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Azerbaijan's New Foreign Minister

New foreign minister expected to raise the country's profile, but no real change in policies expected.
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The appointment of an energetic new foreign minister in Azerbaijan is expected to raise the oil-rich country's profile, but do little to change policy, including over the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh.


A week after urging the foreign ministry to show more activity, President Ilham Aliev replaced the previous minister, Vilayet Guliev, on April 2 with the more experienced Elmar Mamedyarov.


Although the switch came as a surprise, there had been signals that a change was on its way, including Baku's request for a postponement of negotiations with Armenia on Nagorny Karabakh, originally scheduled for March 29 in Prague.


Aliev, who is moving to consolidate authority after taking over the presidency from his father, the veteran Azerbaijani leader Heidar Aliev, should soon see results.


According to the foreign ministry, Azerbaijan is planning 10 new embassies including in countries such as Japan, Spain, Kazakhstan, Poland, Bulgaria and one so-far unnamed Scandinavian country.


Mamedyarov, 43, has worked in the foreign ministry since 1993 and is popular. The deputy head of one ministerial department, who asked to remain unnamed, told IWPR: "We have long been waiting for the moment when a professional diplomat takes over the ministry, one who at least knows about the basic protocol procedures. Mamedyarov knows the potential of all those working at the ministry, and he will be able to raise the prestige of Azerbaijani diplomats."


Sources said that celebrations continued in the ministry for three days.


Mamedyarov's predecessor, Guliev, was a specialist in philology and was unexpectedly appointed to the post in 1999 after Tofik Zulfugarov resigned over planned concessions to Armenia on Nagorny Karabakh. Two other senior officials joined Zulfugarov's protest and President Heidar Aliev ended up walking away from an internationally brokered peace deal discussed in Florida in 2001.


Guliev was not known for a hands-on approach. The same ministry source told IWPR that in four years not a single general staff meeting took place at the foreign ministry, whereas Zulfugarov previously held such meetings on a quarterly basis.


From 1998 to 2003, Mamedyarov served as a counselor at the Azerbaijani embassy in Washington. He is familiar with oil issues, a vital plank of Azerbaijan's foreign policy, and has represented the country at several conferences in the United States, as well as giving talks on the settlement of the Karabakh conflict. He has also worked for Azerbaijan's mission to the United Nations and in July 2003 was appointed ambassador to Italy.


Zulfugarov told IWPR that he welcomed the appointment. "In 1993, when the ministry first began to function as the administrator of foreign policy of the independent Azerbaijan, it had only between 20 and 30 people on staff, including technical personnel, and Mamedyarov was one of them. ... I think that it is time to reform the ministry, and Elmar Mamedyarov will be able to conduct these reforms."


Perhaps as important are Mamedyarov's close ties to Ilham Aliev's family and friends. He is known as a protégé of Hafiz Pashayev, Azerbaijan's ambassador to Washington who happens to be an uncle of Ilham Aliev's wife Mehriban. Some analysts see the appointment as a sign that the first lady's family is growing in influence.


Because Guliev was a relatively minor figure, his resignation, like that of the communications minister shortly before, does not signal a major shake-up, analysts say.


Elmar Huseynov, editor of the opposition magazine Monitor, said that, "Ilham Aliev is trying to give his government a civilised appearance, but at the same time is getting rid of primarily those people who are not connected with the ruling clan."


It seems no coincidence that both Mamedyarov and the new communications minister, Ali Abbasov, are from the Nakhichevan region, as are most of the ruling elite. Because Aliev lacks confidence to attack more powerful and corrupt figures from his father's days, he has started with "the weakest links," Huseynov said.


One effect of the changeover is a slowdown in the peace talks on Nagorny Karabakh. Aliev has already said he would "start the negotiation process from zero" and refuses to revisit any agreements discussed by his father and Armenian President Robert Kocharian.


Azerbaijan's opposition believes the new foreign minister will be only a figurehead. "I know that Elmar is a good diplomat but he won't be able to go against the regime," said Elkhan Mehdi, foreign policy adviser to the chairman of the largest opposition party, Musavat. "The Azerbaijani system is designed in such a way that even if Kofi Annan himself came to head our foreign ministry, nothing would change."


"It is apparent that Ilham Aliev wants to get rid of his father's cadre, but so far he hasn't initiated any important changes to the team, he is only replacing one corrupted official with another," said Musavat's deputy chairman Gabil Huseynli. "Apparently, he wants to do something, but doesn't yet know where to start and how to finish."


The new minister plans to arrive to Baku on April 7. His first public appearance will be a meeting with Secretary General of the Council of Europe Walter Schwimmer, when the thorny issue of human rights is likely to be high on the agenda.


Shahin Rzayev is IWPR's Azerbaijan Coordinator.


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