The Bush administration, eager to maintain Azerbaijan's pro-Western orientation, is pondering its policy options given the uncertainty surrounding Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev's health. Some US officials are emphasizing a need for transparency in the succession process, whenever it occurs, saying that an open and democratic transfer of power would help Azerbaijan avoid instability, while setting a democratic precedent for other countries in the Caucasus.
Baku is full of contradictory reports about Aliyev's health status since the president's collapse April 21. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Presidential aides have reported that Aliyev is capable of handling his full workload, while the opposition Yeni Musavat daily reported April 24 that Aliyev suffered a relapse and remains in serious condition.
In addition, mystery continues to surround Prime Minister Artur Rasizade's hastily arranged trip to the United States. Rasizade departed on his previously unscheduled visit shortly after Aliyev was stricken. Azerbaijani officials have been reticent about providing an explanation for the sudden trip. The Turan news agency reported that Rasizade would undergo an eye operation in the United States.
Meanwhile, a Yeni Musavat commentary suggested that Rasizade's trip was connected with "some private plans of the government elite" aimed at clearing the way for the promotion of Ilham Aliyev, the president's son, to the post of prime minister. Indeed, the opposition Hurriyet daily published an unsubstantiated report claiming that Rasizade has already submitted his resignation. Under Azerbaijan's legislative framework, the prime minister would assume presidential powers in the event that the elder Aliyev died, or was unable to fulfill his duties.
In approaching a possible succession scenario, Bush administration officials responsible for Azerbaijan policy continue to emphasize two priorities. One is to maintain access to Caspian Basin energy resources. The US-backed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline is expected to carry up to 1 million barrels of high quality Caspian crude by the year 2005. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The other priority is to maintain security cooperation with Baku, thereby enhancing Washington's ability to project its influence in the region.
Underlying these policy priorities is a desire to see Azerbaijan, a country where the overwhelming majority of the population is nominally Sh'ia Muslim, keep Islamic radical tendencies in check. In addition, Washington would want to prevent both Russia and Iran from taking advantage of a possible change in leadership in Baku to expand their influence in Azerbaijan.
The United States has extended large amounts of assistance, in addition to facilitating large-scale private investment, in an effort to bolster Azerbaijan's independence. In addition, Washington has served, along with France and Russia, as a co-chair of the Minsk Group, an OSCE-sponsored forum tasked with negotiating a Nagorno-Karabakh peace settlement. A Karabakh settlement, along with an agreement on Caspian Sea territorial boundaries, are seen as keys to ensuring long-term stability for regional energy exports.
Many influential Bush administration officials take a particular interest in Azerbaijani affairs. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is not only personally acquainted with both Heidar Aliyev and Ilham, but also has visited the country. Vice President Dick Cheney's office closely tracks developments in the Caspian Basin in general, while at the Pentagon, Deputy Assistant Secretary Mira Ricardel has initiated a military-to-military program with officials in Baku. At the National Security Council, Matthew Bryza, who is in charge of Eurasia policy, has previously served in a number of senior positions dealing with Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.
The administration's Azerbaijan team which also includes US Ambassador to Baku Ross Wilson has its own favorites as potential successors to Aliyev. Among them are the president's son, Ilham, who currently serves as first deputy chairman of the Azeri state oil company, known as SOCAR. Washington would also react favorably if an opposition leader in particular Popular Front head Ali Kerimli, Musavat Party leader Isa Gambar or National Independence Party chief Etibar Mammedov were to somehow win a presidential election.
Washington would react negatively if either former Azerbaijani leader Ayaz Mutalibov, who is closely aligned with Moscow, or exiled former parliament speaker Rasul Guliyev managed to secure the presidency. The Bush administration is also leery of two influential figures within Aliyev's administration Chief of Staff Ramiz Mekhtiyev and Minister of Internal Security Namik Abbasov.
At present, presidential elections are expected in October. Aliyev had indicated that he would run for reelection, but health issues could force him to reconsider those plans. In the event that Aliyev is not a candidate, or is forced to leave office before the end of his term, the Bush administration would be eager for the transition process to function in a transparent and democratic manner. It would want the elections to be efficiently organized and be free and fair. That way, in the administration's view, whoever emerged as the next president would enjoy popular legitimacy, thus reducing the chances for destabilization.
There are indications that some Bush aides believe that a democratic transition in Azerbaijan, however defined, could help stabilize the entire Caucasus region. "Positive repercussions of [a democratic transition] will be felt far away from Baku," said one administration official who requested anonymity.
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.