Azerbaijan's ailing president Heydar Aliev's bedside appointment of his son Ilham to the position of Prime Minister-and thus heir to the presidency-is forcing the Bush Administration to face the eventual passing of the Azeri leader.
Because the United States has been involved in Azerbaijan since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has much at stake in the leadership transition, it should protect its interests and encourage a democratic succession in Azerbaijan.
U.S. priorities in Azerbaijan include strengthening the Western orientation of Azerbaijan's foreign and domestic policy, including the preservation of a secular state. A democratic transition, if successful and bloodless, would serve as an important example to South Caucasus and Central Asian states, which suffer from a democracy deficit.
Benefits of a
Under a constitutional amendment approved during a summer 2002 referendum, Azerbaijan's prime minister becomes the interim president in the event of that the chief executive either dies in office or is incapacitated. The father-son team is also the ruling New Azerbaijan Party's candidates in forthcoming presidential elections, now scheduled for October 15.
A secular Azerbaijan, with a more democratic multiparty system and a free press and that is being increasingly integrated into Euro-Atlantic structures, could play a part in deterring radical Islamist takeovers in the Russian-controlled Dagestan and other Muslim areas in the North Caucasus.
If Aliev's son, his heir-apparent, were to lose the transition struggle, there is little danger of a radical Islamic backlash. Moderate democratic nationalists, not fundamentalists, would likely come to power, with the Azerbaijani elite agreeing on a pro-Western orientation and a secular state.
Neighboring Georgia is in a political tailspin and could benefit from an example of a successful democratic transition from a political system dominated by a charismatic, Soviet-era leader. After its scandal-ridden presidential election on March 5, Armenia could also benefit from seeing a democratic process in neighboring Azerbaijan. The authoritarian states of Central Asia, particularly, need a model of a peaceful transition away from post-Soviet-era rulers. And the broader Muslim world-including many countries undergoing or contemplating a father-to-son handover of power-could benefit from a positive example in a fellow Muslim state.
U.S. Interests. The East-West transportation corridor, including access to the energy resources of the Caspian Sea, has been a top priority of the United States during its last three administrations. Today, oil and gas are flowing from the Absheron Peninsula and the Caspian offshore fields to the Black Sea. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline will export up to 1 million barrels per year of high quality Caspian crude oil by 2005.
The United States may also consider basing elements of its air power on the Absheron Peninsula, particularly as it reduces its presence at the Incirlik military base in Turkey and with future deployments in Bulgaria and Romania. Deployment in Azerbaijan will allow the United States to project power further into Central Asia and deter Iran from the north.
Finally, the United States has invested heavily in Azerbaijan, including hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance, and has developed diplomatic and security expertise in the Caspian region. Major U.S. oil companies are investing billions of dollars in developing Azerbaijani oil and natural gas fields and export pipelines. Both the Azerbaijani people and the United States need the stability and predictability that would come from a democratic Azerbaijan.
What the Bush Administration Should Do. If President Aliev does not participate in the presidential elections scheduled for mid-October 2003, Azerbaijan could have a free and fair election process. To this end, the Bush Administration should:
Encourage a political process-with agreement from all factions-to conduct free, fair, and transparent elections. The U.S. State Department can clarify this position through the U.S. Embassy in Baku and Azerbaijani Embassy in Washington, D.C., with a follow-up visit to Baku by Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones, Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner, or Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lynn Pascoe.
Recommend that theU.S. House International Relations Committee or the Helsinki Commission conduct hearings on democracy in Azerbaijan.
Request thatthe International Republican Instituteand National Democratic Instituteprepare a pre-election assessment, an election observation mission, and a post-election report. Request the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to launch similar missions.
Ensure participation of international observers in the elections in order to guarantee international recognition of the next government's legitimacy.
Ensure through diplomatic channels that Russia and Turkey do not intervene to support competing political factions and reassure Moscow and Ankara that their interests will be respected. Azerbaijan can clarify to Russia that its leasing rights to the Gabala radar early warning station will be maintained, while the United States can assure Turkey that it supports completion of the Baku-Ceyhan Pipeline.
Continue the quest for a peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, including restoration of Azerbaijani territorial integrity and sovereignty, through an additional round of trilateral consultations with Azerbaijan and Armenia. The United States should also continue to support the Minsk Process, which began in the early 1990s under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and is the only existing multilateral process on Nagorno-Karabakh.
Deter Iran, through diplomatic channels, from interfering in the electoral process. If Iran intervenes, the United States and Turkey could send a Turkish or joint U.S.-Turkish air force squadron to Baku, as Turkey did after Iran encroached on Azerbaijani territorial waters in July 2001.
Conclusion. The post-Aliev transition will not only set a precedent for Azerbaijan, but will also have greater geopolitical and geo-economic repercussions throughout the region. A democratically elected Azerbaijani leader would likely desire to continue relations with the American superpower and improve Azerbaijan's security by bolstering Baku's ties with its neighbors. The country's next leader should enjoy democratic legitimacy based on a transparent and constitutional transition.
-Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.