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Caucasus Report: June 8, 2001

8 June 2001, Volume 4, Number 21

AZERBAIJAN SUCCESSION STRUGGLE INTENSIFIES. The eventual departure from the political scene of Azerbaijan's 78-year-old President Heidar Aliyev is no longer a taboo subject and indeed has become the catalyst for intense speculation over who will eventually succeed him as well as in what circumstances. That speculation has been fueled by the emergence of an increasing number of political tactical alliances apparently created to back a specific candidate in the succession struggle. ("525-gazeti" on 25 May quoted Liberal Party Chairwoman Lala Shovket Gadjieva as calculating that there are seven distinct groups ready to contest the leadership, although she declined to identify them.)

Several aspects of the incipient succession struggle are of particular interest. First, neither the opposition nor the current leadership is united behind a single candidate. Second, several of the groups created to back a particular individual have a marked territorial orientation. And third, at least one politician has suggested that President Aliyev should step down now -- presumably after having done all he can to prepare the way for his chosen successor, and at the most propitious moment to avoid the risk that the succession struggle could turn violent.

In the run-up to last year's parliamentary elections, realignments within the Azerbaijani political spectrum were confined to the opposition, the most spectacular developments being the split of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party into progressive and conservative factions, and the parallel division of the Democratic Congress into two rival bodies. But even though dissent and infighting has known to exist within the "party of power," Yeni Azerbaycan, for at least three years (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No.16, 16 June 1998 and Vol. 2, No. 34, 26 August 1999), until recently there seemed to be little danger that the party would split.

In recent weeks, however, two groups of prominent members of Yeni Azerbaycan have established what appear to be separate and competing political groupings, and observers in Baku suspect that further such "power centers" may emerge within that party. The first such splinter group was the so-called 91st group comprising founding members of the Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP). Its most prominent members are former Press and Media Minister Siruz Tebrizli and former Baku Mayor Rafael Allakhverdiev, both of them deputy chairmen of YAP. Tebrizli was among the first to criticize YAP publicly (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 4, 24 March 1998), while Allakhverdiev has chronicled in some detail his difficult relations with both the presidential administration and the government of Artur Rasizade (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 40, 13 October 2000 and No. 42, 27 October 2000).

The Tebrizli/Allakhverdiev alignment is considered important because it is perceived as being directed against presidential administration head Ramiz Mehtiev, a former Communist Party of Azerbaijan Central Committee ideology secretary, whom some commentators consider a possible interim leader following Aliev's demise. At a conference in Baku in late April, Tebrizli openly accused Mehtiev of instigating the police reprisals in January-February against the Karabakh war invalids who launched nationwide protests to demand an increase in their allowances (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23, 24 and 31 January and 16, 19 and 20 February 2001). But opinions differ as to whether Tebrizli and Allakhverdiev are acting independently, or whether Aliyev himself is using them as a weapon against Mehtiev because he considers the latter a potential obstacle to his imputed aim of ensuring that his son Ilham succeeds him as president. According to that hypothesis, outlined in the independent newspaper "Uch nogte," Tebrizli and Allakhverdiev are seeking to create a lobby that will back Ilham, whom Mehtiev reportedly does not to consider a serious candidate for the presidency.

Mehtiev has been identified as the moving force behind the second new organization, which was launched in mid-May. Described by its members as a purely "public organization" that will forswear political activity, "Erivan Birliyi" (Yerevan Unity) aims above all to protect the interests of Azerbaijanis whose families came from Armenia in the early 1950s -- hence its name. But there already exists one such organization with that proclaimed goal -- the Agridag society founded in 1993, whose unofficial head is Health Minister Ali Insanov. Like Mehtiev, Insanov is believed to harbor presidential ambitions. Observers believe that Insanov survived allegations that he was responsible for the disappearance of large sums of aid money intended for Azerbaijan's estimated 800,000 displaced persons solely because of President Aliev's protection.

Nor are those two the only organizations to represent primarily the interests of persons originating from a specific region of Azerbaijan. There is also "Alindja," founded in the early 1990s by senior politicians from Nakhichevan (Heidar Aliev's home and his power base in 1990-1992). The Nakhichevanis claim to have played a major role in bringing Aliyev back to Baku as national leader in June 1993, but complain that they have since been shunted into the background by politicians whose families came from Armenia.

Very little is known about the ties that such groups maintain with local "force" structures. But the existence of political groups with a pronounced regional affiliation has given rise to fears that a protracted succession struggle could lead to the dismemberment of the country. And the more groups emerge backing specific potential future national leaders, the greater the likelihood that the post-Aliyev transition will not be bloodless.

"Ulus," which is a semi-independent paper with close ties to exiled former parliament speaker Rasul Guliev's Azerbaijan Democratic Party, suggests that the rivalry which has erupted among the Azerbaijanis from Armenia has already provided the impetus for the creation of organizations representing other national minorities, such as the Talysh, Lezgins, and Avars.

A further, related possibility is that some regional elites may be waiting to take advantage of Aliev's demise in order to secede. In an interview published last week in "Yeni Musavat," the chairman of The National Unity of All-Azerbaijan party, Hajibala Azimov, expressed concern that separatist trends in the southern areas of Azerbaijan are now stronger than in 1993, when Colonel Alikram Humbatov declared an independent Talysh-Mugan Republic. According to Azimov, the idea of creating a Talysh-Mugan Republic is still alive today among high-ranking officials in southern cities. Those officials received their jobs by paying bribes to the president's office in Baku, Azimov claims.

How Aliyev intends to cope with these various threats and constraints remains a mystery. Some observers have suggested that he may already have abandoned the idea of seeking to ensure that Ilham succeeds him and has settled for another immediate member of his family, his son-in-law Mahmud Mamedkuliev, who was recalled last week to Baku from London where he served for years as Azerbaijan's ambassador. (Mamedkuliev, who is simultaneously a deputy foreign minister, has denied that he is being groomed for a more prestigious post such as that of parliament speaker -- which would place him in line to succeed Aliyev should the latter die suddenly -- or prime minister.)

Others have raised the possibility of a two-stage process but that implies that Aliyev would first engineer the appointment of the chosen interim figure to the position of parliament speaker. (Liz Fuller)

WTO MEMBERSHIP MAY END TURKISH BLOCKADE. Turkey's continuing refusal to open its border with Armenia could be successfully challenged by Yerevan after it secures membership of the World Trade Organization, a WTO expert said on 6 June. Peter Narey, who works as a senior consultant at the Geneva-based body setting rules for global trade, argued that WTO rules prohibit member states from imposing economic blockades on each other and require them to guarantee free transit of cargoes through their territory.

"It would be very difficult for Turkey to maintain a prohibition on Armenian transit," he said. "Turkey is a member of the WTO, and I don't see how it can justify such policy. If you are a member of the WTO you can use WTO mechanisms to force other countries to respect the rules."

Successive Turkish governments have consistently linked normalization of relations with Armenia to a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that would restore Baku's control of the disputed region and lead to the return of occupied Azerbaijani territories. Turkey and Azerbaijan share close ethnic and cultural affinity. (On 7 June, Azerbaijani newspapers quoted Turkish Premier Bulent Ecevit as having set a second condition in talks several days earlier with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, namely that Armenia must establish a land corridor between Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan.)

Travel and commercial exchange between Turkey and Armenia has been carried out mainly through Georgia ever since Ankara closed its border with its northeastern neighbor in 1993. The blockade was later softened with the reopening of Turkish air space to commercial planes flying to and from Armenia.

Narey was speaking in Yerevan at a seminar on the implications of Armenia joining the WTO, which senior government officials now say is likely to happen before the end of this year. Tigran Davtian, deputy minister of trade and industry, said the Armenian government's six-year negotiations with 140 members of the trade body are nearing completion, with most of the terms of the country's membership already agreed.

Davtian said the only remaining obstacle is a U.S. demand for the liberalization of Armenia's telecommunications market and a more effective enforcement of copyright laws. The U.S. government objects to the controversial 15-year monopoly granted to the ArmenTel operator in 1998 under the terms of its acquisition by the Hellenic Telecommunications Organization (OTE). The government in Yerevan has been in talks with top OTE executives over the possibility of abolishing the monopoly since last September. So far they have yielded no results.

Davtian, who had earlier predicted WTO membership before the end of 2000, said the Armenian government will soon agree on a compromise deal with U.S. trade officials. He added that agreement has already been reached with Canada and Australia, two leading WTO members that also set conditions for Armenia's entry into the organization.

The two countries were insisting throughout last year that Armenia ensure equal treatment of domestic and imported agricultural products by abolishing a 10 percent import duty on some foodstuffs. They also demanded that government subsidies to the Armenian agricultural sector do not exceed $40 million per annum.

The authorities now expect that Armenia will be granted a five-year transition period during which it will be allowed to keep its trade regime, seen as one of the most liberal in the former Soviet Union, unchanged.

Some local manufacturers have expressed concern at a further opening of Armenia's markets to, fearing that cheaper imports would undermine their positions. Sedrak Sedrakian, vice chairman of the Yerevan-based Grand Sun company which produces electrical lamps and other appliances, said: "If we get in today we will only suffer damages. You just can't let a toddler fight with heavyweights." (Atom Markarian)

ADYGEYA BRINGS SOME LAWS INTO LINE WITH FEDERAL LEGISLATION. Meeting on 23-24 May, the newly elected State Council of the Republic of Adygeya voted to amend the republic's constitution and key laws to bring them into conformity with federal legislation, Glasnost-North Caucasus reported on 1 June. The most important of those changes was to abolish the existing article of the constitution that stipulated that the titular nationality, who account for only 22 percent of the republic's population, is entitled to 50 percent representation on state bodies. That provision has long been contested by the Russians and other Slavs who constitute 70 percent of the population (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 12, 23 March 2001).

The State Council did not, however, amend the two articles of the constitution that require that presidential candidates must be able to speak the Adygei language and have lived in the republic for at least one year prior to the presidential poll. If that restriction is not lifted soon it may limit participation in the presidential poll due next year. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "The fact that our republic borders Chechnya is no reason to make it a testing ground for hostilities." -- Ingush President Ruslan Aushev, quoted by Interfax on 1 June.