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Azerbaijan: Ilham Aliev's Confirmation As Premier Will Keep Presidency In The Family

Ilham Aliev, the son of ailing Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, was today confirmed as the country's new prime minister in a move designed to ensure he succeeds his father as the country's leader.

Prague, 4 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijan's ruling elite today confirmed the appointment of 41-year-old Ilham Aliyev as the country's prime minister.

The move stirs speculation that his father, Heidar Aliev, the country's 80-year-old president, may be close to death. Under the Azerbaijani Constitution, the prime minister takes over as head of state, pending elections, if the president dies.

Heidar Aliyev has been in a Turkish hospital since 8 July. The president, who has a history of heart and respiratory ailments, in April collapsed twice on live television while delivering a speech.

His current state of health is unknown. But Ilham Aliev, following today's confirmation by parliament, downplayed his father's illness, emphasizing instead the country's healthy economy. "The Azerbaijani economy is on the rise and I will do everything to continue the course. I expect no serous changes in the government. As for the president's health, it is good. He planned to return a couple of days ago, but the doctors wanted to [administer] some additional treatment. However, I believe he will return to Azerbaijan soon," Ilham Aliyev said.

Heidar Aliyev became KGB chief and Communist Party boss of the Caspian republic under Soviet rule in the 1960s. In 1993, he became president of independent Azerbaijan after only a short interval out of power.

With a reputation for ruthlessness and corruption, Heidar Aliyev has employed the same authoritarian methods he used during communist times to transform himself into a modern-day autocrat with absolute power over his oil-rich country.

Political opposition has been stifled and the country's parliament, dominated by Aliev's New Azerbaijan Party -- home to many of his former communist cronies -- obediently toes the presidential line. That parliament today (4 August) voted to replace Prime Minister Artur Rasizade with Ilham Aliyev by 101 votes in the 125-strong assembly.

Opposition deputies refused to take part in the vote but the new prime minister seemed unruffled by the boycott. "There are many parties and independent deputies, including opposition members, represented in our parliament. So I didn't expect a unanimous vote, but I'm grateful to all those who voted in my favor," Aliyev said.

Western democracy watchdogs, independent observers, and the Azerbaijani political opposition say there is little real political freedom in the country. They say this latest move is an overt attempt to keep ruling power firmly within the political elite faithful to Heidar Aliev.

Leila Butt is an Azerbaijan expert and an editor at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit. She told RFE/RL that Heidar Aliyev has long groomed his son to succeed him. Ilham Aliyev also serves as deputy chairman of the New Azerbaijan Party and vice president of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR).

Butt said she believes that President Aliyev originally intended to make the dynastic succession appear more democratic. But she speculates a rapid deterioration in his health may have forced a quick decision on Ilham Aliev's appointment to the premiership -- in order to ensure he will automatically take over the reins of power after his father's death.

Many critics say that despite his polished resume, Ilham Aliyev has not inherited his father's political skills, and is better-known as a free-spending playboy and gambler. Butt said the presidential heir has little real experience in power politics. "It's very much his father who has been pulling the strings and managing the country, not Ilham," she said. "So there are significant doubts about whether he's got the political skills to manage the country in a post-Heidar Aliyev era."

Butt believes that the ruling clique will initially back Ilham Aliyev after his father's death in order to ensure stability and retain power for itself. But she says there are politicians within the New Azerbaijan Party who may themselves harbor presidential ambitions -- ambitions they are afraid to declare while Heidar Aliyev is alive, but which may surface afterward.

"The elder Aliyev has managed to smooth over vested interests, play off interest groups very skillfully. So it's possibly unlikely that Ilham is going to be able to manage them as efficiently as his father has," Butt said.

Butt said that she and other observers believe Ilham Aliev's most dangerous rivals will come from within his own party because the opposition has been badly battered and is poorly organized. "At the moment we think that the opposition is not in a position to be a credible threat to Ilham."

Both Ilham and his father had previously registered as candidates for the country's presidential elections scheduled for October. Three other candidates have also registered, including the Aliyev regime's biggest rival, Isa Gambar, leader of the opposition Musavat Party. Gambar says the Azerbaijani Constitution forbids Ilham Aliyev from simultaneously holding the positions of parliament deputy, prime minister, and presidential candidate. "We think this is an attempt to realize a neo-monarchist scenario in Azerbaijan and we are confident that this attempt by the Heidar Aliyev regime will fail," Gambar said.

Thousands of opposition party supporters marched through the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, on 2 August demanding free and fair presidential elections. Butt thinks the pro-democracy event was orchestrated with government permission as a way of staving off recent criticism by Western bodies like the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.