Playboy of the Eastern World

Why you should care about Azerbaijan’s presidential elections.

Dynasty, Azerbaijani-style

The United States—and most of the rest of the world—doesn’t usually pay much heed when a two-bit dictator in a far-flung Third World hellhole tries to convert a shaky democracy into a thinly veiled dynasty by installing his son as president via rigged elections.

But the Caucasian country of Azerbaijan—where such a power play is unfolding—happens to be a foundation of the U.S. plan to diversify its sources of energy supplies away from the volatile Middle East. Thanks to his father’s largess, Ilham Aliyev will very likely become Azerbaijan’s president following elections Oct. 15. That the junior Aliyev is a gambling playboy at best, and at worst—in the words of an international banker who declined to do business with him—”a complete and total waste of skin,” will lead to instability in the region, with repercussions for allies far away.

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The Caspian Sea region—which includes Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, parts of Russia and Iran, and Uzbekistan (which doesn’t border the Caspian but is the region’s largest natural gas producer)—has 3 percent of the proven global oil reserves and 4 percent of natural gas reserves, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That might sound like flashlight batteries, but new, marginal oil supplies can have a disproportionate effect on oil prices. They can also reduce the pricing power of oil cartel OPEC, which still controls the majority of oil produced globally. Also, pipelines through Azerbaijan will be a critical conduit to the West for oil produced in the Caspian area, further increasing the country’s importance to the energy diversification puzzle.

Even if Azerbaijan doesn’t live up to its second-coming-of-Kuwait billing, being wedged between the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union means that the country is at a crossroads of trouble. The grinding war between Russian troops and rebels in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya—largely ignored by the United States—is in a seemingly endless downward spiral of desperation and bloodshed. Georgia is a baby step away from anarchy and is thus a comfortable training ground for Chechen rebels and possibly for other Muslim extremists. Azerbaijani neighbor Armenia is in a state of political flux after suffering through its own bout of rigged elections earlier this year. Tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which were at war from 1988-94 over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh located in western Azerbaijan and have yet to formally make peace, has thickened recently as troops on both sides of the border have exchanged fire. Axis of Evil member Iran, at Azerbaijan’s southern border, is edgy about the millions of Azerbaijanis that live there—more than live in Azerbaijan itself. And Baghdad is just several hundred miles to the south.

Azerbaijan has been an island of relative—and coerced—stability under the brass knuckles of Heydar Aliyev, the country’s leader during Communist times from 1969 to 1982, when he was kicked upstairs to the Politburo, the centerpiece of Soviet government. Several years later, in June 1993, Aliyev—who rose to power through the KGB—became president of independent Azerbaijan in elections that were democratic in only the most generous sense of the word. Defying expectations that he would be little more than a figurehead, Aliyev played a range of interests—including Russian and international oil companies, internal power clans, and concerned foreign governments—off each other to his own benefit, all while crushing internal dissent. The price of Azerbaijan’s record of solid economic growth has been the country’s conversion to full-blown feudal empire; corruption watchdog Transparency International ranks Azerbaijan 124th—out of 133 countries surveyed—in its Corruption Perceptions Index.

Since his second term began in 1998—following elections that, in the bureaucratese of international election observers, “fell short of international standards”—the 80-year-old Aliyev’s greatest triumph has been staying alive. In April he collapsed while giving a speech on national television—and returned after 10 minutes to try to finish his presentation. He collapsed 20 minutes later of another apparent heart attack; after a second break, Aliyev rallied to leave the conference hall on his own two feet. Since then, he’s spent most of his time fighting heart and kidney problems in hospitals in Turkey and the United States. He hasn’t been shown on television or seen in public for three months.

In August, the Azerbaijani parliament approved the appointment of Aliyev’s 41-year-old son Ilham as prime minister, laying the groundwork for the first dynastic succession in the former Soviet Union. On Oct. 2, Heydar removed his name from the presidential ballot in favor of his son. Reflecting the political environment of repression common to the former Soviet Union, the Azerbaijani opposition has frequently been stifled—and crippled by its own ability to unite behind a single candidate. Barring extraterrestrial intervention, Ilham will win in next week’s election (or in a second round of balloting on Oct. 26, at the very worst, if no candidate wins a majority of votes cast); politically prejudiced polls aren’t much help, with, for example, one showing Ilham winning 27 percent of the vote and another suggesting he will clock in at 66 percent.

Would—or rather, will—Ilham be so bad? He will probably emulate the failures of other dictators’ sons. The adjective “playboy” has virtually become Ilham’s first name, thanks in part to his reputation at some of Europe’s better-known casinos. While his father has been tucking in the sheets on his deathbed, Ilham has been embroiled in a bizarre corruption controversy involving Azerbaijan’s soccer federation—following in the illustrious footsteps of dictatorial sons Odai Hussein and Saadi Qaddafi, who both were unhealthily engrossed in soccer. “Ilham Aliyev lacks his father’s charisma, political skills, contacts, experience, stature, intelligence and authority. … Aside from that, he’ll make a wonderful president,” declared intelligence company

Azerbaijan is arguably going to get the best of a bad lot. “I don’t think that Ilham Aliyev would be any worse than any of the other candidates,” said Zeyno Baran, director for International Security and Energy Programs at the Nixon Center, a Washington-based foreign-affairs think tank. The key question is whether the military, rival groups within the ruling clan, and business interests will accept Ilham’s authority once he becomes president.

The problem is, Azerbaijan—not to mention the battered Caucasus and the entire Caspian Sea area—needs better than a dog’s breakfast of a dictator. Political unrest in Azerbaijan could quickly snowball into something much worse: Ilham (or even one of his power-hungry rivals) may try to rally support by focusing attention on an external enemy, perhaps through launching hostilities against Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, which could quickly suck in Azerbaijani ally—and NATO member—Turkey and Armenian ally Russia. A messy and impossible-to-ignore conflagration between countries that are all U.S. allies, to one degree or another, would be as welcome as sand in the underwear for the overstretched U.S. military. Although at this point it seems unlikely that Ilham will play the war card—especially because one of his first serious challenges in office will be to respond to a renewed international peace initiative for Nagorno-Karabakh—all bets are off if he finds himself struggling to gain legitimacy among voters after a crooked election.

Additionally (and of at least as much concern to U.S. political interests), increased uncertainty in Azerbaijan could jeopardize the significant investment in the country’s oil industry, the ongoing construction of a massive oil pipeline through the heart of the country, and the Bush administration’s dream of diversifying its oil sources.

Or Ilham may turn out to more than adequately fill Daddy’s shoes—like, say, North Korea’s Kim Jong-il. Something to look forward to.

Thanks to Lawrence Robertson of Partners for Democratic Change, Emil Danielyan of Radio Free Europe in Yerevan, Zeyno Baran of the Nixon Center, Jim Henderson, and Kamal Ali.