Russian policy makers are solidly backing Azerbaijan's political transition process, viewing the impending transfer of power from President Heidar Aliyev to his son Ilham as offering the best chances of maintaining political stability in the resource-rich nation. Moscow also feels an intra-family succession could help avert competition in the Caucasus between Russia and the United States.
Heidar Aliyev, who is believed to be seriously ill, is now in the United States undergoing treatment at the Cleveland Clinic. On August 4, the elder Aliyev installed Ilham as the country's prime minister, leaving his son poised to succeed him as president. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Ilham subsequently announced he was taking a leave of absence, allowing him to run as the ruling New Azerbaijan Party's candidate for president in the October 15 election.
A well-orchestrated political transition is a familiar concept to those in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in such a manner, going from prime minister to acting president when Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned on the last day of 1999. The move gave Putin a head start on utilizing the state bureaucracy to secure victory during the 2000 presidential election in Russia.
Political analysts view Ilham Aliyev's ascent to the presidency of Azerbaijan as virtually assured. "At the moment it absolutely doesn't matter whether Heidar Aliyev is alive or not, whether he is fit to run the country or not," wrote political analyst Ivan Preobrazhenskii in a commentary posted on the Politcom.ru website. "The [Azerbaijani] elite has found its [new] president for the immediate future."
While some may view Ilham as less than an ideal choice to govern Azerbaijan, and certainly lacking the political skills that his father possesses, a majority of Russian experts appear to consider the younger Aliyev the best leadership option available. Many in Moscow abhor the notion of opposition leaders coming to power in Azerbaijan, remembering the domestic tumult that occurred during the early 1990s, when the Popular Front, led by Abulfaz Elchibey, rose to power. The Popular Front's organizational ineptitude paved the way for Heidar Aliyev's return to power in 1993.
A few Russian analysts contend that post-Soviet states are not yet ready for a multi-party political system, and thus argue that some form of authoritarian government is the only way to preserve and promote stability. "In the given historical context [of the post-Soviet Eurasia], the alternative to authoritarianism is not democracy, but a lack of any authority whatsoever which means upheaval, anarchy and total decline," political expert Aleksander Arkhangelskii wrote in the Izvestiya daily.
In terms of actual policy, the Putin administration appears eager to continue the existing relationship forged in recent years with Heidar Aliyev. The ailing Azerbaijani president's political acumen is widely respected by those in Moscow. "Aliyev demonstrated his skill in playing on several chess boards simultaneously; preserving normal relations with Russia, and, at the same time, making good use of the United States' interest in the region," Alexei Malashenko, a researcher at the Moscow Carnegie Center, wrote in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper.
Many in Moscow view Azerbaijan as the nexus of "a new model of international relations" in which a superpower like the United States can cooperate with regional powers, which, in the case of the Caucasus, means Russia. Several political experts suggest the political transition in Azerbaijan offers an opportunity to improve US-Russian cooperation. Joint efforts, they argue, provide the best chance of realizing what both Moscow and Washington want in the Caspian Basin: the steady development and export of energy resources.
"Russia is interested in Azerbaijan's internal stability and links its preservation with the continuity of Heidar Aliyev's course, which can [only] be secured by the smooth transfer of power to the designated heir his son," said Vladimir Golyshev, an expert at the Effective Policy Foundation. "America has exactly the same interest."
Ahmet Iskenderov, a prominent Moscow historian and editor-in-chief of Russia's leading professional journal, Problems of History, agrees. "I think that at present Russia views Azerbaijan within the context of its relations with the United States," he wrote in a commentary posted on the Kreml.org website.
US officials have endorsed Ilham Aliyev's appointment as Azerbaijani prime minister, but have not provided any overt indication that they are ready to expand ties with Russia in Azerbaijan. A few Russian strategists suggest that Washington is, in principle, ready for cooperation with Moscow in securing the continuity of Azerbaijan's existing political course, and is even willing to accept a larger Russian role in the South Caucasus. "If the Azerbaijani [political] transition ends successfully," says Golyshev, "then, within a short period of time and with America's tacit consent, the new Azerbaijani president may revisit the issue of his country's membership of Eurasian Economic Community and Collective Security Treaty Organization."
Moscow political commentators readily admit that political continuity in Azerbaijan will depend in large part on Ilham Aliyev's leadership abilities. Ilham has little actual political experience. Yet, few are expecting him to fill his father's shoes. Instead, they see Ilham more as a figurehead for a collective leadership that shares the desire to keep pursuing Heidar Aliyev's policies. "It is naîve to talk just about a banal transfer of power from father to son," said Moscow political analyst Armen Jilavian, "because the ultimate goal is, of course, not a transfer of power but the preservation of power."
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist and researcher who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; a Visiting Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC; a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, New York; and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University. He is now based in Istanbul, Turkey.