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Azerbaijan: Ilham Succession Uncertain

Exiled politician Rasul Guliev may be in the running for the presidency in this year’s election.
By Rustam Seidov

The failing health of Azerbaijani president Heidar Aliev has triggered a crisis within the governing elite. The chief beneficiary, though, may be not the front-runner, the president’s son Ilham, but the exiled speaker of parliament Rasul Guliev.


The presidential succession has become the central topic in Azerbaijan since Aliev collapsed in public on April 21 and spent his 80th birthday on May 10 in a Turkish hospital. A presidential election is due this October, and few believe that Aliev will be fit to run.


The overwhelming majority of analysts and journalists agree that the president wants his son to be Azerbaijan’s next leader. Over the ten years since he took power in 1993, he has certainly promoted the idea, by appearing in public with his son and generally brushing up Ilham’s image.


But that may be an illusion. It is possible the president has groomed his son merely for tactical reasons, and that he has other plans in mind.


Ilham holds a number of positions that on paper would make him a strong contender to step into his father’s shoes. He is vice-president of the state oil company, deputy speaker of parliament and number two in the governing New Azerbaijan party. But apart from the oil industry post, these positions carry more prestige than real political weight, as does his chairmanship of the national Olympic committee.


The heir apparent lives abroad much of the time and appears to be more interested in a fast lifestyle than in hard-nosed politics. Nor does he display the kind of ironclad determination that has made his father undisputed master of Azerbaijan – a job he has held on and off since 1969. Ilham’s reputation has also been tarnished by a number of scandals.


Aliev junior shows few signs that he is keen to put his head in the noose. He well understands that without the charisma or experience of his father, he could fail as president and the experiment could end in disaster for himself, his supporters and Azerbaijan as a whole.


Why, then, has the ruling clan spread the myth that Ilham Aliev is the most likely successor to his father? The answer may lie in the intra-clan politics of the ruling elite, most of whom come from the president's home region of Nakhichevan or from the ethnic Azerbaijani community which once lived in Armenia.


For more than 30 years, with only a brief interruption in the late eighties and early nineties, the head of the clan has been the dominant political figure. In all that time Heidar Aliev has handed out jobs to people who showed little ambition or brilliance – but complete loyalty to him. All these appointees knew that they owed their post to the leader and could lose it at any moment. Others who challenged the dominance of the clan were either bought up, or ended up in jail or in exile.


The result of this policy is a power structure with a small group of wealthy and powerful people at the top relying on a wider base of lesser officials, all of them coming from the same network.


Leading lights include the head of the presidential administration Ramiz Mekhtiev, customs chief Kamaladdin Heidarov, health minister Ali Insanov, national security minister Namik Abbasov and transport minister Zia Mamedov.


All these men are capable of forming alliances to strengthen their own position, and they are certain to play an important role in the presidential election. None, however, is an obvious leader – nor could anyone be, given the president's habit of eradicating even the slightest manifestation of independent thinking amongst his subordinates. They have been effective only insofar as the clan chieftain has directed them towards a common goal.


The very nature of the clan demands a strong leader, and any show of weakness by the president could lead to instability. This is where Ilham Aliev comes in, in a role designed essentially to create an atmosphere of certainty and continuity.


Stories that the younger Aliev had the talent to be a potential heir began circulating as soon as the president was first hit by health problems. Then, whenever interest in Ilham waned he would be given a new post, spawning a new wave of newspaper articles and rumours.


So it may well be that the prospect of a President Ilham Aliev serves as a kind of lightning rod which the incumbent uses to dispel the ruling elite’s fears and insecurities about its future. If that is the case, then it’s unclear who the president really wants to take over from him – especially now that he must have understood that he will not be well enough to serve another term in office.


These tactics may in the end work against the president, and play into the hands of Rasul Guliev – once a star of the Nakhichevan clan, but now a sworn enemy of the regime.


A native of Nakhichevan, Guliev was head of Azerbaijan’s largest oil refinery before Aliev made him speaker of parliament. But in 1996 he quarreled with the president and went into exile. He now lives in New York, but has declared he will return to Azerbaijan soon.


In 1999, when Heidar Aliev first underwent an operation in Cleveland, Ohio, several members of the New Azerbaijan party and the ruling clan guessed that this was the end of the Aliev era, and crossed over to Guliev and his Democratic Party. They guessed wrong. The president came back and set about punishing the defectors and even those who had wavered.


But history could repeat itself. Most clan members recall that Guliev was once the second most powerful man in Azerbaijan. They calculate that if he comes to power, many individuals will lose out, but the existing ruling structure will be preserved intact, with the majority of its members remaining in place.


Of course, the ruling clan does not occupy the whole of the political space. The Azerbaijani opposition, despite its many weaknesses, cannot be ruled out of the equation. And society, weak and divided as it is, may be benefit in the coming power struggle in that each potential leader will be forced to prove his worth to the population at large, not just to his narrow group of supporters.


Some in Azerbaijan believe that President Aliev will do everything possible to prevent Guliev from taking over after elections. But if his health deteriorates to the extent that he cannot stop him, and the rest of the clan is too divided or indecisive to do so, it could mean emigration for the Aliev family, and some wealthy clan members.


Rustam Seidov is an independent political analyst based in Baku


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