Rene — Like father, like son

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Like father, like son
Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt)
Aug 7 2003
Diplomat turned politician Ilham Aliyev is to succeed his father Haydar
as president of Azerbaijan to the chagrin of Azeri opposition parties,
writes Mustafa El-Labbad
Azeri President Haydar Aliyev leaves the country for treatment in
Turkey accompanied by his son Ilham, the oil-rich country’s prime
minister and heir apparent
Rumours of the death of Haydar Aliyev, president of oil-rich
Azerbaijan, dominated national news in that Caspian state this week.
Although the Azeri opposition confirmed the rumours, government
officials countered that Aliyev was now in good health and that
he would soon return to the country from Ankara where he had been
receiving treatment in a military hospital.
Whether deceased or in critical or stable condition, the frenzy
over the state of health of the Azeri leader brings to mind a not-
too-distant Soviet era when news of the death of a head of state was
kept under the tightest wraps until his successor had secured a firm
grip on the reins of power. Of course, the “masses” always knew well
beforehand who the successor would be by means of a tried and true
indicator: he was generally the person put in charge of the committee
that would perform the obsequies over the “late leader”. That was
how power passed from Yuri Andropov to Konstantin Chernenko and from
Chernenko to Mikhail Gorbachev. Fortunately, in the case of the former
Soviet republic Azerbaijan, in spite of the similarities between its
current situation and the Soviet syndrome, there seems to have been
a marked improvement in the ability to forecast a successor. Sources
in the Azeri capital Baku and the international media have little or
no doubt that Ilham Aliyev, son of the current president, will step
into his father’s shoes in the event of the latter dying or becoming
Although a relatively small country (86,600 square km), Azerbaijan
has drawn the attention of international and regional powers because
of its vast offshore reserves of oil and natural gas under the
Caspian Sea. The US has already purchased drilling rights to most
of Azerbaijan’s oil fields, while Turkey and Iran, vying to enhance
their geostrategic positions with respect to one another, are vying
to secure exclusive rights to a pipeline that would transport oil
from the landlocked Caspian to their ports that are accessible to
international waterways. The tug-of-war between Iran, Turkey and
international oil companies over Azerbaijan has been called the “New
Great Game” in reference 19th century “Great Game” between the former
Russian and British empires, each of which vied for control over the
Caucasuses and Central Asia.
Haydar, who has ruled the small republic since 1993, wasted little
time in grooming his son for succession. In 1994, he appointed Ilham
vice-president of Azeri National Oil Company, the largest Azeri company
in terms of both assets and production. Beginning in the mid-1990s,
Ilham would accompany his father on important trips abroad, such as the
1996 visit to the White House, during which he met then US President
Bill Clinton and signed a $10 billion dollar contract according the
US the lion’s share of Azerbaijani oil concessions. The contract
was dubbed the “deal of the century” because of the vast Azerbaijani
reserves this placed at the disposal of US oil firms.
Two years ago, President Aliyev began to push to have his son appointed
speaker of the Milli Mejlis, or Parliament. Under the Azerbaijani
constitution the speaker of parliament automatically assumes power
in the event of the death or incapacitation of the president until
general elections can be held. Thwarted by increasing opposition both
at home and abroad to what was widely regarded as a bid to fabricate
dynastic succession, Haydar opted for a fallback position, which
was to appoint Ilham deputy chairman of the ruling New Azerbaijan
Party, thereby ensuring him a continued high political profile. The
move has apparently paid off, much to the relief of Aliyev senior,
whose deteriorating health has been dramatically evidenced by
repeated fainting spells while delivering public addresses, the
last occurrence during the commemoration of Azerbaijan’s National
Day on 18 May. On Monday, parliament elected Ilham as prime minister,
putting him squarely in line for succession. Last summer, following a
controversial referendum, the Azerbaijani constitution was amended to
provide that the prime minister, rather than the speaker of parliament,
automatically assume power in the event the president is incapacitated.
As the succession controversy rages, Azerbaijan, with a population
of almost eight million, has a number of other worries. With a the
national currency the manat falling against the dollar and declining
standards of living, the economy is on a downswing in spite of rising
petroleum revenues which have raised — nominally — the annual GDP
per capita to $3,300. There also remains considerable bitterness over
the question of the province of Nagorno- Karabakh. Following several
years of unrest in which the province’s predominantly Christian
Armenian population declared independence, violence escalated into
armed confrontation between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The conflict
ended in an uneasy truce and the end of Baku’s effective sovereignty
over the province, which makes up 16 per cent of Azerbaijan’s land
area. Azerbaijanis today regard the loss of the “Black Garden”,
Karabakh’s English translation, a black mark in the 3,000 year history
of their people. But tensions not only prevail with Armenia but also
with Iran. In 2001, the heightening dispute between Baku and Tehran
over the demarcation of their respective territorial waters in the
oil-rich Caspian Sea drove Baku into an alliance with Turkey, which
offered to provide Turkish air force cover should the situation demand.
Aggravating Azerbaijan’s many problems is a crisis of political
leadership, which, according to the opposition at least, is on the
verge of collapse. Haydar has been the single most powerful figure
in Azerbaijani politics since the 1960s, when he was appointed head
of the KGB branch in Baku. From that position he rose to chairman of
the Azerbaijani Communist Party, and his subsequent membership in
the Soviet Politburo, the only member to ever have Muslim origins.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the then president of
Azerbaijan, Abulfaz Elchibey declared his country independent from
Moscow. In the ensuing chaos, Elchibey invited Haydar to return and
side with him in the civil war between Azerbaijani nationalists and
dissidents supported by Moscow. Haydar became president in 1993,
following the overthrow of Elchibey. Since then he has worked to
consolidate relations with the White House, succeeding in securing
Washington’s support of Azerbaijan’s interests in the Caspian-Caucasus
Now that the Central Election Commission has approved the candidacy
of Ilham in the presidential elections scheduled for October, the
path towards the transfer of power from father to son appears clear.
Ilham, 41, a graduate of the Moscow diplomatic academy, speaks English
fluently with a distinct American accent. As far as October’s elections
are concerned, such qualities play into the father’s cultivation of
ties between his son and the world’s lone superpower. The manner
in which Haydar has established his son as a credible leader both
domestically and internationally should overwhelm objections to a
“neo-monarchist scenario”. Thus it appears that as Azerbaijan embarks
on a new phase in its history, the voices appealing for democracy,
equal opportunity and the peaceful rotation of power in Baku are to be
drowned out by the din of America’s mammoth drills in the Caspian Sea.