Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Aliev Succession Race

Azerbaijan president Heidar Aliev is facing stiff opposition from loyalists over plans to name his son, Ilham, as his successor.
By Rustam Seyidov

Ever since Azeri President Heidar Aliev's health started to falter badly back in 1999, international and domestic speculation over his possible successor has been rife.

Until recently, it seemed to be generally accepted that the fading leader was bound to hand over power to his son, Ilham. What else should one expect of a former KGB general and Brezhnev crony who now, as boss of this former Soviet republic, enjoys all the powers of a latter-day shah?

Aliev has served twice as president. He first entered office in 1969, ruling for 13 years. Any hint of dynastic succession would have been impossible or at least hotly denied during the Soviet era, but times have changed and the 78-year-old leader has been quite forthright about his wishes for the succession.

When Aliev returned to power in 1993, he rapidly set about promoting Ilham. And now, the ailing president never misses a chance to praise his son's appearances on the international arena. The press have never been far behind.

In April this year, the Russian language daily Zerkalo ran a commentary on a speech made by the 40-year-old Ilham in Strasbourg at the Council of Europe. "The successor has been chosen and the only issue on the agenda is to legitimise him," commented the paper.

Back in 1999, the ruling party's own paper had already spoken on Ilham's innate right and ability to take on the presidential role. According to the paper, the Aliev genetic code "bears the hallmark of national patriarch". What more proof is needed, then, that the job should be kept in the family.

Genetic hallmarks aside, Ilham has so far shown scant interest in taking up the presidential role. Yes, he trained as a soviet diplomat and helps run the Azeri - read Aliev - state-run oil company, but he is better known for his playboy lifestyle and is far more likely to be seen at the tables of Turkish casinos that at his desk.

Time though is pressing. Although Aliev's current term in office runs through October 2003, his failing health has led many to speculate that he will not survive that long.

Ilham may be the crown prince but, in the count down to Day X - as the day Aliev dies is referred to - other contenders are throwing their hats into the ring. He is no longer the sole candidate as he was back in 1999.

Back then it seemed there was no other likely candidate among the tightly-knit elite surrounding the president. The group itself is limited by virtue of its clan-like nature: all of its members hail from the Azeri enclave of Nakhichevan, wedged between Armenia and Iran.

According to the opposition newspaper Yeni Musavat, Aliev is in a hurry to solve the succession issue quickly. And his even stronger wish to promote his son as his heir has angered and frightened many of his close allies within his close elite. Therefore, even if Ilham got the job, he will fail to get strong support among from the public and from Aliev's kinsmen.

Local observers say the unwillingness of Nakhichevan clan to back Ilham stems from their belief that he is not strong enough to defend clan interests. Many Nakhichevians are leading businessmen and occupy senior government posts in the most profitable sectors of the economy. They would need someone who could ensure that their current status remains unchallenged and that the authorities refrain from taking a closer look at their business activities.

Another possible contender is Nakhichevani, Rasul Guliev, a former speaker of parliament and oil industry head who fled to New York following the launch of an embezzlement inquiry, says Yeni Musavat. "The reluctance of some groups to accept Ilham as a successor to Heidar Aliev might increase the chances of Rasul Guliev," the paper commented.

An additional contender is Etibar Mamedov, who came second in the October 1998 elections. Mamedov says Aliev is wrong to believe he has the people behind him and suggests that eighty per cent of Azerbaijanis are cynical and prefer not to trust anyone.

Although hampered in the 1998 election by his evidently anti-Aliev stance, Mamedov is now distancing himself from those openly critical of the president. This could work in Mamedov's favour, casting him in a light acceptable to both supporters of Aliev as well as the opposition. Mamedov might be chosen by the government as the guarantor of a 'smooth transition of power'.

But many believe that Ilham's most serious competition comes from the head of the presidential administration Ramiz Mehdiev. The daily Hurriyet believes the president, aware of Mehdiev's ambitions, is planning to sideline him by appointing him president of the Academy of Sciences and fill his present role with a more loyal supporter.

With opposition parties effectively out of the running after a year of infighting and inactivity, the independent press rule them out of the contest.

But things could change. The countdown to Day X may well have started but whether it comes this autumn, as some believe, or later, no one is assured of Aliev's succession just yet.

Rustam Seyidov is an independent journalist based in Baku