Call it stability or call it stagnation, but in recent years Azerbaijan has been an island of unchanging continuity as its neighbors, Armenia, Georgia, Iran, and Turkey, have seen tumultuous change.
That’s no longer true. The last few weeks have seen a flurry of events in this normally static country. On October 19 and 20, several dozen people were arrested when police violently broke up opposition street protests demanding greater freedom in both the political and economic sphere. The police even broke up a small rally protesting against Azerbaijan’s high levels of domestic abuse.
In parallel, more encouraging political change was afoot. President Ilham Aliyev has been in office for sixteen years, since he inherited the presidency from his father, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003. Over all that time, he looked afraid to reshuffle the aging old guard of ministers and advisers who served his father since the 1990s.
But on October 24, the president finally shunted his chief of staff, Ramiz Mehdiyev, who had held that job since 1995—and had served Heydar Aliyev in Communist days in the 1980s—to the more honorific position of head of the Azerbaijani Academy of Sciences. Mehdiyev had been the second-most powerful man in the country and the chief ideologist of authoritarian and anti-Western politics.
Instead, the president promoted a series of younger technocratic figures to his cabinet. For the first time in twenty-five years, the country now has a prime minister, Ali Asadov, who looks professionally fit for the job. The most dynamic technocrat, forty-three-year-old Mikayil Jabbarov, who won plaudits for his performance as education minister and tax minister, has been given a bigger brief as economy minister.
To underline that he meant business, Aliyev made an astonishing speech on October 15. He tore away the veil of official secrecy and ripped into unnamed cabinet members, accusing them of holding up reforms that affected their “personal interests” and even of “blackmail.” He called the situation inside government “unbearable.”
Clearly, a generational overhaul is underway. Does this also mean a big surge of reform in Azerbaijan? There are some reasons to be skeptical.
No one can deny that the system is sclerotic. The oil boom of the late 2000s is well and truly over. The government suffered a massive blow to its prestige when it devalued the national currency, the manat, in 2015. Incomes dropped and tens of thousands were left crippled by unsustainable loans.
There have been improvements since then. The share of the non-oil-and-gas sector in the economy has grown, although not by much. The transport ministry—and its powerful former boss, Ziya Mammadov, who negotiated the Trump International Hotel & Tower Baku deal—has been cut down to size, while businessmen say customs officers have become much less corrupt in recent years.
This can be described as an effort at “authoritarian modernization,” at making public services more efficient within the same strict authoritarian framework. That will be welcome for much of the public, but will it be enough?
In Russia, whose system in many ways parallels Azerbaijan’s, leaders from Mikhail Gorbachev to Dmitry Medvedev have learned that half-baked reforms can raise public hopes and then cause a backlash.
Moreover, if these developments mark the demise of the once all-powerful so-called Nakhichevan clan, which used to dominate the country, and to which Ramiz Mehdiyev belongs, it may be only because they have given way to a Baku-based business-political elite instead.
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.
Independent economist Gubad Ibadoglu says that a massive restructuring of the economy is needed to benefit ordinary citizens. He points out that in this year’s budget 39.9 percent of expenditures is going on construction, a big driver of corruption, while just 4.2 percent goes to healthcare and a mere 0.06 percent on environmental protection.
To get a perspective on this, I called Ilgar Mammadov, head of the opposition Republican Alternative Party movement, who since his release from prison in August 2018 has reentered politics.
Some of the opposition criticize Mammadov for trying to be a “constructive opposition,” but he was unapologetic. He said his party had not taken part in the recent demonstrations, which were broken up, because they were “not timely.” But he was also highly critical of the government.
“The fundamental problem is that this government has lost its moral authority. They are in power by inertia,” Mammadov said.
He said he was looking forward to parliamentary elections, due in a year’s time. These elections have been a formality for the past twenty-five years, as they have always been tightly controlled by the ruling party and in particular by the outgoing Ramiz Mehdiyev, who always screened and chose parliamentary candidates.
Now Mehdiyev is out and the political space has opened up a little. As it tries to adapt, the regime is advertising its weakness.
Mammadov sees opportunities either to get the opposition elected in parliament or to galvanize the public if the vote is not fair. Others will say he is overestimating his chances, but at least he has a strategy.
2020 will be a testing year in Azerbaijan. If he faces mounting expectations and a resurgent opposition, Ilham Aliyev may even regret sidelining his experienced authoritarian old guard.