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South Caucasus: Leaders Mull Succession Strategies, But With Different Chances Of Success

Most CIS leaders claim that continuity of power is the key to political stability in their countries. But critics believe there are other reasons many post-Soviet rulers are unwilling to relinquish power: a reluctance to part with vast financial resources and a fear of having to answer for any questionable decisions or deeds of their past. As members of the Council of Europe, the three South Caucasus states of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia are obliged to abide by certain standards of governance. Their leaders, who cannot keep power or transfer it to a chosen successor without violating these democratic principles, are now looking at roundabout ways to assure they, or their heirs, stay on top. But do all three presidents face similar chances of success?

Prague, 21 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijan's voters are expected to go to the polls on 24 August to decide on a string of amendments to the five-year-old constitution. Authorities claim the 39 changes offered for public approval will bring the constitution closer to European standards.

Opponents, however, argue that amendments pertaining to civil liberties, such as the one proposing to officialize an ombudsman (human-rights commissioner) office, are a red herring. They claim the real purpose of the upcoming referendum is to further strengthen President Heidar Aliev's control over Azerbaijan.

The 79-year-old leader, who has a firm grip on the entire vertical of power, says he will seek a third term in office when his present mandate expires in October 2003.

Although the constitution limits presidents to just two terms in office, Aliyev argues he is an exception because the constitution came into force after he was first elected in 1993.

Many at home and abroad believe Aliev, who has long been reported to be in ill health, is misleading Azerbaijani and international public opinion and is in fact considering stepping down.

But others, like Rasim Musabekov, a former presidential aide who now works as an independent political analyst, do not believe Aliyev is ready to relinquish power any time soon. As Musabekov told RFE/RL, the former Communist Party boss should be taken seriously when he says he will seek re-election next year. "If his health remains more or less stable, I think Aliyev will keep his word and run for president again. There are people for whom power is a means of existence and Aliyev belongs to that category," Musabekov said.

Whatever the veteran leader's final decision, speculation about his successor has long been the talk of the town in Baku.

Aliev's 40-year-old son Ilham, who holds high-ranking positions in both state industry and the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) Party, is generally being groomed to succeed his father. But other members of the president's inner circle -- those believed to be politically more astute and more apt to keep a firm grip on the country than Ilham Aliyev -- are also tipped as potential successors.

Opponents who claim the constitutional amendments aim to redistribute powers within the ruling elite point to one provision in particular. That is the one stating that in case the head of state dies, resigns, or is incapacitated, his duties are no longer transferred to the elected parliamentary speaker, but to the president-appointed prime minister.

Such critics cite the precedent set by Russia in 1999, when President Boris Yeltsin propelled Vladimir Putin -- then secretary of the Security Council -- to the premiership. Many in Baku suspect that once the constitution is reworded, Aliyev will entrust his heir apparent with the task of heading the government, thus paving the way for his accession to power.

Aliev's opponents also denounce two other planned amendments that would elect all lawmakers in single-member constituencies and allow a presidential candidate to win in the first round with a simple majority instead of the current two-thirds of votes.

Musabekov believes that irrespective of Aliev's decision regarding his own candidacy, the reshaped constitution will serve as a safety net for the elite in power. "The [Azerbaijani] authorities are trying to adapt the constitution and the electoral system in such a way that they would be able to secure the results of the vote while lowering the extent of the fraud so it does not appear so obvious to international observers. This is the essence of these maneuvers. True, some new institutions have appeared [recently], such as an ombudsman, and changes have been brought into the judiciary. But I believe the referendum is not meant to introduce the changes that [our country] needs and that could have been passed by parliament. This referendum pursues a different aim. It is here to adapt the constitution and the electoral system to the needs of the ruling elite," Musabekov said.

While the Azerbaijani leader has decided to achieve his goal through popular referendum, his Armenian counterpart has apparently opted for more straightforward tactics.

Although President Robert Kocharian has not officially announced his candidacy, it is generally believed that he will seek re-election next February.

On 1 August, the Armenian leader signed into law a bill that increases the number of lawmakers elected in single-member constituencies, while reducing the number of deputies chosen from party lists.

The new arrangements also reduce membership of the Central Electoral Commission to nine from the current 13, with three election officials directly appointed by the head of state and the remainder by the political parties represented in parliament.

Arguing that half of the six existing parliamentary groups support the current head of state, opposition leaders claim that Kocharian has effectively taken control of the Central Electoral Commission ahead of next year's polls.

Kocharian is also facing criticism at home and abroad for his Putin-like style of governance that includes restrictions on independent media and emasculation of all potential counterpowers.

In an attempt to silence his critics, the Armenian leader has proposed amending the country's 1995 constitution to curb the duties of the president. But opponents argue that the changes, which are due to be debated in parliament in the fall ahead of a possible referendum that would follow the presidential poll, would in fact bestow the head of state with additional powers while further weakening the legislature.

Gevork Poghosian runs the Institute of Philosophy and Law at Armenia's Academy of Sciences and chairs the Association of Armenian Sociologists. He told RFE/RL that despite the democratization process initiated after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the South Caucasus leaders are now leaning toward authoritarianism.

Poghosian believes there are several reasons behind this evolution. Among them is the so-called "nostalgia for the firm hand," a phenomenon he said is noticeable in most former Soviet republics. The Armenian expert also cited a chronic incapacity on the part of opposition groups to get organized and overcome their differences, and said the ruling elite in all three countries has successfully silenced many political foes by luring them into the state apparatus.

Poghosian said another factor has contributed to the growing strength of the governing elites. "There is a second reason, a social one, that explains the absence of any serious opposition. What I have in mind here is mass emigration. During the last decade of the 20th century, the South Caucasus region has lost nearly 3 million people who have left Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The majority of them were between the ages of 18 and 50. This economically active part of the population could have constituted what we call a 'third class,' which could have contributed to the development of the economy [and] small businesses, and which could have become a politically active element of our societies. Civil society has not materialized. It has been weakened by mass emigration, by the authoritarian tendencies of our leaders and, finally, by the incapacity of the political opposition that has been integrated into the structures of power," Poghosian said.

Yet, Poghosian conceded that despite certain similarities among the South Caucasus states, a stronger civil society and greater freedom of the press make Georgia stand out among its neighbors.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze exerts only partial control over his country, due to unsettled decade-long separatist conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and to the vast autonomy bestowed upon the southern Adzharia province. He says he will follow the letter of the constitution and will not seek a third term in office when his mandate expires in 2005.

But the 74-year-old leader has also long been suspected of preparing his successor.

Up until recently, parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania had been groomed to succeed the current head of state. But that changed when Zhvania joined the opposition last fall after resigning from his post and deserting Shevardnadze's crumbling Union of Citizens, Georgia's former ruling party.

There is now speculation that Shevardnadze has found a new heir apparent in State Minister Avtandil Dzhorbenadze, the third-highest-ranking official in the state apparatus. Shevardnadze has entrusted Dzhorbenadze with the task of resuscitating his Union of Citizens ahead of next year's legislative poll.

Yet, some analysts believe Foreign Minister Irakli Menagarishvili -- who, like Dzhorbenadze, is a distant relative of Shevardnadze -- might prove a better candidate for the country's next head of state.

Ghia Nodia is the chairman of the Tbilisi-based Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development. He said that Shevardnadze is still pondering the succession issue. "I don't believe Shevardnadze intends to seek another mandate, although members of his entourage periodically say he should do so. Up until now, Shevardnadze has not supported that idea and I don't believe he will run for president in 2005. But it is pretty obvious that his entourage would like to see him follow Russia's footsteps and, say, softly transfer his power to someone who belongs to his inner circle, although there is no consensus on who that person should be. In Georgia, there is no such mechanism as the one that exists in Russia. There is no premiership and the second-most-powerful official in the state apparatus is the parliamentary speaker, who so far remains basically beyond the president's control. Therefore a Russian-like transfer of power cannot work in Georgia. However, I believe Shevardnadze and his associates are thinking over possible ways to prepare public opinion so that someone from his entourage [will become] the next president," Nodia said.

But Nodia also believes the peculiarities of Georgian politics will make it harder for Shevardnadze to implement such monarchic plans. Most recently, the Georgian president failed to have the constitution changed to create the post of prime minister. "In my view, there is in Georgia more social and political pluralism than in Armenia or Azerbaijan. There are a greater number of independent centers of civil activity and independent media are stronger," Nodia said, adding that, "Authorities, therefore, usually find it more difficult to dictate their will to the various political, and even economic, actors."