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Azerbaijan: Ruling Elite, Opposition Haunted By Absent Leader

With only two months left before the 15 October presidential polls, Azerbaijan's political establishment is in complete disarray. Incumbent President Heidar Aliyev has not appeared in public for nearly four months and is currently undergoing medical treatment in the United States. The ruling elite is claiming the veteran leader remains in control, even as they reportedly close ranks behind Aliev's son and newly appointed prime minister, Ilham. The opposition has denounced Aliev's "monarchical" succession plans, but seems unable to decide on a tactic with which to fight them. Meanwhile, both camps are obsessed with three key questions: Will Aliyev return to Baku? When? And what will be left of his influence?

Prague, 15 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The recent promotion of Ilham Aliev, the son of ailing President Heidar Aliev, to the post of Azerbaijani prime minister has ratcheted up the political showdown in the South Caucasus country.

Since the 125-member Milli Meclis (parliament) voted 41-year-old Ilham Aliyev in on 4 August, opposition parties have staged daily rallies in Baku to protest what they say is a "usurpation of power" by Azerbaijan's ruling family.

A group of opposition activists even embarked on a week-long hunger strike to denounce Aliev's "monarchical" plans. The protesters ended their movement two days ago, claiming they had succeeded in raising public awareness.

But it is highly unlikely that Ilham Aliev's appointment came as a surprise to the opposition. Heidar Aliev's succession plans have long been a source of speculation and debate in Azerbaijan, especially since both father and son announced their candidacies in the 15 October presidential elections.

For Azerbaijani political analysts such as lawyer Ilqar Altay, the director of the Baku-based Independent Investigation Center, the real issue is not so much whether the presidency will remain in the hands of the ruling clan. It is whether Heidar Aliyev can be expected to play any political role in the days and weeks ahead.

"Opposition [leaders] were expecting [Ilham Aliev's] appointment. For them, the most important thing today is Heidar Aliev's state of health. They want to know whether he is still alive, whether he is still capable of influencing the power mechanisms," Altay said.

Eighty-year-old Heidar Aliyev has almost totally disappeared from public view since he collapsed on 21 April while delivering a speech at the Baku Military Academy.

On 8 July, the veteran leader was discreetly taken to Ankara's Gulhane military hospital, officially for a routine medical checkup. But it later emerged the Azerbaijani president was in fact being treated for acute heart troubles.

On 6 August, the Azerbaijani leader was flown to a private clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. His American doctors have described Aliyev as "resting comfortably" in the Cleveland Clinic Foundation's department of cardiovascular medicine, and say that his health is improving. But such assurances have failed to stem speculation about the president's true condition.

Analyst Altay, who is also a physician by training, told RFE/RL he went to Ankara last week on his own initiative to check rumors about Heidar Aliev's deteriorating health. He said military doctors at Gulhane told him the president's heart stopped functioning independently on the night of 31 July-1 August -- just days before he reportedly asked parliament to confirm his son as prime minister.

"To me everything is clear about Heidar Aliev's health condition. You have to believe that [he] will no longer be able to work. His heart has stopped functioning and the only solution would be a transplant. This is precisely why he was brought to Cleveland, so that the operation could be performed there. The problem is that neither his age -- he is now in his 81st year -- nor his state of health -- he has other troubles with his kidneys and lungs, and suffers from diabetes -- allows for a transplant, or even a simple surgical operation. So a heart transplant remains under question. My estimate is that the risk [of death] posed by such an operation currently stands at 80 or 90 percent," Altay said.

Azerbaijani authorities deny that Heidar Aliev's health has dramatically deteriorated or that he is being kept alive by a heart-lung machine. In an interview published yesterday in Japan's "Mainichi Shimbun" daily, Ilham Aliyev said he expected the Azerbaijani president to return to Baku in a couple of weeks. While admitting that Heidar Aliyev had mild kidney troubles, Ilham said his father's heart condition was back to normal.

The newly appointed prime minister, who last week took a leave of absence to prepare for the elections, also said he would withdraw his candidacy in favor of the incumbent president "in due time."

Independent political observers in the Azerbaijani capital generally agree these reassuring statements are meant for both the opposition and the power elite. They say uncertainty over Heidar Aliev's health is the only thing that prevents bitter rivalries among members of the ruling team from devolving into an open conflict.

Azer Rasidoglu is a political analyst for Azerbaijan's Russian-language "Zerkalo" newspaper. He said Ilham Aliev's recent appointment -- and claims that Heidar Aliev's health condition is normal -- are primarily designed to keep the ruling elite united until the elections. "[This] appointment and other recent developments have demonstrated that the ruling power is now united around Ilham Aliev's candidacy. If, until recently, we had been witnessing a growing confrontation among [high-ranking] civil servants, this confrontation has [temporarily] disappeared since Ilham Aliyev was appointed prime minister," he said.

But it is uncertain whether the solidarity of the ruling elite will survive the elections. Political analysts argue that Heidar Aliev's return to Baku is key to maintaining stability among the ruling elite. They say Ilham Aliyev lacks his father's political talent and may prove unable to prevent splits among the presidential team.

With the younger Aliyev running the government and the opposition still groping for a countertactic, Rasidoglu said the ruling elite is feeling fairly secure in the short run. "[But only] at first glance," Rasidoglu added. "After the elections, I believe, the ruling elite will break up because Ilham Aliyev is neither a strong politician nor a charismatic leader. There are very strong contradictions among power structures. Parliament speaker Murtuz Aleskerov, presidential administration chief Ramiz Mehdiev, and National Security Minister Namig Abbasov and many other influential officials loathe each other. These contradictions will deepen further after the presidential elections. Right now Ilham Aliyev is just a compromise figure around which the ruling elite can unite. In the present stage, the ruling elite may feel stronger because it believes victory is certain. But, after the elections, internal fighting will reach a new stage."

Altay, however, said Heidar Aliev's prolonged absence has left Azerbaijan's ruling elite in disarray -- and that Ilham Aliev's ascent to the premiership does little to help. "Not in the least," he said. "Why? Because in Azerbaijan, power is based, from top to bottom, on Heidar Aliev's strength and capacities. Heidar Aliyev has never allowed anyone to sit next to him that would be considered Azerbaijan's No.2, No.3, No.5, or even No.20. That explains why today he is here and not here at the same time. For members of the ruling power, the situation is not easy to manage and I believe they do not feel comfortable."

Ilham Aliev's appointment was widely expected to serve as a catalyst for the opposition and hasten efforts to close ranks behind a single candidate with a view to challenging the ruling elite's preferred candidate. But that has yet to happen.

Talks between Isa Gambar, the leader of the Musavat (Equality) Party, and Etibar Mammadov, the chairman of the National Independence Party of Azerbaijan (AMIP), to pick a single candidate have produced no breakthrough. Many in Baku believe deep-seated rivalries between the two presidential contenders will prevent them from reaching a compromise.

Journalist Rasidoglu said: "Following Ilham Aliev's appointment to the post of prime minister, many people expected the opposition would finally unite behind a single candidate, a single team, and a single program. But the opposition leaders' inordinate ambitions have smashed this idea into pieces."

Meeting yesterday in Baku, representatives of Azerbaijan's intelligentsia urged opposition parties to nominate a single candidate, saying this was "the only way" to counter the ruling elite's recent moves.

Political analyst Altay believes Azerbaijan's main opposition party leaders will eventually strike an agreement despite their differences. But Rasidoglu is far more pessimistic.

Although he denies recent claims by the Aliyev camp that many opponents are defecting to the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) Party, the journalist believes failure to present a single candidate in the presidential ballot may signal political upheaval among the opposition.

"Very likely many supporters of leading opposition parties will leave the ranks of these parties to either join other groups or create new political formations, Rasidoglu said. adding, "Only an agreement on a single candidate in the coming days could prevent the breakup of the opposition."