate today. Regional belonging is no longer the driving force behind these groups. Different sub-groups with different interests have formed within these regional groups, and today it is more financial interests that link people together," Abbasov said.

Analysts believed that, after the election, Aliyev would bring in a new team that would progressively evict the presidential "old guard."

Yet, with the exception of Foreign Minister Vilayat Quliyev and a few middle-ranking officials, the 42-year-old Azerbaijani leader has kept most of his father's ministers and advisers. He even reappointed former Prime Minister Artur Rasuzade -- whom he had replaced a few months earlier at that position -- to head the government.

Former presidential aide Namazov, who heads a nongovernmental organization known as Civic Forum, says Aliyev is now paying the price for failing to bring in new blood.

"Everyone was expecting that after the October elections Ilham Aliyev would launch a few purges and that all of those officials who were tainted with corruption and bribe-taking, or those who were holding very conservative political views and opposing democratic values, would be progressively replaced with younger reformist cadres. Unfortunately, [Ilham Aliyev's] cadre policy is the same as that of the previous president. These groups are now fighting each other to preserve their corporatist interests, and this poses a serious problem to Azerbaijan," Namazov said.

Among the factors that have contributed to the present situation, political analysts cite Ilham Aliyev's lack of experience in pulling the strings of shadow politics. They also point to the vacuum left by Heydar Aliyev's death, which brought an end to the apparent cohesiveness of the ruling team needed to ensure a smooth political transition.

But these are not the only reasons.

Before the ballot, most experts predicted the opposition would pay a high political price for failing to unite behind a single candidate.

The crushing defeat suffered by Musavat Party leader Isa Qambar and the police crackdown that followed the disputed polls profoundly modified Azerbaijan's political landscape. Today, the opposition is a mere shadow of its former self and, despite Aliyev's offers of dialogue, remains under constant threat of renewed harassment.

"Ekho" deputy editor in chief Abbasov believes Aliyev has fallen victim to his own success against the opposition.

"Before the elections, there was an opposition. One can argue whether this opposition was strong or weak, but it had a certain influence. After the elections, the opposition has been wiped out and the political struggle that before pitted the party in power against the opposition has moved and is now limited to the ruling elite," Abbasov says.

Political infighting has reached such a scale as to become a potential embarrassment to the Azerbaijani leader. Aliyev recently entered the fray, warning he would not let himself be influenced by "politically motivated" newspaper articles.

Whether he will be able to stop the political infighting and restore control over his father's team remains uncertain, however.

"One thing is clear,” Abbasov says. “The system that was elaborated by Heydar Aliyev is starting to misfire. Will this have serious consequences? It is too early to say. In any case, this 'war of compromising materials' that is splashing across the front pages of newspapers shows that the system is misfiring and that something needs to be done. Everyone expects the president to do something about it and try to reassert his control, either by structurally changing the system, or by appointing new people."

In a report released last month, the International Crisis Group said, "Azerbaijan's ruling elite is increasingly divided, with several clans competing for control of a pyramidal distribution structure that allows substantial funds to be skimmed from the oil business."

"Ilham Aliyev needs to embrace the democratic process and dismantle autocratic rule," the Brussels-based think tank added, saying that his "best chance" to achieve this objective is "to nurture a new generation of technocratic professionals while steadily dismantling the corrupt patronage network that strangles politics and keeps the economy overly dependent on oil."

Yet, critics doubt Aliyev is willing to change the system. They point to the president's failure to deliver on pre-election pledges and the conflicting signals he has been sending since the ballot on his commitment to reforms.

Former presidential aide Namazov fears Aliyev's attempts to reassert his authority over the ruling elite may not be sufficient.

"The exasperation of these clannish wars is, of course, a problem on the tactical level for the country's leadership because it undermines its prestige in the eyes of society and contributes to blackening the image of the government. This is why I think there will certainly be attempts to put out these wars. But this does not mean that the problem will be solved. Should these clans strike a deal to redistribute economic resources among themselves, that would neither meet the interests of society nor those of the country. This is not what our society is expecting," Namazov says.

"What is needed is the political will to reform the country," Namazov adds. "If there is political will, I believe the rest will follow, and the conservative part of the top leadership will be doomed to failure."

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