Prague, 11 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- President Heidar Aliev's two-week hospitalization in Ankara last month inevitably sparked speculation as to how the country would cope with the 75-year old president's sudden demise, and who will ultimately succeed him.
According to the country's constitution, the parliament chairman assumes the duties of the president in the event of the latter's death or incapacitation. But few observers view the present occupant of that office, former academic Murtuz Alesqerov, as more than a figurehead.
Significantly, since Aliev's return from his two weeks' treatment in Turkey for bronchitis and influenza, rumors have begun circulating in Baku that the president plans to replace Alesqerov with his 37-year-old son Ilham, who is currently vice president of the Azerbaijani state oil company SOCAR. (Alesqerov, for his part, has rejected speculation that he would voluntarily resign.)
President Aliyev has consistently declined to offer any hint of whom he sees as the most qualified candidate to succeed him, since to do so would be to render the individual in question vulnerable to slander, political pressure and possibly even physical danger from rival economic interest groups.
In the absence of any clearly stated preference from Aliyev himself, the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan party has unequivocally endorsed the candidacy of Ilham Aliyev on the basis of his "genetic code," his familiarity with politics, Russian education, and U.S. connections. The chairman of a second pro-regime political party, Fazail AgamAliyev of Ana Vatan, similarly told the independent newspaper "Ayna-Zerkalo" of 30 January that he would unhesitatingly support the candidacy of Ilham Aliev, whom he termed "a literate and pragmatic politician."
But some Western experts have expressed doubts that Ilham Aliyev would want to succeed his father as president. The consensus is that if Heidar Aliyev were to die in office, the country risks a period of infighting between rival claimants to power. Such a breakdown would constitute an open invitation to Moscow to intervene with the aim of reversing Azerbaijan's current overtly pro-Western orientation.