By Jean-Christophe Peuch
On October 31–2003–41-year-old Ilham Aliyev formally succeeded his ailing father as president of the oil-rich Caspian republic of Azerbaijan. While taking the oath on the Koran and Azerbaijan’s Constitution–Aliyev pledged to bring his country "peace–order–progress–stability–and economic prosperity," and to pursue a path toward democratic reforms. While Aliyev’s first year in power has brought some positive changes–he seems unable–or unwilling– to make a clean break with his father’s controversial legacy.
PRAGUE–To be sure–Ilham Aliyev’s mandate started under unfavorable circumstances.
The day following his election on October 15–2003–tens of thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets of Baku to protest the outcome. The protesters called the vote fraudulent and claimed that their candidate–Musavat Party leader Isa Qambar–had garnered more votes than any other contender.
At least one person was killed in clashes with police.
In the following weeks–authorities arrested hundreds of opposition activists–closed Musavat headquarters–and imposed a ban on antigovernment newspapers.
Restrictions were subsequently eased. The vast majority of detainees were released after spending a few weeks in jail–where they reportedly endured ill treatment.
Seven opposition leaders–however–went on trial for allegedly inciting Baku residents to revolt. On October 22–Azerbaijan’s Court for Serious Crimes sentenced them to jail terms of up to five years.
International organizations and human rights groups have condemned the ruling and criticized Azeri authorities for failing to grant the defendants a fair trial.
For Baku-based political expert Rasim Musabeyov–last week’s ruling is characteristic of the new regime.
"In this respect–[one sees] little difference between Azerbaijan–Russia–or Armenia. Yet what is even worse is that [Azerbaijan] starts looking like [some] Central [Asian countries]. This is certainly not an innovation brought by the younger Aliyev," Musabeyov said. "The existing system largely owes to the elder Aliyev. Yet–the big difference [between the two men] is that the elder Aliyev felt strong and confident enough to put up with a regime of semi-freedom. But when the younger Aliyev assumed power–the ruling elite became–if not afraid–at least wary and less prone to tolerate that regime of semi-freedom." Critics generally blame Aliyev for not addressing corruption and for failing to bring new blood into Azerbaijan’s political elite.
As evidence–Musabeyov cites conclusions made by the Freedom House nongovernmental organization. In its 2004 report on civil liberties worldwide–the Washington-based group downgraded Azerbaijan to its list of "not free" nations–down from its previous status of "partly free."
Not everyone in Azerbaijan believes Aliyev’s human rights record is poorer than that of his father–however.
Independent expert Sahin Rzayev of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations–said that–despite last week’s court ruling–the past year has brought some improvemen’s in Azerbaijan’s human rights record.
Rzayev in particular cites Aliyev’s decision to pardon four prominent political prisoners. Iskander Hamidov–Suret Huseynov–Ilqar Safihanov–and Alikram Hummatov had been sentenced to between 14 years and life imprisonment under the elder Aliyev–and the Council of Europe had long pressed for their release.
"One has to note that Azerbaijan has fulfilled nearly all its obligations before the Council of Europe with regard to political prisoners," Rzayev said. "Some 923 prisoners have been amnestied. Aliyev signed four pardon decrees and–with a few exceptions–nearly all the political prisoners listed as such by human rights groups have been released by now. Some have remained in Azerbaijan–others have left the country."
Rzayev also disagrees with the widespread view that Aliyev is less shrewd and astute than his father. He argues that even after his father’s death last December–Aliyev has shown enough political clout to survive infighting among the ruling elite.
"[Aliyev] is surrounded by people with whom he can work and whom he trusts. Yet–one can feels frictions and disagreemen’s among the ruling elite," Rzayev said. "Conventionally speaking–one could say the infighting pits ‘young reformers’ against ‘old conservatives.’ But it is very difficult to figure out what is really going on because these things are not debated publicly. These frictions started already during Heidar Aliyev’s illness–when nobody really knew what would happen next–and they are more acute now."
Critics generally blame Aliyev for not addressing corruption and for failing to bring new blood into Azerbaijan’s political elite. With a few exceptions–most of Heidar Aliyev’s cabinet ministers have retained their jobs–and corruption remains rampant among state officials.
Political analyst Musabeyov argues that this is evidence that Aliyev’s government differs little from that of his father.
"I would say this is a stagnation in Azerbaijan’s life," Musabeyov said. "The inertia that used to characterize the final years of the elder Aliyev’s rule is continuing under the younger Aliyev."
Confronted with such criticism–the government has responded by noting economic improvemen’s over the past year. It claims gross domestic product has increased in recent months–while inflation has been curbed and thousands of new jobs created.
But analysts question official figures and say increased national revenues stem largely from favorable circumstances on the world energy market–not from real economic growth. Rzayev says that although hydrocarbons account for some 85 percent of Azerbaijan’s export revenues–the recent hike in world oil prices has not benefited the country’s impoverished population.
"Unfortunately–this [cash flow] does not reach the population. The authorities are placing it on a special stabilization fund," Rzayev said. "Starting from 1 January–retail prices such as that of gas and other energy products will increase. I would say that–for the population–things have deteriorated [compared to the times of Heidar Aliyev]. Life has become even harder–and people have the right to ask why."
The government says its oil stabilization fund may be used in the future to finance social projects and improve the country’s depleted infrastructure. But with an annual inflation rate estimated at around 20 percent–few in Azerbaijan pay attention to the government’s promises.