August 6, 2003 | WebMemo on Russia
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:
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.