TCS Daily

Azerbaijan After Aliev

By Ariel Cohen - May 8, 2003 12:00 AM

President Heydar Aliev's very public collapse during a recent televised speech, which was broadcast on Azerbaijani TV and around the world, has forced Bush administration officials to face the eventual mortality of the Azeri leader - and to focus on power succession in Azerbaijan.

The United States has been involved in Azerbaijan since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has much at stake, which requires a smooth transition. Senior officials in Washington in charge of shaping American policy towards the oil-rich state name several U.S. priorities in Azerbaijan; including access to the energy resources of the Caspian Sea - the top priority during the two Clinton administrations.

After 9/11, it is the military presence in the Caspian that allows the U.S. to project power further into Central Asia, and to deter Iran from the north. A secular, pro-Western Azerbaijan also plays a part in deterring radical Islamic takeovers further north, in the Russian-controlled Daghestan and other North Caucasus Muslim and ethnically diverse areas.

The U.S. has invested major government and private resources in bolstering Azerbaijan's independence. It is a co-chair of the Minsk Group, a forum sponsored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) tasked with negotiating a peace for the Nagorno-Karabakh region, currently overrun by Armenia. France and Russia are the other two co-chairs. Major U.S. oil companies, especially Amoco (today, BP-Amoco), lead the way in investing billions in developing Azeri oil and natural gas fields.

The U.S. government expended large amounts of assistance dollars, and has built diplomatic and executive expertise on Azerbaijan. In today's administration, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is not only personally acquainted with both Heydar Aliev and his son Ilham, but also has visited the country. The office of Vice President Richard Cheney is closely tracking developments in the Caspian; at the Pentagon, Deputy Assistant Secretary Mira Ricardel has initiated a military-to-military program with Azerbaijan. At the National Security Council, Director Matthew Bryza, who is in charge of Eurasia policy, has previously served in a number of senior positions dealing with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and other Caucasus and Caspian-related issues.

This highly competent group of officials knows what it wants - and doesn't want - happening in Azerbaijan. First, these officials want the country to remain Western-oriented, both in preservation of a secular state (despite its over 90 percent nominally Shi'a Muslim population), and in terms of being free of Russian and Iranian influence.

Second, they want Azerbaijan Western-oriented in terms of the direction of the East-West transportation corridor. This includes, first and foremost, the oil flow from the Absheron Peninsula and offshore fields to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Main Export Pipeline (MEP) will export up to one million barrels of high quality Caspian crude by the year 2005.

The Bush administration's Azerbaijan team, which includes U.S. Ambassador to Baku Ross Wilson and former Deputy to the Coordinator of the Russian and New Independent States Steven Sestanovich at the State Department, also knows whom they do not want in power in Baku. Among personae non-grata are the pro-Russian former First Secretary of the Azeri Communist Party Central Committee Ayaz Mutalibov, who is based in Moscow, and the exiled former Speaker of the Parliament Rasul Guliev who lives in New York. Washington is also uncomfortable with two power brokers referred to as "conservatives" from the Nakhchevan-based clan which currently supports Heydar Aliev: his chief of staff Ramiz Mekhtiev and Minister of Internal Security (secret police) Namik Abbasov.

Most of all, the Bush team wants the transition process to work in a transparent and democratic way, so that whoever is elected gets popular legitimacy, and prevents destabilization or even bloodshed. Among viable candidates U.S. officials named are Ilham Aliev, who currently occupies the position of the First Deputy Chairman of the Azeri National Oil Company SOCAR; the leader of Popular Front Ali Kerimli; the leader of Musavat party Isa Gambar; and the leader of the National Independence Party Itibar Mammedov.

U.S. officials express hope that if presidential elections currently scheduled for mid-October 2003 occur without the participation of Heydar Aliev, the man who has dominated Azeri politics since early 1970s, they will be conducted in a free and fair way. Participation of international observers in such transparent elections is a must if Azerbaijan is to maintain international goodwill and gain the respect necessary to increase the flow of foreign investment.

Jeyhun Mollazade, Chairman of the U.S.-Azerbaijan Council and Washington-based editor of Caspian Crossroads magazine, whose brother Asim is Deputy Chairman of the National Front of Azerbaijan, believes that the U.S. views the democratic process in Azerbaijan as only one plank in the set of its national interests. However, says a senior Bush administration official who requested anonymity "...positive repercussions of (a democratic transition) will be felt far away from Baku."

The neighboring Georgia is in a political tailspin, and desperately needs an example of a successful transition from a political environment dominated by a charismatic, Soviet-era leader, to what will hopefully become the post-Shevardnadze democratic politics.

Another neighbor, Armenia, could also use a model of a clean hand-over of political power after a scandal-ridden presidential election this past March 5. That election was "marred by serious irregularities in a large number of polling stations" in a process that "fell short of international standards for democratic elections," according to the statement released by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

The authoritarian states of Central Asia are similarly in an urgent need of a model of a peaceful transition away from a first post-Soviet era ruler. And in the broader Muslim world, many a country, which witnessed a father-to-son hand-over of power, or otherwise lacks democracy, could use a positive example from a fellow Muslim state.

Washington realizes that the post-Aliev transition is going to be not just precedent setting, but will have great geopolitical and geo-economic repercussions throughout the region.

One can only hope that the next Azerbaijani leader will not only continue good relations with the American superpower, but will also improve his country's security by bolstering Baku's ties with its neighbors, and will enjoy democratic legitimacy coming from a transparent and constitutionally-based transition.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. is Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, specializing in Russia, Eurasia and international energy security affairs. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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