Since 2008, President Aliyev has strengthened his position among the political elites and has become more adept at balancing their competing interests and potential challenges to his authority.
Aliyev, who has gradually dismantled constitutional protections for the separation of powers in Azerbaijan, is very much aware that maintaining regime stability is both a constant task and a constant threat. The 2009 and 2016 constitutional changes were aimed at eliminating the threat of internal challenges to his position.
Though it provoked astonishment among many international circles (Reuters, 21 February 2017), the appointment of his wife as Vice President was widely expected among senior officials. Some members of the ruling elite fear that Aliyev has opened a Pandora’s box in terms of the fragile balance of elite power.
Mehriban as Vice President is a signal that clan politics are alive and well, and risks igniting an internal struggle among elites seeking “equal representation” in the power hierarchy.
The Origins of the Power Struggle
The First Lady’s Family, the Pashayevs, and the “old guard” – Soviet era apparatchiks who worked under Heydar Aliyev, enjoying widespread influence ranging from internal affairs to foreign policy institutions – have long been at odds. The old guard is led by the Head of Presidential Administration Ramiz Mehdiyev. This cohort has been identifiable since the beginning of Ilham Aliyev’s second term in 2008, at which point people began to believe that Aliyev had finally consolidated his control over the team he inherited from his father.
This raised expectations that the President was prepared to bring in fresh blood, and that this “spring cleaning” would not pose a threat to the stability of the regime. Back in 2005, Aliyev successfully dealt with a counter-elite movement: two high-level bureaucrats, Minister of Health Ali Insanov and Minister of Economic Development Farhad Aliyev were arrested on charges of plotting a coup, and convicted of corruption and embezzlement (Crisis Group Report, 3 September 2010). Many observers assumed the government re-shuffle would see the Soviet apparatchiks replaced by people from the Pashayev network. This network is not only kinship-based; more than half of this network are people who have worked at/have ties with the various institutions under the Pashayevs’ patronage, or have friendships with key people in the Family. Although this government re-shuffle was not realized, the divisions between the Family and the old guard hardened.
The Pashayevs have been given the green light to work on education and cultural issues; they are behind the country’s first “Europeanized” University – the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy (ADA). The Rector of ADA is Hafiz Pashayev, an uncle of Mehriban Aliyeva.
Nargiz Pashayeva – the sister of first lady – is the Rector of the Azerbaijan branch of Moscow State University, while the National Aviation Academy is under Arif Pashayev, the father-in-law of President Aliyev.
Meanwhile, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation was established in 2004 with the First Lady as its president; in 2004 Aliyeva was also designated the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Oral and Musical Traditions. The Foundation’s work aims at promoting and protecting Azerbaijan’s cultural heritage and doing charitable works: “friends of the Family and related organizations have elaborate international business and lobbying networks, which are often used to promote Azerbaijan's interests or the First Family's profile.”
However, this charitable work has been much more visible abroad than domestically. In pursuit of these cultural and educational goals, the Pashayev Family has gradually gained a significant degree of control over the country’s financial, telecommunications, and real estate sectors via Pasha Holding.
However, since the start of Aliyev’s second term in 2008, and the 2009 constitutional referendum (which removed term limits), there have been indicators that the President is insecure about his control over his team and fears becoming a lame duck. Azerbaijan’s oil revenues increased the power of existing ministers like Kamaladdin Heydarov and Ziya Mammadov, who as economic power brokers became alternate centers of power. The family networks of Heydarov and Mammadov acquired large enterprises and monopolized sectors of the economy (Mammadov was recently ousted from the government).
Their increased economic and political capital put Aliyev in a sensitive position. Nonetheless, the 2009 referendum also quelled speculation about the Family’s potential role in accession to power, and even before that, the political rise of the First Lady was dismissed, as noted by US embassy cables (WikiLeaks) in 2008:
“While the Pashayev family definitely has taken on a more prominent role in Azerbaijan’s commercial affairs, the First Lady's soft spoken demeanor and lack of experience in political affairs suggest that it will be challenging to portray her as a national political leader and eventually as a possible successor to her husband.” (WikiLeaks, 2008)
From an Imagined to a Real Struggle
While the simmering power struggle between the Family and the Old Guard quieted following the 2009 referendum the struggle has re-emerged since 2012.
A turning point was the crucial presidential elections of 2013. For the first time, Mehriban Aliyeva appeared as a potential successor to President Aliyev. While President Aliyev is constitutionally allowed to serve a third term, the waves of international criticism on human rights and the damage to his international reputation led to speculation that he might follow Vladimir Putin’s footsteps. Putin famously became Prime Minister, positioning former PM Dmitri Medvedev to take on the presidency for one term.
It is true that Baku has followed the “Russian model” in many respects, notably the adoption of repressive laws that serve the regime and the crackdown on civil society. However, the Azerbaijani version of Putin-Medvedev - the Aliyev-Aliyeva– is not popular in government circles.
Critics first of all fear that the First Lady would entrench the existing system, which is based on loyalty and balance among internal elites, and could prompt the emergence of a counter-elite. The other rationale was that while President Aliyev’s intense meeting with Armenian counterpart is understandable, it is hard to imagine such intense diplomatic engagement from Mehriban Aliyeva. This attitude might seem regressive or anti-feminist, but it remains the case that high-level political engagement from women is unfamiliar in Azerbaijan. In addition to this context, the major problem was that the Old Guard would have been deeply opposed to this kind of creative problem-solving.
In 2012, the year before the 2013 election, the “cult of personality” around the Head of the Presidential Administration, Ramiz Mehdiyev, started to deteriorate, first of all with rumors that he would leave his position. Mehdiyev has long been regarded as the seemingly untouchable grey cardinal of the regime- These rumors have had a negative effect on the regime, giving rise to background jockeying for Mehdiyev’s position. In order to address this, the President created four new positions: deputies to the head of the Presidential Administration.
Those new appointees retained their existing government positions. This was intended to signal that even if Mehdiyev were to lose his position, one of the four deputies would replace him. This also limited the scope of the power struggle.
The reputation of the Old Guard was seriously damaged by the release of videos that alleged Mehdiyev’s involvement in corruption scandals in 2013. Elshad Abdullayev, former rector of the private Azerbaijan International University – now living in France – published videos that allegedly “implicate 74-year-old Mehdiyev as the head of a massive corruption ring that often resorts to brutal methods to achieve its ends. Abdullayev has also threatened to release more videos in the weeks and months ahead unless Mehdiyev is removed from power”. The deterioration of Mehdiyev’s reputation – given his position as a foe of the Pashayevs - was seen as a marker of the Family’s rise, further consolidated through political appointments in the wake of the 2013 election.
The run-up to the October 2013 election saw the appointment of a new Minister of Education in April 2013, Mikayil Cabbarov. Cabbarov – young, with a Western-education – who is close to the Family; this has been a step in the First Lady’s rise. The Family has indirectly controlled the Ministries of Culture, Youth and Sport, and Health; it is widely known that those ministers are loyal to the Family.
However, the Pashayevs lacked influence over the Education Ministry, and Cabbarov’s appointment was important in filling that gap. However, it subsequently became clear that under Mehdiyev’s system, the Education Ministry does not have enough power to make important changes, especially in the school system. Since the appointment of the new Minister, public confidence in the Ministry has fallen due to his inactivity.
Power struggle in the context of the economic downturn- necessity of systemic changes
While the 2013 election passed without issue in regard to the elite balance within the government, the catastrophic drop in oil prices since 2015 – and the emerging need for reforms – has destabilized the traditional elite loyalty structures. The urgency of implementing political and economic reforms to handle the crisis put new pressure on the Prime Ministerial role. The PM needs to be some capable of designing and implementing major reforms, but Aliyev was aware that appointing someone too powerful could jeopardize his own position. Under the pre-2016 constitution, the Prime Minister was the most powerful position after the President, and would replace him in case of incapacity/resignation.
Many kleptocrats in government – i.e. powerful ministers with huge economic bases – see themselves as potential successors to the current Prime Minister. However, it later emerged that the former Minister of National Security Eldar Mahmudov (fired in relation to a corruption scandal which led to the dissolution of the entire ministry) was involved in this power struggle. Mahmudov had designs on the position of Prime Minister, and promoted himself via the media and built up impressive support from some members of government.
According to government sources who spoke to Meydan TV on condition of anonymity, it was these ambitions that led to Mahmudov’s downfall.
The September 2016 constitutional changes created the Vice-Presidency; the First VP is the successor of the President and enjoys the same immunity. However the boundaries of formal responsibilities remain fuzzy. Prior to Aliyeva’s appointment, the selection of the First VP was seen as an indicator of the regime’s future plans. Would the First VP be a young progressive person, or would someone from the old guard and its clans network (the Nakhchivanis and YerAz (Azerbaijanis from Yerevan). Nakhchivanis is where Heydar Aliyev was from, while the latter refers to Azerbaijanis dispelled from Armenia at the end of 1980’s, who then became the second most powerful clans after the Nakhchivanis.
Appointment of the VP and future challenges
The appointment of the First Lady, Mehriban Aliyeva, as Vice President sends several messages and also creates challenges. Primarily this means the end of the jockeying to replace the Prime Minister and the Head of Presidential Administration. Both positions have been significantly diminished by the creation of the Vice Presidencies, most notably the First VP. Mehriban Aliyeva’s appointment has also angered the Nakhichevanis and YerAz; even if they are represented among the other VPs, this will not be sufficient to satisfy them.
The other major question is how Mehriban Aliyeva will handle her newfound political power – will she be a strong actor or passive observer? This – and indeed the formal scope of the role – is unclear for now. But there is some evidence that the Pashayevs are keen to strengthening their power at the highest levels. Before Mehriban Alieyeva’s appointment, Ziya Mammadov, an important kleptocrat with political ambitions, was removed and his ministry – the Ministry of Transport – was merged with the Ministry of Communications and High Technologies. The new Minister of Communications and High Technologies, Ramin Guluzade, is a member of the Pashayev network. He previously worked with Ms Aliyeva at the Heydar Aliyev Foundation.
This phenomenon of governance is often called oligarchic – but the reality is that Azerbaijan is a textbook kleptocracy: “a government by those who seek chiefly status and personal gain at the expense of the governed”.
President Aliyev has long been alert to the need to secure and consolidate his position vis-à-vis Azerbaijan’s network of political elites and oligarchs, and the appointment of his wife is the latest tactic this struggle. It is hard to discern whether the power struggle has been resolved, and whether the President is safe. One thing is clear: it will be virtually impossible to undo the damage to his international reputation.