Washington, 11 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Many post-Soviet states are now confronting a problem that some of their leaders thought they could put off or even avoid: how to transfer power from one generation to another in a way that does not compromise stability, independence, and national aspirations.
Both the problem and the different ways national leaders are addressing it has been thrown into high relief by two recent events: Russian President Boris Yeltsin's renewal of his government last month and Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev's 75th birthday celebrations yesterday.
In the Russian Federation, Yeltsin sacked his longtime prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, a man of his own generation and hence longtime Soviet experience. In his place, Yeltsin installed Sergei Kiriyenko, someone a generation younger who has come of age in the post-Soviet world. And the Russian president has advanced the careers of a number of other young reformers.
Many in Russia and abroad have greeted this move. Not only does it suggest that Yeltsin is prepared to push further and faster on reform than Chernomyrdin had been doing, but it also allows a new group of officials to gain the kinds of experience that will make them credible as candidates for more senior positions, including eventually the one that Yeltsin now occupies.
But others in both places have been more skeptical. On the one hand, Yeltsin is likely to have far more influence over Kiriyenko than he sometimes had over Chernomyrdin. And because Yeltsin has proved so changeable over time, his influence may push Kiriyenko's government in very different directions than some now hope and others fear.
And on the other, Yeltsin's sacking of Chernomyrdin may have cleared the way for Yeltsin to run for yet another term as president if his health holds up. While in office, Chernomyrdin had gained the kind of experience that made him plausible as a successor to Yeltsin. Kiriyenko does not yet have that experience and consequently does not appear a likely candidate.
In that event, either Yeltsin runs again despite an apparent constitutional prohibition against a third term or the candidates for the office will likely have little or no experience in the post-Soviet Russian central government, a situation that could adversely affect future developments there.
In Azerbaijan, by contrast, Aliyev has not yet begun this process of renewal of elites even though it is quite obvious that the issue of transferring power to a younger group of leaders while maintaining the stability and independence of his country is now very much on his mind.
But because of his age, Aliyev's failure to push this process further could call into question the very achievements -- removing Russian troops from his country, attracting sizable Western investment, and helping build the economic and political bridge between Central Asia, Georgia, Ukraine and the West -- he is most interested in guaranteeing.
Indeed, even as leaders from around the region and the world greeted him on his 75th birthday, Aliyev appeared particularly unwilling to explore ways in which he could renew his own regime and guarantee that his achievements will survive their creator.
Last week, Aliyev proposed new legislation to regulate the presidential elections to be held in October. Because of its restrictive provisions which appear to give the incumbent -- Aliyev -- unfair advantages, five leading members of the opposition issued a joint declaration that they would refuse to run if the law was adopted.
Even more problematic than this declaration of the five, Azerbaijani police dispersed a demonstration of some 4,000 people protesting this legislation in Baku on Friday and arrested more than 100 of them. Among those taking part and possibly among the arrested were former government officials and opposition activists.
The lack of any bridge between Aliyev and these people or of a means of including at least some of the social forces they represent in the government suggests that the transition after Aliyev could be a very rocky one.
Despite the steps he has taken, Yeltsin has not yet solved this problem. Indeed, if he uses Kiriyenko's lack of experience to keep himself in office, Yeltsin may exacerbate it. But Aliyev's approach up to now is a reminder that failing to address this problem head on is not a solution but rather a guarantee that the problem will become even larger.