President Ilham Aliyev’s surprise shakeup of his cabinet, including the apparent forced retirement of the powerful head of administration, has prompted speculation about whether true political reforms are likely.
Some analysts believe the moves by the president are a signal of his dissatisfaction with the state of the country’s economy, and also a reaction to public opposition to presidential policies, expressed in public protests.
The country was shaken on October 23 by the unexpected ouster of Ramiz Mehdiyev, the veteran head of the administration and holdover from Aliyev’s father’s regime. Mehdiyev, who turned 81 in April, was apparently forced to retire.
The same week Aliyev said he hoped officials in their 70s would resign. The President said such retirements are “necessary to give way to a younger generation.”
“You are now in your eighties and you have always said that we must promote youth, give way to the younger generation so that they grow mature and our development becomes long-term,” Aliyev said in an address before he awarded Mehdiyev with “the Heydar Aliyev” order for “effective and long-term special services in the field of public administration and science development.”
Aliyev has kept many of his father’s appointments intact since taking over as president in 2003. He has been re-elected three times since then. But some critics say that Mehdiyev, appointed by the president’s father (Heydar) Aliyev in 1995, as the head of conservative forces in the government, was hindering reforms that Aliyev wants, a move that led to his ouster.
The Mehdiyev removal was perhaps the most dramatic move, not only because of his long history with the Aliyev family, but because of his powerful status in the government. Known as an authoritarian figure who held pro-Russian and anti-Western views, Mehdiyev selected the MPs who ran for the country’s parliamentary election and he was responsible for appointing executive heads. He also controlled the entire law enforcement agencies of the country, and was a key figure of the arrest of certain human rights activists, and has called some activists, Anar Mammadov, Intigam Aliyev and Rasul Jafarov as “traitors.”
The concentration of power in Mehdiyev’s hands reportedly concerned the president’s wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, who is vice-president and the leader of the family clan that had been struggling behind the scenes with the Mehdiyev team. Mehdiyev and his colleagues dated back to the Soviet era, and originated from Nakhichevan and Armenia. His reputation was damaged by some incidents over the years, particularly in 2013 before the presidential elections. At that time, Mehdiyev was targeted by a video campaign launched by a former university rector and alleging corruption in the Aliyev adminisration. (See Gulargate tape scandal.) According to analysts, the rift between the two factions deepened when Aliyeva emerged as a a major player in her husband’s administration and was appointed vice-president, among other president-backed 2016 constitutional changes.
Those 2016 constitutional changes also diminished the position of the head of the presidential administration, then Mehdiyev, and meant the end of jockeying to replace the chief of staff as well as the office of a premier. Since then, younger people loyal to Aliyeva were appointed to major positions, replacing members of the Mehdiyev team.
Ziya Mammadov, former Minister of Transport, who headed the ministry for nearly 15 years, was the first target of the struggle after the 2016 changes and was dismissed in 2017.
But the drama actually began in 2015, when the national currency was devalued. The oil-rich country, which had enjoyed stability and economic growth, suddenly experienced a sharp decline in oil prices that shook the financial system. Many Azerbaijanis converted their money to international currencies. Falling salaries, declining pensions and reduced savings in manat led to public protests.
The fluctuating status of the manat and rising public discontent damaged the country’s reputation. During this period, Eldar Mahmudov, National Security Chief, and Cahangir Hajiyev, head of the International Bank of Azerbaijan, both in the Mehdiyev camp, were removed from their positions.
Mehdiyev had ruled the presidential administration for 24 years. His ouster came just days after two of his colleagues, Hajibala Abutalibov, deputy prime minister and former Baku mayor, and Ali Hasanov, another deputy prime minister, were removed from their positions.
Abutalibov and Hasanov, both known as loyal Soviet-era politicians who helped put Heydar Aliyev to power, were not popular with the citizenry.
Abutalibov, who was mayor of Baku for nearly 20 years, but was a figure of controversy because of some of his puzzling behavior. Local media reported he suffered from mental illness and had been hospitalized.
Hasanov, who for 20 years was chair of the State Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan for Affairs of Refugees and IDPs, was quoted as making insulting remarks about refugees. His family, particularly his grandchildren, attracted negative attention with car accidents. Both politicians, regarded as members of Mehdiyev’s old-guard faction, were considered to be hindering Aliyev’s efforts to make changes.
Among replacements appointed by Aliyev is Ali Asadov, named prime minister to replace Novruz Mammadov, who also surprisingly resigned. Having served Mammadov had been appointed a prime minister in April of 2018 after serving for 21 years as Aliyev’s foreign policy adviser and deputy head of presidential staff. The reason of his dismissal is not yet clear.
The moves came after Aliyev harshly
the government’s economic policy, calling the situation “unbearable.”
“Some members of the government blackmail others, denigrate them and cast a shadow over the reforms," Aliyev said while addressing the government members including the first vice-president Aliyeva in an economy consultation meeting held on October 15. The president particularly blamed some senior officials in the government for blocking reforms, saying that because “the reforms affect their personal interests,” they opposed new thinking in the government.
“There is no alternative to reforms. Anyone who follows this path will work, of course. And those who oppose this and try to covertly hinder our work, then, of course, we can’t go any further with such people,” the president said.
A week after those remarks, Minister of Economy Shahin Mustafayev resigned and was replaced by Mikail Jabbarov, who had been Minister of Education and Minister of Taxes. On October 22, Jabbarov became the head of super ministry that brought together the Ministry of Economy, Ministry of Taxes, the State Committee for Property and the Antimonopolu Agency. Mustafayev became a deputy prime minister.
Speaking at the inauguration ceremony of Jabbarov held on October 23, Aliyev
the cabinet reshuffle is connected to the government’s new economic model adding, “Personnel reforms are necessary, it is inevitable.”
“In the 21st century, we will not be able to succeed with old thinking,” Aliyev said adding competent, new and knowledgeable personnel are needed for the development of the country.
Observers suggest that removing the old personnel, particularly Mehdiyev, was a difficult decision for the president.
“What is definitely clear is that removing Mehdiyev has not been easy, as the president sees him off only after honoring him with Heydar Aliyev award,” said Meydan’s social media manager, Habib Abdullayev, calling Mehdiyev the “grey cardinal" of the administration.
Mehdiyev was appointed head of the Azerbaijan National Science Academy. accepted by many as an upgrade for the person described Political commentator Shahin Rzayev described Mehdiyev as “eternal, unsinkable, an armadillo, a dinosaur, an Egyptian pyramid.” Many in Baku question whether President Aliyev can rule the country effectively without the presence of Mehdiyev, who was the key figure linking the current administration with that of his late father.
Rzayev thinks the personnel developments serve the Aliyev family interests. He says the changes are about “a redistribution of decreasing oil revenues that intensified the fight between the clans and it will escalate as oil revenues will continue going down.”
Thomas de Waal, a writer and analyst of the Caucasus, said the “the net winner of this struggle is the country’s first lady and first vice-president Mehriban Aliyeva and her extended family, the Pashaevs.”
“Aliyeva is now chairing meetings on economic issues in the government,” de Waal said, adding that the demise of the once all-powerful Nakhichevan clan, headed by Mehdiyev, which once dominated the country, is because “they have given way to a Baku-based business-political elite instead.”
According to de Waal, the changes in the country, particularly the generational management overhaul is “authoritarian modernization” and simply serves to make “public services more efficient within the same strict authoritarian framework.”
Political scientist Hikmat Hajizada told RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service that the cabinet shakeup, especially Mehdiyev’s dismissal, are part of Aliyev’s attempt to change the government’s management style.
Hajizada believes the management approach in Azerbaijan will change, but he thinks the essence of the regime will remain the same.
“It is impossible to talk about any reforms or democratization,” Hajizada said, adding that powerful figures in the administration have held on to their positions.
“They are still represented in senior positions in the oil, construction, police and other sectors. What is seen is that it's just a change of manager,” he said.
Ali Karimli, chair of the Popular Front Party, told Meydan TV that Aliyev’s criticism of his own government showed that the situation in his team was “truly miserable.”
The government does not have a single team approach, he said, but rather has ministers and oligarchs fighting with each other and expressing their views openly in the media, he said.
Karimli is pessimistic about Aliyev’s recent personnel moves, saying the moves “will not change anything and create a single team.”
“The officials were sacrificed for the next time, and the philosophy of government and the rules of Aliyev's rule have not changed," Karimli said.
He also said that the government is aware of its negative image in society.
“To reduce tension, they try to create a vision for reforms… with the change of manpower in the administration, they sought to establish an idea that the reforms had finally started," Karimli said.
But, he added, that “they are mistaken. How can a government be called a reforming government that does not reform its election process? How can you talk about reforms if there are political prisoners? How can you be a reforming government that you are not reacting to any kind of demands raised during our rallies, but instead prefer to silence it?"
Representatives of the Azerbaijani government say that the country has recently undergone extensive reforms, and that the recent staff changes are related to the reforms.
But critics doubt real change has occurred. Nuraddin Mammadli, chairman of the Supreme Assembly of the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan, told RFE/RL that “without any change in the essence of the system, any personnel reform, the substitution of one person with another cannot change anything.”
According to Mamadli, young people now assigned to certain positions cannot change the system. He believes that to carry out reforms in Azerbaijan, attitudes must change.
“Freedom of assembly and a democratic election environment should be ensured in Azerbaijan. The political prisoner problem must be solved, ” he said.
Mammadli said that as long as elections are decided by commissions, not by voters, democratic changes cannot occur. He also thinks the government’s talk of reform “is a step towards preventing the protests that are gaining momentum and calming down the population."
The latest protest rally October 19-20 was greeted with a police crackdown, which drew the attention of the international community and human rights watchdog organizations.
Isa Gambar, the head of the National Strategic Research Center, who also is the former head of the opposition Musavat party, says there is a process of consolidation of power and that “steps are being taken to turn it into a family power.”
“At the next stage, those who can hinder this project will be excluded from the game. Be it Ramiz Mehdiyev or others … They are removed, weakened,” Gambar said adding that what is happening in the leadership “has nothing to do with reforms, the positive changes the opposition wants in the country.”
The head of the government-funded think tank Center for Social Studies, Zahid Oruj, holds the opposite view, and said that the developments that began in 2019 in Azerbaijan have led to major social and economic changes.
“It is a peaceful transitional process, without bloodshed,” Oruj, member of the Parliament of Azerbaijan since 2001, was quoted as saying by RFE/RL. In his view, establishing political freedoms is important, but a consensus is needed.
“Expectations in the society today are largely driven by the first person [Ilham Aliyev], from the presidential palace,” Oruj said adding, Aliyev is “pushing for reforms step by step.”
Oruj, known for his loyality to the government, also had a positive prediction: “With the changes coming in the coming months, Azerbaijan will be transformed into a new country by 2020-25.”