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Azerbaijan Leader's Son Voted Premier

With the elderly president ailing, the younger Aliyev is poised to rule the oil-rich land.

August 05, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — As ailing Azerbaijani President Heydar A. Aliyev lay hospitalized, his nation's parliament on Monday named his son as prime minister, preparing for a possible transfer of power in a republic long dominated by the elder Aliyev, a powerful former Communist Party boss.

Opponents said the appointment of Ilham Aliyev, guaranteeing his succession as interim president if his 80-year-old father dies, was a blatant attempt to hold on to power in a country that is considered a crucial link in the development of rich oil supplies in the Caspian Sea.

The move places the younger Aliyev in a good position to win presidential elections scheduled for October, a race that is seen as a benchmark for democratic reforms in the former Soviet republic, and for the future of a $2.9-billion oil pipeline under construction from the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, to the Mediterranean Sea.

"The regime wants to retain a fist-grip on power in Azerbaijan," Rauf Arifoglu, editor of the opposition Yeni Musavat newspaper, said in a telephone interview. "There is a clear danger of instability -- in fact, it is already happening. The people are protesting, the opposition is protesting. And the people will take it [to] the streets. The country has not seen anything like this before."

The elder Aliyev, a former KGB general and ally of Soviet leaders Leonid I. Brezhnev and Yuri V. Andropov, has staked Azerbaijan's post-Communist future on delivering the republic's oil resources to markets in the West -- an important component of U.S. energy policy in the volatile region.

Under Aliyev, Azerbaijan has built close ties to both the U.S. and Turkey. He also has balanced Moscow's desire to exert greater control over the Caucasus, and nearby Iran's potential influence over Azerbaijan's large Shiite Muslim population.

Opposition figures worry that Western nations will overlook possible manipulation of the electoral system in the interest of opening new oil routes. Nearly all of Aliyev's opponents have demanded a change in laws that give the ruling New Azerbaijan Party control of the elections oversight commission.

Political opponents and advocates of democratic reforms said the appointment of Ilham Aliyev, 41, who had been vice president of the state oil company and a member of parliament since 1995, sets the stage for the establishment of the kind of political dynasty seen in repressive nations such as Iraq and Syria.

"Clearly, today's appointment of Ilham Aliyev as prime minister is a major stride in the direction of perpetuating the rule of the Aliyev dynasty.... With the tacit consent of Western countries, first and foremost of the U.S., the Aliyev dynasty is about to establish a true neo-monarchy," said Leyla Yunusova, director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, in a telephone interview from Baku.

The elderly president, who has a history of heart problems, has not been seen or heard from publicly since he checked into a Turkish hospital July 8. The president collapsed twice during an official ceremony broadcast live April 21 on state television.

On Monday, with rumors of Aliyev's death swirling around the capital, the 125-seat parliament mustered 101 votes to ratify the appointment of his son as prime minister. Opposition figures boycotted the vote.

The constitution was amended in August 2002 to stipulate that the president's duties are passed to the prime minister if the chief executive becomes incapacitated or dies in office.

"The Aliyev regime has staged a coup today, a classic coup ... and we will fight against this to the very end," Rasul Guliyev, former parliament speaker and chairman of the opposition Democratic Party for Azerbaijan, said in a telephone interview.

Guliyev, who is in the U.S. avoiding prosecution on charges of corruption lodged by the Aliyev regime, has vowed to return to his country but cannot run for president because the election commission, dominated by the ruling party, refused to register his candidacy.

The opposition figure considered most likely to mount a significant challenge, Isa Gambar of the popular Musavat party, said the appointment of Ilham Aliyev is "a preventive measure" designed to "make the political elite in the country more close-knit and to nip dissent in the bud."

"The Aliyev regime is authoritarian, and it only takes one look into a history book to see what happens to a regime like this when the dictator is feeble and cannot control his country anymore," Gambar said in a telephone interview.

Yunusova, the director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, complained that the election season already has been marred.

"The people are scared by the mass arrests that have been going on for the past 10 years, the unemployment level and the general psychological pressure mounted by the authorities," she said.

At the same time, some analysts say Aliyev's appointment was an attempt to buttress the republic against instability if his father dies.

"Basically, [Ilham Aliyev] has been part of the government for 10 years, and people know him very well. And, since there was nothing but instability before the current president came to power in '93, many people fear if he leaves again, it will mean instability and even civil war," said one veteran political analyst in Baku, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Many people view this as simply a means of stable transition."

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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