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Azerbaijan: Political Shock Waves Continue

President Ilham Aliyev (file photo) (CTK) The mixture of uncertainty and rumor that imbues Azerbaijani domestic politics has always made it difficult, if not impossible to identify clearly the factions most observers believe exist within the upper echelons of the country's leadership, let alone to predict the outcome of that presumed struggle between them for influence.

The events of the past 10 days -- the abortive attempt on 17 October by former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev to return to Baku after a nine-year absence and the subsequent arrests of highly placed officials who have been accused of plotting with Quliyev to stage a coup d'etat -- similarly raise more questions than they provide answers.

More Questions Than Answers

Those questions fall into three broad categories. First, in what way are Quliyev's comeback attempt and the subsequent arrests linked? Is there any truth to the two statements released by the State Security and Interior ministries and the Prosecutor-General's office on 20 and 25 October accusing the disgraced former officials of plotting with Quliyev to overthrow the country's leadership? Or did Quliyev's precipitous move simply provide President Ilham Aliyev with a convenient pretext for removing people whom he considered an actual or potential threat to his proposed policies?

Second, what can one infer from the affiliations and attributes of those persons dismissed and arrested so far? What, if anything, do they have in common?

And third, how are those arrests likely to impact on domestic politics in the short- to medium-term?

To date, two former cabinet members -- Economic Development Minister Farkhad Aliyev and Health Minister Ali Insanov -- have been accused of conspiring with Quliyev, as have former presidential administration official Akif Muradverdiev and Fikret Sadykhov, former head of the state petrochemical concern Azerkhimiya. Several lower level officials have also been detained, including former Finance Minister Fikret Yusifov, on whose voluntary confession the accusations against Farkhad Aliyev and Insanov are reportedly largely based.

Both the ex-ministers have denied the charges against them and refuse to testify. Quliyev for his part has likewise denied any contacts whatsoever with them.

Clan Logic?

If one takes those denials at face value and proceeds from the assumption that Quliyev's abortive bid to return to Baku simply served as the catalyst for a round of detentions, then what was the motive for the detentions, given that the most prominent victims have little in common?

The dismissals do not fit into the pattern of a squaring of accounts between communities from different regions of the country (the Nakhichevan group versus the Yeraz group from Armenia): while Insanov is a Yeraz, Farkhad Aliyev's family comes from Lenkoran, near the border with Iran.

Nor do they share a political affiliation: on the contrary, Insanov was one of the original founders, and represented the conservative wing of deceased President Heidar Aliyev's Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP), while Farkhad Aliyev, although a member of YAP, was widely viewed as committed to economic and political reform and was rumored to have links to, and possibly even to provide funding for, the political opposition.

Follow The Money

What the two men do have in common is money. On 28 April "Nezavisimaya gazeta" identified Insanov as ranking fourth in a list of the 30 wealthiest men in Azerbaijan. (It did not publish the complete list, or give an estimate of his net worth.) One long-time observer of Azerbaijani politics, who asked to remain anonymous, suggested that President Ilham Aliyev may have been following the example of his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and have moved to neutralize those oligarchs whose personal fortunes put them in a position to implement their own political agendas. Aliyev has repeatedly said that economic monopolies -- currently controlled by Azerbaijan's oligarchs -- must be dismantled to permit the emergence of a new class of businessmen, a class that, although he has not stated as much, could serve as an alternative power base.

First, though, Aliyev must cope with the domestic political repercussions of the two ministers' arrests. As noted above, Insanov and Farkhad Aliyev have denied the charges against them and refuse to testify, in contrast to several lower-level officials who have reportedly already provided evidence incriminating others. That may be a reflection of the interrogation methods used, or it may be that Insanov and Farkhad Aliyev have threatened to divulge information that could compromise close associates of the president and are hoping to cut a deal that would permit them to leave Azerbaijan and retire in luxury in return for keeping silent.

Meanwhile Isanov supporters have launched a broad campaign to secure his release on bail. Rizvan Talybov, who heads an organization that represents the Yeraz, told journalists on 26 October that he believes Insanov's arrest was orchestrated by an unnamed faction within the leadership that aspires to oust President Aliyev by mobilizing the Yeraz community to protest on Insanov's behalf. Talybov himself then warned that tens of thousands of Yeraz could take to the streets if Insanov is not released from the pretrial confinement to which he has been remanded.

At present, therefore, Insanov and his supporters would seem to pose a greater threat to political stability than does Quliyev, who has now been publicly branded as not only corrupt but a traitor to his country and to the memory of the deceased president.

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