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THE WORLD

Dynasty and Democracy -- Azerbaijan at a Crossroads

As the oil-rich nation heads for an election, U.S. support of the president's son is seen by some as conflicting with American goals.

September 07, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

DIGAKH, Azerbaijan — At first glance, the scene in the village tea shop is idyllic: men passing the day playing backgammon and dominoes. But under the surface, anger seethes.

In a country riding an oil boom, the men agree that life is bad -- and getting worse. But they are less than unanimous about who is to blame.

Amid widespread public disenchantment, the first handover of power from father to son in a former Soviet republic appears to be well underway in this predominantly Muslim nation of 8 million perched on the Caspian Sea's western shore. But much still depends on how the unemployed men at the backgammon table choose to respond.

A pall of post-Soviet fear that hangs over this society makes it particularly difficult to know whether they will regard Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev as a worthy successor to his ailing father, 80-year-old President Heydar A. Aliyev, a former KGB general who has become an ally of Washington. And if October elections appear to be fraudulent, it is unclear whether these men will take to the barricades.

With the U.S. seeking both to diversify its sources of oil and promote democracy in the Muslim world, Azerbaijan has become a key playing field. But there is tension between U.S. goals: How hard should Washington push for democratic change at the risk of alienating a government it sees as a geopolitical partner, an ally in fighting terrorism and a force promoting key Western oil interests?

With the Caspian Sea region rapidly emerging as one of the most important new sources of oil, U.S. moves here can be seen as part of an updated version of the 19th century struggle between Britain and Russia for influence in Central Asia -- what Rudyard Kipling called the "Great Game."

After Ilham Aliyev's appointment by his father as prime minister in early August, President Bush sent a message of congratulations in which he said Washington looked forward to cooperating with him in building democratic institutions. The letter was treated in Azerbaijan as a show of support for the younger Aliyev.

Heydar Aliyev, the republic's onetime Communist boss and later a Soviet Politburo member, became president in 1993 at a time of crisis. Azerbaijan faced the threat of civil war in addition to a territorial conflict with Armenia. The elder Aliyev drew in Western companies to develop and export the country's vast oil supplies. Key to this effort is a 1,100-mile pipeline under construction from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

The U.S. government backs the $3-billion pipeline project, due for completion in early 2005, as a way to shore up the independence of former Soviet states around the Caspian by providing a way to export oil without needing to send it across Russia or Iran.

U.S. diplomats in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, and State Department officials in Washington have called for the October presidential elections to be free and fair.

"If the voting is marred by fraud and manipulation, and if the results of the election are deemed inaccurate or illegitimate, it will be a debilitating step backward," Nancy McEldowney, U.S. Embassy deputy chief of mission, wrote in a commentary distributed to local media.

But in the eyes of many, the Bush letter trumped such warnings.

"It is widely believed here that the Americans and Turks are betraying the ideals of democracy for the sake of protecting their interests in Azerbaijan," said Rauf Mirkadyrov, a political commentator for the independent daily newspaper Zerkalo.

Government critics warn that if the United States goes along with a dynastic succession, that could encourage similar father-son handoffs in Central Asia, to the detriment of democracy and long-term U.S. influence.

Azerbaijani society is highly secular, but radical Islamists have made inroads in recent years, Mirkadyrov said. If Washington does not give greater support to democracy here, that could discredit the pro-Western opposition and open the door to more serious gains by religious radicals, he said.

"The main protest of the opposition and the people in Azerbaijan is against the establishment of a monarchy or dynastic rule," said Isa Gambar, 46, head of the opposition Musavat party and a leading presidential candidate. "We don't want Azerbaijan to go back to the Middle Ages."

Ali Kerimli, 38, head of the Popular Front party and also a presidential candidate, said the appointment of the younger Aliyev as prime minister put Azerbaijan on a list of countries such as North Korea and Syria "where authoritarian leaders left power to their sons as if it were their own private property."

Ilham Aliyev, 41, dismisses such criticism.

"The opposition is conducting its actions with old methods and will not achieve anything with rallies and demonstrations," he said. "The opposition should be asked what they can do if they come to power.... Their goal is to destroy the current situation, thus causing a civil conflict in the country."

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