BAKU: Ilham Aliyev Ends Checkered Year As President

RFE/RL Azerbaijan: Ilham Aliyev Ends Checkered Year As President Wednesday, 27 October 2004
By Jean-Christophe Peuch

On 31 October 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, 27 October 2004 (RFE/RL) — To be sure, Ilham Aliyev’s mandate
started under unfavorable circumstances.

The day following his election on 15 October 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 22 October, 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 the Azerbaijani 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, told RFE/RL that, despite last
week’s court ruling, the past year has brought some improvements 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 disagreements 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 improvements 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