First published in Oct. 11, 2008 Armenian Reporter
Azerbaijan going through electoral motions
Ilham Aliyev faces token opposition, voting formality
News analysis by Emil Sanamyan
WASHINGTON – Looking at Azerbaijan’s news portals this week, it is impossible to tell that on October 15 there will be a vote for the country’s next president.
On one popular site, Day.az, the main newsmakers of October 7 are Armenia’s Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian and a Russian official who coordinates the work of the generally moribund Commonwealth of Independent States.
Among the most popular items this week are a video of a hazing incident in the Azerbaijani army, problems with the Baku water supply, and the local crime beat.
Watching the sixth presidential election in Azerbaijan’s history is proving to be as exciting as watching the grass grow. There may be seven candidates, but no one is betting on the six of the seven with sitting president Ilham Aliyev’s reelection but a mere formality.
Since Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and some other entities, it has to hold elections; even more dictatorial Turkmenistan occasionally does. But elections in Azerbaijan have always been a one-man show rather than a competition between candidates.
If there is one place in the world where political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s prediction of the “End of History” is proving true so far, it is in Azerbaijan. Except, Professor Fukuyama’s vision of worldwide democratization has not quite come through.
As the late Heydar Aliyev used to say “democracy is not something you can buy in the bazaar.” As a result Azerbaijan had to settle for a more traditional system.
Feudal rule with tribal foundations
“Kolkhoz [Soviet style collective farm] should remain a kolkhoz, since this too is [our] history” Ilham Aliyev is quoted as saying in a Russian-language poster.
This is how it has always been. The last decade and a half has seen the clock rolled back on the Russian-imposed European enlightenment in Azerbaijan. It is back to the khanate system.
Like in Armenia and Georgia, which also have no democratic traditions, sitting presidents in Azerbaijan have the unchecked powers of a feudal lord to set the rules of political competition and enforce them. And they successfully exercise local political power of voter turnout assuring their own or their handpicked successors’ election.
But unlike Armenia and Georgia, Azerbaijan’s president also has a monopoly on economic power and money. More than 80 percent of the country’s income comes from oil production and sale controlled by the president. The president’s cronies, who double as government officials, have monopolies on the main consumer goods.
Several years ago, when political surveys were still done in Azerbaijan, the list of the richest people in Azerbaijan was topped by the Aliyevs’ associates, such as the customs director or transport minister, and hardly a person from outside the government hierarchy. A couple of exceptions were Russia-based Azerbaijan natives who are allowed a limited economic presence in the homeland.
Moreover, nearly all of the privileged are tied by family or tribal connections to the Aliyevs. At least 12 of 28 cabinet-level officials, most of them in the same jobs since the early 1990s, are direct Aliyev relatives or were born in or have roots from the Aliyevs’ native Nakhichevan and Armenia, two places that provide the bulk of the “soldiers” for the ruling family. These individuals also hold influential positions in the president’s office and dominate lucrative jobs in the oil sector, various inspectorates, and the police.
Since the Aliyev restoration in 1993, challenges to the regime have come primarily from inside this elite, above all from disgruntled relatives or cronies who grow rich and over-confident. But none has been successful, with perpetrators now in prison or exile. None is openly challenging Ilham Aliyev in this election cycle.
The military, currently being pumped with cash, may eventually emerge as a source of discontent toward the status quo. But few signs of any such development have been observed so far.
Finally, a challenge could theoretically come from abroad, for example from the company formerly known as British Petroleum (bp), which is the only foreign entity with a significant presence in Azerbaijan. But so far bp and other foreign players have had few reasons to go after the Aliyevs.
As a result, the president is standing, lonely, with six token candidates. According to reports from Azerbaijan, there are no visible election rallies or posters. Aliyev Jr. continues to focus his public appearances on endless inaugurations of Heydar Aliyev statues, museums, and parks around Azerbaijan.
According to RFE/RL, more than 100 of them have appeared since a 2004 presidential decree mandating that every Azerbaijani town have some.
Challengers taken care of ahead of elections
Elmar Husseynov, murdered in 2005 after challenging the ruling family in his writing.
The Baku airport, Azerbaijan’s highest peak, the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the biggest offshore production platform, and even a couple of distant stars of our universe carry his name. He is the best-known and probably most accomplished Azerbaijani in history, having made a rapid career in the KGB to be then elevated to Soviet political stardom as one of only about a dozen Politbureau members in 1982.
But even Heydar Aliyev had his dark periods. Ousted by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, he fell victim to infighting between Mr. Gorbachev’s reformers and his conservative opponents.
Mr. Aliyev had to fight to keep his government car and saw his son expelled from the Soviet diplomatic academy and forced to make a living, as many other Soviet citizens, from petty trade between Istanbul and Moscow.
Heydar Aliyev could have gone quietly but he decided to take back what he felt should rightfully belong to him. In 1990 he launched a political challenge against Ayaz Mutalibov, then the Soviet Azerbaijani leader. Forced to stay out of Baku, Mr. Aliyev went to his native Nakhichevan, where he quickly became its leader, formally a parliament speaker.
Both Mr. Mutalibov and Abulfaz Elchibey, who overthrew him (also an Aliyev from Nakhichevan but apparently of a different tribal stock) kept Heydar Aliyev out of Baku and out of elections, having passed a special decree disqualifying individuals of his age and older from running for president.
Heydar Aliyev in turn ruled Nakhichevan as a de-facto independent breakaway state, declaring sovereignty from the USSR before Azerbaijan did, and signing a ceasefire accord with Armenia two years before Azerbaijan. In 1992, Mr. Aliyev’s militia even fought and expelled government forces that attempted to impose control over Nakhichevan.
When Heydar Aliyev returned to Baku in 1993, he made sure both Mr. Mutalibov and Mr. Elchibey stayed out of the capital, and went on to methodically oust his real and potential adversaries.
In 1994 Prime Minister Suret Husseinov, a mafia boss who staged the military coup that brought Mr. Aliyev to power, fled to Russia with thousands of his supporters arrested. In 1995 thousands more were rounded up in a crackdown on the special police force (OPON), the Turkish-backed elite Azerbaijani unit in the Karabakh war which turned into the main postwar mafia, commanded by Rovshan and Mahir Javadov.
In 1996–97 came the first intra-Nakhichevan tribal war with Mr. Aliyev’s right-hand man at the time, parliament Speaker Rasul Guliyev, who fled to the United States and has since tried but failed to effectively challenge the Aliyevs; hundreds of Mr. Guliyev’s relatives and loyalists were imprisoned.
It fell to Ilham Aliyev to deal with the latest intra-elite challenge. Economics minister Farkhad Aliyev (unrelated) and economics minister Ali Insanov, both multimillionaires are both now in prison after allegations they funded opposition groups. Dozens more were jailed in those latest crackdowns.
Meantime, a former Elchibey aide and one-time up and coming opposition leader Ali Kerimov (Kerimli) was targeted for character assassination that included efforts to link him to Armenians and allegations that he is a closet homosexual. Kerimov and other oppositionists have essentially disappeared from political scene.
History of preordained outcomes
Ilham Aliyev’s wife Mehriban (on left), currently a member of parliament, has been cited as her husband’s most likely successor. Their son, Heydar Aliyev II is eleven this year and under existing rules not eligible to be president until 2032.
Traditionally, the outcome has been a foregone conclusion in all of Azerbaijan’s presidential elections.
In the 1991 vote Mr. Mutalibov moved from the job of the Azerbaijani Communist Party leader to that of the newly independent country’s first president without having to physically switch offices.
In June 1992 Mr. Aliyev-Elchibey was elected, but only after his militia ousted Mr, Mutalibov and seized the national Supreme Soviet (Milli Majlis), making an ally of Mr. Elchibey acting president.
In October 1993, four months after taking office on the back of Suret Husseinov’s military coup, Aliyev the senior formally became president. No surprise that he was re-elected in 1998 and went on until he died in 2003.
There was some debate as to who would succeed the ailing Aliyev Sr. In a clear sign of distrust in his groupies and a departure from a Politburo tradition of picking like-minded allies as successors, Mr. Aliyev took the route of Syria and North Korea by anointing a close relative.
His apparent top pick, reportedly an out-of-wedlock son, was assassinated in obscure circumstances. By 2003 the focus was on his son Ilham, Heydar’s younger brother Jalal Aliyev, and son-in-law and fellow KGB man Mahmud Mamedguliyev.
According to former health minister Insanov, a close confidant, Aliyev Sr. never made that choice. By the time Ilham Aliyev was made prime minister and formal successor in August 2003, Mr. Insanov claimed, his father was unconscious in a Cleveland clinic.
In an apparent precaution, the comatose Heydar Aliyev was kept on the ticket until shortly before voting day. And he reportedly was kept on life support until after his son was formally elected and inaugurated. Heydar Aliyev passed on after the formalities were over.
That may have been a unique case in the world’s electoral politics – with a father, the sitting president, challenged by his son, the prime minister.
Tradition of token politics
A more esoteric subject that only a true admirer of the Azerbaijani political culture can appreciate is a chronic presence of publicly unknown but apparently governmentconnected individuals to offer token opposition to sitting presidents in what passes for elections in Azerbaijan.
The tradition likely has earlier roots, but its post-Soviet launch dates to 1991, when Mr. Mutalibov’s election was boycotted by the nationalist Popular Front and he had Araz Alizade, allegedly a Soviet KGB officer, play the role of “opposition.”
In a “twist of fate” in 2003 Mr. Mutalibov, by then a longtime resident of Moscow, and Mr. Alizade pooled their by then insignificant resources together to create a single insignificant party.
In 1992, unable to run himself, Heydar Aliyev fielded an obscure physicist Nizami Suleimanov as an opponent to the Popular Front’s Elchibey. Mr. Suleimanov promptly accused Mr. Elchibey, a radical nationalist espousing an ideology of Turkic racial supremacy, of being an “Armenian agent.” And when Mr. Elchibey was, as expected, proclaimed the winner, Mr. Suleimanov claimed the vote was stolen from him.
No such indecencies were to be had in 1993, during Heydar Aliyev’s first election, since “alternatives” were apparently inserted by the man in charge himself. The honor to carry on the token tradition then fell on Kerar Abilov, a “psychologist," and Zakir Tagiyev, a “busimessman.”
In that one, Mr. Aliyev won with 98.8 percent of the vote, with a 90 percent turnout reported. According to speculations at the time, both the percentage and absolute numbers were ordered inflated to be higher than what Mr. Mutalibov claimed to win in 1991.
In 1998 came the time for Azerbaijan’s “little Napoleon,” Etibar Mammadov, who together with such fellow candidates as Khanhussein Kazimli and Abutalyb Samedov, promptly lost the election to Heydar Aliyev, who this time settled for 75.9 percent of the vote.
In 2003, Ilham Aliyev officially improved the family rating to 80 percent of the vote in an election that was probably as competitive as it gets in Azerbaijan. In that vote, the token role fell on Isa Gamberov, an Elchibey ally who was acting Azerbaijani president for a few weeks in 1992.
Spinning the nonelection
The Azerbaijani government and its hired help will spin this nonelection as an “improvement” or perhaps even a “significant improvement” on past votes, as long as there is no state of emergency or street clashes reported.
Over the years, the spin has become more refined. During the last “parliamentary election” in 2005, the Azerbaijani government used “unassociated” middlemen to hire reputable American pollsters that would in turn hire progovernment polling groups in Azerbaijan to show that the ruling clan is genuinely popular. American and European consultants for hire flocked to Baku to preempt and counterbalance anticipated criticism from Western observers.
Already this week, the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute housed at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington will host a discussion on “Azerbaijan’s Forthcoming Presidential Elections.”
The announcement notes that “rapid economic development and political evolution in Azerbaijan itself… give particular importance to these elections and associated debate.”
But the challenge this year is that all more-or-less known figures have declined to go through the electoral motions. In the absence of politics there is at least some humor, Azerbaijani style.
The sitting president is “challenged” by the likes of Hafiz Hajiyev who also “ran” in 2003 when his role was limited to hurling insults at Mr. Gamberov.
This year Mr. Hajiyev, nicknamed Balig (“fish” in Azeri), is running with the slogan “Death to [Agriculture Minister] Ismet Abbasov.”
It is not the chronic overfishing in the Caspian that is Mr. Hajiev’s concern but apparently that “Abbasov’s mother is Armenian, therefore, me and Ilham Aliyev should join efforts to dismiss such ministers,” Day.az duly reported.
A fellow candidate, Gudrat Hassanguliyev expressed a different concern.
“Azerbaijan should change its name to ‘Northern Azerbaijan,’” Mr. Hassanguliyev opined to the same news agency in reference to Azerbaijan’s off-again-on-again claims against Iran. “By doing this,” he says, “we will let the whole world know the historical truth!”
But others wonder “what about the historic Azerbaijani territories held by perfidious Armenians, i.e. Western Azerbaijan? Shouldn’t it then be the ‘Northeastern Azerbaijan Republic’?”