Analysis: “The current political situation in Azerbaijan should not be interpreted simplistically.”

Dennis Sammut

Dennis Sammut

Ahead of Presidential Elections in Azerbaijan, political analyst Dennis Sammut looks at the background to the current political situation and the likely post-election scenario.

Many consider that the result of the presidential elections due to be held in Azerbaijan on 9 October is a foregone conclusion. Some polls commissioned by pro-government sources are already predicting that 90% of those voting will cast their ballot in favour of the incumbent President Ilham Aliev. The opposition claims, and many international observers agree, that the political space for those opposing the  government in Azerbaijan is narrower now than at any time since the collapse of the USSR, of which Azerbaijan was one of the constituent republics.

So why is the government, the opposition, the international community and others bothering to go through the motions of having an election, and of engaging with it in different ways? The answer is that there is a political debate and process going on in Azerbaijan, in public, but mostly under the surface. The Presidential election is not the most important part of it by far, but with all its shortcomings it is still an essential piece of the jigsaw for both government and opposition.

Ilham Aliev sits at the top of a complex pyramid.

It has been ten years since Ilham Aliev was elected President for the first time in 2003, succeeding his father, Heidar, who had governed for most of the previous decade. Before that Heidar had served for a long time as First Secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party and de facto head of the Azerbaijan SSR. He was also for some time a member of the politburo of the CPSU of the USSR. Despite his past as a KGB general Heidar Aliev was a pragmatic and shrewd politician. In his post-Soviet re-incarnation he adopted nationalism and an enthusiastic embrace of Azerbaijani statehood, both of which he used to deflate Russian influence in Azerbaijan, and at the same time neutralising opponents to his left, and to his right. When he took over in 1993 Azerbaijan was exhausted by the economic collapse brought about by the disintegration of the USSR command economy, and by its war with Armenia, from which Azerbaijan had just emerged bruised and defeated. He had to build from scratch both the economy and the political institutions, and invent a new “national idea”.

In the economy the cornerstone was the “deal of the century” that saw Azerbaijan breaking the hold of Russia on the energy sector and developing a relationship with western oil companies. As a result, no technical problem seemed impossible to resolve. Technology that had just been perfected for oil exploration in the North Sea, was now used to drill for oil in the Caspian. Taking the oil out to the world markets, bypassing the Russian pipeline network, at first seemed all but impossible, but in a very short time – on time and on budget, an oil pipeline was built connecting the Caspian to the Mediterranean. By the time Heidar Aliev died the first revenue from oil had started reaching the coffers of Baku.

In the realm of politics Heidar Aliev’s cornerstone was the New Azerbaijan Party (YAP). It was meant to be a vehicle for the former communist nomenklatura, as well as the new generation of Azerbaijanis to come together. Heidarism, or as it is sometimes called Azerbaijanism, replaced communism as the ideology. Heidar saw YAP as first amongst equals. He never visualised it as the sole political force in the country. When faced with the choice of joining the Council of Europe and adhering to all the political conditionality that it entailed, he endorsed the project with enthusiasm.

Heidar Aliev’s Soviet and KGB past gave him a very good understanding of both Azerbaijani society, and of who mattered in Azerbaijan. The elite that emerged in the 1990s was a reflection of this. It was a complex web of personalities and interests that was far from being monolithic. It was all finely balanced. One group balanced another, and that yet another. Taking out one element risked a chain reaction. Ilham Aliev was catapulted to the head of this pyramid in 2003. Managing it has been his most difficult political challenge. Heidarism remained the political ideology, but managing the individual interests proved more difficult. Over the last decade personnel changes have been done with the utmost caution: no ministerial change has ever taken place involving more than two or three ministers at a time. The Prime Minister and the Ministers of Defence and Interior remain the same as they were in Heidar Aliev’s time. The biggest threat to Aliev has always come from inside this elite.

Ilham Aliev’s room for manoeuvre has been considerably constrained by this reality. This does not mean that no change has happened. One by one most of the Ministers have been replaced, usually by young more capable persons. Parallel sources of power have been created, bypassing political dinosaurs and their structures. The result is that the current Azerbaijani political power is made up of a mosaic of patches, some modern and reformed, others still stuck in the 1980s, whilst many, more confusingly, have a modern veneer but remain distinctly dated beneath the surface. A visitor to Baku may find a similarity between this and the architecture of the city: old and new buildings sit uncomfortably next to each other, whilst many buildings have had their facades modernised but remained untouched on the inside.

Ilham Aliev had one big advantage over his father. He has overseen a huge inflow of revenues from the export of oil and other energy resources. This has given him the opportunity to both develop the state institutions – from the Army to the communications, as well as to invest in development. It has also meant that state patronage, to which most Azerbaijanis are addicted, has now reached unprecedented heights both in scope and volume.

Ilham Aliev is basing his election campaign mainly on the improved well-being of the population. That things have changed much for the better in the social sphere is without doubt. The Azerbaijani state, which tethered on the point of collapse in its early years, is now well established and state institutions have taken root. There is still a lot of rot in the system. The government says that it is on its way to improving both the health services and education – two areas that have been disappointingly lacking. Even in these areas parallel institutions are emerging that reflect a modern, progressive Azerbaijan but so far their capacity caters only for a small minority.

It is however in the area of political reforms that Aliev has disappointed most. Until recently he himself said several times that this was not the priority. Instead the government has over the last decade taken a serious of measures to contain the opposition ElectionsWatch | Volume 2, Issue 21 | 27 September 2013 p5 Opinion through legislative and administrative measures. Government critics, or sometimes their relatives, became victims of “misfortunes” that have not been properly investigated. Opposition claims that Azerbaijan is one of the most repressive and totalitarian states in the world are exaggerated and do not help us understand the full picture. However that Azerbaijan in many ways has fallen short of the standards that it set for itself when it joined the Council of Europe and the OSCE is equally without doubt.

Aliev himself understands this. The problem is that if he starts rocking the pyramid too much the consequences are unknown, so caution has been the strategy up to now, but there is a point when caution can be counterproductive, and many feel that that point has now been reached.

The opposition: embattled, marginalised but resilient

The mainstream opposition, spearheaded by Ali Kerimli’s Popular Front Party and Isa Gambar’s Musavat Party has been subjected to all kinds of pressures over the last decade. Kerimli himself has had his passport withdrawn and cannot travel out of the country. His son has just been jailed for twenty days for some misdemeanour connected with the election. Kerimli and Gambar have often been demonised in the pro government media. They both held senior positions in the short-lived and somewhat unsuccessful nationalist government of the early 1990s, and the current government tries to taint them with the failures of that period. Their biggest weakness however has been their own inability to modernise their parties, widen their popular appeal beyond their core support, and put away their differences to act in a unified manner.

The government has tried to prop up a number of other politicians who are not members of the YAP as an alternative opposition. This has not really worked, and despite the pressures against them Musavat and Popular Front continue to attract considerable grassroot support. This support however has never been able to mobilise a critical mass to seriously worry the government.

For the upcoming election the opposition has been able to achieve an important breakthrough in that they agreed in the last moment on a common candidate, Camil Hassanli, a University professor who had not been in front line politics before.

Musavat and Popular Front, and other smaller opposition parties and individuals, set up what they call the National Council. This Council must continue to exist after 9 October if the opposition in its present format are to remain relevant in future Azerbaijani politics. Hassanli impressed people by his performance in two televised debates ahead of the election, even if these were marred by some unpleasant incidents. If the voters are allowed to have their say Hassanli’s performance in the poll is likely to be respectable.

The new political actors – not yet quantifiable but not to be underestimated.

Two important developments have taken place in the political arena over the last decade and their political importance is not yet easily quantifiable. The first is the emergence of a large, mainly western educated, young elite. They are distinct through the way they think and articulate themselves. They are all internet savvy, and in this way they circumvent the government’s quasi monopoly on the media. They are often critical of the government, although they have little respect for the traditional opposition also. Those that do support the government, and there are many of them too, often also question some government policies and actions. This new group is driving a debate inside both the government and the opposition.

A second development is the increased importance of religion in Azerbaijani society. Azerbaijanis are often categorised as predominantly Shia Muslims, with some pockets of Sunni Muslims in the north of the country. In the times of the USSR religion was very much a private matter and there were only a handful of mosques in the country. There are now thousands. Religion has started playing an increasing role on the political discourse. There are the two extreme ends of the pole – on the one hand the state backed religious bureaucracy headed by the quaintly called Chairman of the Board of Caucasian Muslims,  Sheikhulislam  Allashukur  Pashazade. Last week he conveniently called not only on all Muslims, but on all believers of any religion to vote for Ilham Aliev. At the other extreme are wahhabist cells, active mainly in the north of the country bordering Chechnya and Daghestan, whose numbers are not known, but whose members are now regularly turning up in hotspots where al Qaeda is active, the last being Syria. Both the religious establishment and the Wahhabist cells are less important because they are predictable. Far more interesting is the role of many other religious communities, Sunni as well as Shia, that are making important inroads, especially amongst the emerging middle class in Baku and other large cities. They also can be found amongst both those who support the government and those who oppose it. Some feed on ideas from Turkey’s Gulen Movement and the AK Party’s religious ideologues; others from Iranian Ayattolahs, but this should not be overstated. The new religious activism in Azerbaijan is often home grown and very often benign. It has the potential to impact the political process considerably.

Why is the Presidential election important?

An election with a predictable result may not look very important but whatever happens on 9 October the political scenario in Azerbaijan will not be the same again after. The present political model, for both government and opposition, has exhausted itself. Both sides will need to re-invent themselves if they are to be sustainable. The election closes a chapter and its score will help define the next one. If the remaining part of election process is conducted reasonably well – i.e. people are allowed to vote freely and with respect to the secret ballot, and counting is accurate and transparent, than the government will have the legitimacy to define the next political chapter. In this scenario the strength of the vote for the opposition will be important since it would be possible to quantify its political clout. If the rest of the electoral process is flawed than the basis on which Azerbaijan will write the next chapter of its political history will be much murkier, the government will have to contend with an opposition that could claim the moral high ground and unquantifiable support. In all scenarios, change, within both government and opposition is going to be inevitable.

Dennis Sammut contributed this article for Caucasus Elections Watch. The writer can be contacted at dennis.sammut@history.ox.ac.uk