3 December, 2019 10:59

Potential for Social Explosion in Azerbaijan is Strong: Emil Sanamyan’s Commentary

Azerbaijan’s parliament voted on December 2 to dissolve itself, setting the stage for snap elections early next year. On the same day, the government announced that it is reorganizing itself with a new cabinet structure. There are speculations that President Ilham Aliyev ultimately plans to transfer power to his wife, First Vice-President Mehriban Aliyeva.

Emil Sanamyan, editor of the USC Institute of Armenian Studies Focus on Karabakh platform talks with CivilNet's Karen Harutyunyan about recent political developments in Azerbaijan.

- What is happening in Azerbaijan? Is power really being transferred to Mehriban Aliyeva? 

- Ever since assuming the presidency in 2003, Ilham Aliyev has shared power with officials installed by his father, most importantly Ramiz Mehdiyev, the head of the presidential administration. Aliyev was forced to do this, as he was concerned by the challenges posed by both his father’s traditional opponents and members of his own family, such as his uncle, Jalal Aliyev.

With those initial threats neutralized, Aliyev has, in the past decade, made several efforts to consolidate control by appointing younger, more directly loyal officials. But these efforts have faced covert and sometimes even overt opposition from Mehdiyev and his loyalists. This was seen, for example, in 2015, with the arrest of the head of Azerbaijan’s biggest bank, Jahangir Hajiyev, and the dismissal of his in-law and minister of national security, Eldar Mahmudov, and the disbandment of that ministry. Most recently, last June, Medet Quliyev, Mahmudov’s successor and another figure close to Ilham and Mehriban Aliyev, was also dismissed. In previous years, Ilham Aliyev’s cadres have been dismissed from the presidential administration, which in Azerbaijan has taken on the functions that the Central Committee of the Communist Party had in the Soviet period, with its staff members more influential than most government ministers.

In comments made in October, Aliyev said that he would no longer tolerate this split within the regime and that he would dismiss officials who were undermining him. This was followed by the retirement of Mehdiyev and a number of his lieutenants in the presidential administration. Several officials who were on the staff of Mehriban Aliyeva or linked to her side of the family – the so-called Pashayev clan – were appointed to replace Mehdiyev’s cadres, most of whom held their jobs for about two decades.

Whereas Mehriban Aliyeva has been Ilham Aliyev’s designated successor for more than a decade – and her profile was further elevated as first vice president and a recent meeting with Vladimir Putin – it remains to be seen if Azerbaijan will move forward with formal power transfer to Aliyeva. The big unknown is the state of Ilham Aliyev’s health. For the first eight months of this year, Aliyev was absent for a total of more than two months, limiting his public appearances and foreign travel, leading to speculations that he was ill and receiving medical treatment. But, he appears to be in decent shape for the moment.

- There is a talk about early presidential elections, too. What can you say about that? 

- I have not heard any talk of early presidential elections. I personally doubt that one would be scheduled unless Aliyev becomes unable to perform his duties. Under the constitution, power will default to Mehriban Aliyeva, should anything happen to Ilham Aliyev. In the unlikely scenario that something happens to them both, power would go to Prime Minister Ali Asadov, who is also close to the Pashayev clan.

What is planned now are further changes to the cabinet of ministers and formation of a new Milli Majlis, Azerbaijan’s mostly rubber stamp parliament. This will be a continuation of the “staff massacre” that already started as a number of officials – particularly in the security bloc of the government – and Majlis members are selectees of Mehdiyev, of whom the Aliyevs are suspicious and don’t want to give them time to re-group. This will also be an opportunity to bring the less conflictual opposition figures, such as former political prisoner Ilgar Memmedov, into Majlis and marginalize the old opposition, the Popular Front and Musavat, as well as Mehdiyev.

- How much did the 2018 Armenian revolution influence the domestic political and public mood in Azerbaijan? Are there any signs of a social explosion in Azerbaijan? 

- I think if there is one country that Armenia has influenced historically, it is Azerbaijan. This happened particularly in the early 20th century and in the late 1980s. The latest changes in Armenia have had a strong impact in Azerbaijan as well. In a big way, Aliyev’s campaign against the “old cadres” is an attempt to take the political initiative away from the opposition, whose protests earlier this year have shown a vigor not seen in many years. Simultaneously, Aliyev has made concessions in the form of the release of many political prisoners and increased social spending. 

I think the potential for a social explosion is strong, in particular because there have been very few channels for dissent in the past decades. Regime opponents have been shut out of politics, jailed, and otherwise mistreated. The public mood was seen last year, when the attempted assassination of the mayor of Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city, was widely welcomed. Subsequent regime crackdowns in that case and, separately, in the so-called “Armenian spies” case, left dozens of people dead, with reports of inhumane treatment and deaths by torture. All of this must have left a lot of people seething.

It remains to be seen if Aliyev’s effort to redirect this pent-up anger from himself to the “old cadres” can be successful. This will be tested at elections to Majlis early next year

- How can all this affect the Karabakh problem?

- Over the past two years, we have seen a reduction in the pressure Aliyev was applying on the Line of Contact. I think this primarily has to do with the fact that Aliyev was looking for an excuse to de-escalate, as the fighting that went on from 2014 and culminated in April 2016 was costly for Azerbaijan as well. It is notable that Aliyev began to de-escalate before the Armenian revolution. The emergence of a new government in Armenia has provided him with a fresh excuse to engage in talks and even change his long-standing policy by allowing for mutual visits at the semi-official level.

The removal of Mehdiyev and his chief of ideology, Ali Hasanov, is also an opportunity to refresh Azerbaijan’s dominant propagandistic narratives that have focused on painting ethnic Armenians as Azerbaijan’s eternal enemies and the Armenian state as a state on the verge of collapse. It remains to be seen if those narratives will change and to what extent.  

But one needs to keep in mind that fundamental differences on Karabakh have not gone away, and military escalations, particularly with a more extensive use of standoff weapons, such as armed drones, are very likely to happen in the future. Aliyev’s political overhaul in Azerbaijan may also serve as an opportunity for a fresh diplomatic offensive against Armenia. In the short term, both Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders are focused on domestic issues, protecting and consolidating their power.

READ MORE: Azerbaijan: Why Ilham Aliyev’s Removal of Ramiz Mehdiyev is Significant

In picture: Russian President Vladimir Putin awards a Russian state order, the Order of Friendship, to Azerbaijan's First Vice-President Mehriban Aliyeva for strengthening and developing relations between the two countries, November 22, 2019. Photo: Kremlin.ru