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Azerbaijan: Will The Real Closet Liberals Please Stand Up?

President Ilham Aliyev (file photo) Conventional wisdom assumes that a covert struggle is under way between "conservatives" and "liberals" within the Azerbaijani leadership. But that assumption may be an oversimplification that fails to acknowledge a faction that advocates a managed transition to a more liberal political system, but one with an Islamic component.

Ever since Ilham Aliyev formally succeeded his father Heidar as Azerbaijan's president in October 2003, there have been persistent rumors of a split within the team of top officials he inherited. That fault line purportedly divides the "conservatives," who allegedly have a political and economic interest in preserving the status quo and delaying, if not preventing outright, further democratization, and the "liberals," who support such changes, apparently not viewing them as a threat as the "conservatives" do.

Determining with any degree of certainty who belongs in which political camp is, however, problematic. The Azerbaijani press is full of speculation on that issue, much of it based on conjecture or purely circumstantial evidence. Nor is it 100 percent clear whether Aliyev himself, for all his stated commitment to democratization, sides unequivocally with the reformist camp, or whether he is being skillfully manipulated by the conservatives.

No Simple Divisions

Speaking at a press conference in Baku in April, Andreas Gross, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe rapporteur for Azerbaijan, who has visited Azerbaijan 19 times over the past three years and met on numerous occasions with the president, characterized Ilham Aliyev as being more democratic than his late father and predecessor, and less conservative that his entourage.

That group of officials, according to Gross, is split between those who are ready to help Aliyev implement his stated plans to create a more democratic system and those who seek to put the brake on such change. Gross further implied that to divide the Azerbaijani leadership into "reformers" and "conservatives" is simplistic, and that the various rival factions are more numerous. He also confessed that he still has no clear idea of who belongs to which faction.

On 14 June, posted extensive interviews with two influential Aliyev supporters, both of whom offered their diagnosis of the problems Azerbaijan currently faces and offered their vision of what type of political system could address those problems most effectively.

In the first interview, parliament deputy Anar Mamedkhanov, who according to the website was one of the most committed supporters of the idea of Ilham Aliyev succeeding his father, attributed the perception that Aliyev has failed to break with the previous "reactionary" administration to what he termed the "information vacuum" surrounding the president. Mamedkhanov also sought to refute the widely held conviction that the present Azerbaijani leadership will rig the outcome of the 6 November parliamentary ballot if need be in order to retain power. (Gross himself alluded to that possibility at his April press conference, saying "one must bear in mind that the elite in Azerbaijan is extremely wealthy. You don't surely think that it will simply disintegrate? If they feel that they could be stripped of power, they may offer armed resistance.")

Conservative Backlash?

Mamedkhanov, however, affirmed that he is "not convinced that the old guard are formulating pernicious plans and seek to hinder" the reform process. He explained the slow pace of those reforms to the entrenched "slavish mindset" and to Azerbaijanis' collective "conservatism."

Mamedkhanov agreed with his interviewer's suggestion that a new concept of social-political reform is needed, beginning with the "creation of liberal institutions that will preserve their neutrality and not sell themselves to one political force or another."

More important, Mamedkhanov insisted that President Aliyev himself "understands perfectly the current situation, and the fact that he does so is my sole source of optimism for the future of our country." But unfortunately, Mamedkhanov continued, the president's entourage does not include people who could interpret and "sell" his ideas to the Azerbaijani people in an acceptable format.

Mamedkhanov then explained that the president's primary objective is to strengthen Azerbaijan's position as regional economic leader; he argued that this can be done only by political means, including ensuring free, fair, and democratic elections.

Who's In Charge?

But other statements Mamedkhanov made cast a certain doubt on the depth of Aliyev's commitment to the process of democratization. Specifically, he revealed that Aliyev devotes between 75-80 percent of his time to economic issues. That suggests that domestic politics is almost exclusively the preserve of other, more experienced officials, and that it is they, rather than Aliyev himself, who are the main players in the covert battle that will decide the country's future political orientation.

What is more, it appears that that battle may not be only, as Mamedkhanov implied, between the "conservatives" and "liberals," but also between an unequivocally pro-European faction and one that would prefer a model that takes into account what political scientist Rovshan Mustafaev, in the second interview, termed " the Islamic orientation of our people." Mustafaev argued that the main problem facing Azerbaijan is that the old system of government is broken, but despite all efforts, no one has yet succeeded in creating a new one. He said the new generation is not totally enamored of the Western democratic model, but nonetheless wants a "contemporary model of statehood." He argued that the stereotyped division of the politicians into pro-government and opposition is specious, and it would be more accurate to differentiate between those "who think and act normally and responsibly," and those who are motivated by purely selfish and egocentric considerations.

Mustafaev declared that "we do not have the right to create a parliament that is less progressive than the Roman Senate." At the same time, he argued that the impetus for political change should come from the top, with the aim of forestalling pressure, or possibly even intervention, by the Council of Europe. "Why do we need the present presidential administration if the most crucial decisions are being made by European parliamentarians?" he asked rhetorically. Mustafaev has consistently rejected the Council of Europe's criteria for identifying political prisoners, and he denies that any Azerbaijanis fall into that category.

To deflect such external pressure, Mustafaev advocated creating an effective mechanism for governing the country and selecting new cadres on the basis of their patriotism and readiness to fulfill their civic duty. But he defined the ultimate aim not as "democratization," but the creation of what he termed a "normal, morally healthy situation" and the emergence of a new, socially-engaged political force that could mobilize the support of all those who care about the country's future.

In that context, Mustafaev referred to President Aliyev as a "sophisticated and liberal" person who is equal to the challenges he faces and capable of responding appropriately and who would hail the emergence of such a force.

Reaching Out To The Opposition

While Mamedkhanov and Mustafaev both clearly consider themselves part of the new reformist elite concentrated around the president and that hopes to spearhead reform, neither makes a direct connection between the emergence of that new force for change and the 6 November presidential ballot. Most observers anticipate that even in a fair ballot, candidates directly representing the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP), together with nominal independents with close ties to the present leadership, will win an overall majority of the 125 seats.

Turan on 21 July quoted U.S. Ambassador to Baku Reno Harnish as saying that Washington is conducting talks with both the authorities and opposition with the aim of promoting what he termed "a new, evolutionary model of political change" for Azerbaijan. Such a model could entail a parliament in which the opposition holds up to one-third of the mandates, and in which those opposition deputies could work together with the more liberal YAP parliamentarians to implement gradually President Aliyev's agenda for liberalization without triggering the counterreaction by entrenched conservative elements that Gross fears.

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