Azerbaijan: Ilham Aliev - Next in Line?

President Heidar Aliev has lined his son up to take over from him, but opinions differ widely as to whether he is up to the job.

Azerbaijan: Ilham Aliev - Next in Line?

President Heidar Aliev has lined his son up to take over from him, but opinions differ widely as to whether he is up to the job.

Forty-one-year-old Ilham Aliev stands a very good chance of becoming the next president of Azerbaijan within the next few months, as the health of his father Heidar Aliev worsens and a presidential election scheduled for October 15 draw near.

On August 4, Ilham was made prime minister of Azerbaijan, making him first in line in the succession if his father steps down or dies. Both father and son have registered to stand in the election.

Acquaintances are full of praise for Aliev junior's charm and intelligence. Yet he is as yet completely untested by big-time politics. And one incident, just a few minutes after he was formally appointed prime minister by the Azerbaijani parliament, underlined that he lacks his father's political instincts and could face a baptism of fire.

As the session ended, a beaming Ilham began talking to journalists in the lobby of the parliament building. He turned his back on the deputies, including his uncle Jalal, who all stood to attention as the national anthem was played. Ilham paid no notice. In an almost identical situation many years ago, his father was aware that television cameras were watching, and knelt down on one knee and kissed the national flag. The contrast was striking.

Aliev junior has been talked of as the heir apparent ever since the president's health took a turn for the worse in January 1999. At that time, Ilham was elected deputy leader of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party.

Until that moment, his biography had not set him apart from any other son of a Soviet party boss. Born in December 1961, he studied at Moscow's State Institute for International Relations, one of the most prestigious institutions, where most of the students were children of the party elite. He did a postgraduate degree there, and in 1985 was awarded a PhD in history. He is said to speak English and French in addition to Azeri and Russian.

Until 1991, Ilham lectured at his alma mater, and he then went into business. In 1994, the year after his father Heidar returned to power in Azerbaijan, he was made first vice president of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan, SOCAR. He was in charge of SOCAR's external relations, and consequently, of all foreign oil contracts, the first of which was signed the year he was appointed.

In the 1995 parliamentary elections, Ilham was elected to the Azerbaijani parliament. In 2000, his name was put at the top of Yeni Azerbaijan's list of election candidates. He then led Azerbaijan's delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Within Azerbaijan he is better known as head of the national Olympic Committee, and a keen sports-lover. There is no mistaking his enthusiasm when television cameras catch him jumping for joy at a goal scored by the Azerbaijani women's volleyball team.

In private, he is also passionate about the hugely popular television panel game "The Merry and the Quick-Witted", better known by its Russian initials KVN.

Until 1999 no one thought of Aliev junior as a future national leader. He himself did not seem particularly driven by politics and power. According to one explanation offered by those who know him well, he has virtually none of his father's charisma, love of power, ambition, and ability to control people.

"I have been friends with Ilham since 1995," Anar Mamedkhanov, a member of parliament and former KVN captain, told IWPR. "I can say that above all he is a very decent, calm and confident person. In all the years that I have known him I don't remember him raising his voice on a single occasion. Maybe the fact that he is so very calm is his main shortcoming."

The other question mark hanging over Ilham dates back to allegations that he was involved in a controversial scheme to convert a hotel into a casino in Baku in 1998. The sale resulted in a scandal, and President Aliev sacked foreign minister Hasan Hasanov and then closed down all gambling houses in Azerbaijan.

But in Azerbaijan, even the president's fiercest critics are surprisingly generous towards his son.

"As a person, Ilham Aliev is undoubtedly much better than his father," Elmar Husseinov, the editor of the opposition magazine Monitor, told IWPR. "The main difference from his father is that Ilham has friends. He has shown his personal qualities more than once, when he interceded for friends who got into trouble with his father, such as Kamaladdin Heidarov, chairman of the customs committee or Jahangir Askerov, president of the national airline.

There are many unanswered questions about to his political skills, and how he would cope with being in charge of the "Nakhichevan clan", which has run Azerbaijan almost uninterruptedly since Heidar Aliev became Communist Party leader there in 1969.

Ilham's upbringing was very privileged and more Russian- than Azeri-speaking. His wife Mehriban comes from Baku. This alienates him from many of the Nakhichevanis.

Also, when he has made attempts at political interventions, they have often ended in failure - underlining painfully the contrast with Heidar Aliev, a consummate politician who far outclasses most of his peers in the former Soviet Union, and who has won just about every major political battle in his career.

Last year, Ilham launched an ill-judged attack on Andreas Gross, a member of the Swiss parliament acting as Council of Europe rapporteur on Azerbaijan. However, when the council stood up for Gross, the official campaign instigated by Aliev junior against him stopped abruptly, and Gross continued to visit Azerbaijan.

Ilham also made a public stand against Fuad Musayev, head of Azerbaijan's Football Federation, in a conflict which became so acrimonious that it threatened to lead to Azerbaijan's expulsion from the worldwide football body FIFA. In the end Ilham had to give in and Musayev is still in his job.

All this means that the promotion of Ilham Aliev to the role of president-in-waiting, at a time of great political uncertainty for Azerbaijan, could be a huge gamble.

Ordinary people are biding their time as they figure out what difference his elevation will mean for them. Zemfira Salakhova, a 46-year-old housewife said only that he was a "daddy's boy" but she respected him because he speaks very good English.

Javid, a 67-year-old-janitor watering trees in Baku's old town, said, "If he gives us a pension rise, then I'm all for him." The authorities have been promising pensioners a five-dollar-a-month increase, but have put it off, citing the president's prolonged absence while doctors treat him abroad as the reason they cannot take action.

Shahin Rzayev is IWPR's Azerbaijan coordinator.

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