Commonspace.eu political editor comments on the ongoing changes in the upper echelons of the government in Azerbaijan
The president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev has always been something of an enigma for those who want to understand Azerbaijan a bit better than through either the lens of its government's cheap propaganda outlets, or from the somewhat myopic image of many of his many opponents and enemies. In 2003 he appeared to inherit the presidency from his father, Heidar Aliyev who had run Azerbaijan with a mix of charm and tough-fist tactics for most of the time since 1969.
For the deeply entrenched Azerbaijani ruling establishment - some of who had been in positions of power since the time of Brezhnev, Ilham Aliyev represented continuity, and saved them the trouble of having to fight between themselves for the first position. Around the young Aliyev however remained not one, but several circles of nomenklatura officials who made sure that the presidents room for manoevre was always very narrow indeed.
Shortly after coming to power Aliyev started trying to dismantle the political edifice that he had inherited from his father. More than a decade and a half later he appears to be still at it. Shortly after assuming the presidency Ilham Aliyev told a western diplomat that he had to proceed carefully, explaining that his father had constructed a rather complicated system, and that when taking out a block from the edifice he was never sure if the whole thing would not collapse. And so the process moved slowly, with Aliyev replacing a minister here, the head of a local district there, with the changes always small and spaced out. In the meantime, Azerbaijan also got a windfall from the newly exploited energy resources. Money was available in abundance, and this meant that problems could be patched up rather than resolved. On the other hand this also meant that the incentive for those in power to hold on to their positions was also high. Some changes did happen, but they were often so small and implented so slowly, as to not even be noticed let alone appreciated.
It was the sharp drop in oil revenues in 2016 that appears to have been the wake up call. There was no longer enough money from oil revenues to buy people's loyalties. The president wanted economic reforms to increase revenues from the non oil sector, but the septugenerians and octogenerians in charge were formed and trained by Komsomol and the CPSU party schools, and could hardly be the motor for that. The few young ministers who had made it to the top table found themsevles isolated, and deeply frustrated as their efforts were burried under heaps of paper. They did however find an ally in an unlikely place. Mehriban Aliyeva, the wife of the president of Azerbaijan is, by all accounts of those who know her, a formidable lady, of the sort you would not want to get on the wrong side of. In 2017, Aliyev pushed constitutional changes creating the post of First Vice president and several vice presidents. To the surprise of many he appointed his wife to the post of first vice president. There was huge speculation as to why he did that, and the real reason may not be known yet, but one effect was that First Vice president Aliyeva became a rallying point for the more reform minded in the government, and she on the other hand, provided them with some element of political cover.
Things it seems, have now finally come to a head. With discontent with the government simmering under the surface; with the opposition - divided and disorganised as it is, still pushing hard for a popular overthrow of the government - and with the demands on the country's budget increasing, Ilham Aliyev has over the last few weeks finally taken the plunge, doing in 2019 what some had hoped he would do in 2004.
Earlier this year a number of new ministers were appointed. The reformist wing was now no longer made up of isolated figures, but became a clearly visible group. Then on 8 October the prime minister, Novruz Mammadov was dismissed. With the dismissal came the message, echoed through unofficial, but well informed media channels close to the president, such as haqqin Az for officials to fall in line, start delivering on the presidents plans. or go. And go they did. On Monday two of the most deeply entrenched dinosaurs of the Azerbaijani political system - Deputy prime Minister Ali Hassanov and deputy prime Minister Hajibala Abutalibov "resigned". This created a much bigger ripple than the resignation of the prime minister. Mammadov was a civil servant. Hassanov and Abutalibov were within the Azerbaijani establishment political giants, with perhaps only one other figure - even older and more venerable, and more important than they, remaining. Others have now resigned and been dismissed and it appears the process is ongoing. Ilham Aliyev seems determined to finish the job. Appearing, probably for the first time in his presidency at his desk not wearing a jacket - Aliyev received the fired deputy prime ministers separetely, thanked them for their work, and said that he hoped that their example will be followed by others who had past their 70th birthday. A shiver went up the collective political spine of the Azerbaijani establishment, where venerable age had up to know been seen as an asset.
Where is this all going? Is Ilham Aliyev a reformist or a tinpot dictator. In his complex personality there is probably an element of both. His apologists point out, not inaccurately, that under him the country has been stable and that he has been able to manoevre Azerbaijan's relationship with its three big and awkward neighbours - Russia, Turkey and Iran - a no mean feat.
Many inside and outside Azerbaijan argue that Ilham Aliyev should have got rid of the many dinosaurs he inherited from his father a long time ago. But better late than never. A logical next step is for him to try to broaden his politcal base. This will mean reaching out at least to some of the opposition elements, and opening up the political space. Both steps will come with their own risks for the longevity of the current system.
Those outside, who wish Azerbaijan well need to properly evaluate the situation, and remain engaged constructively and when necessary critically, with the country and its leadership in what appears to be a defining moment in Azerbaijan's political journey.
source: This commentary was prepared by the political editor of commonspace.eu
photo: Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev meeting former Deputy Prime Minister Hajibala Abdutalibov shortly after relieving him of his duties on 21 October 2019 (picture courtesy of the press service of the president of Azerbaijan)
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Ambassador Giorgi Shervashidze of Georgia, Benyamin Poghosyan of Armenia and Ahmad Alili of Azerbaijan were guest panellists on a webinair organised as part of the Hague Conversations on Conflict series