Op-ed: What’s happening in Azerbaijan – a revolution from above or image correction?
In the last year, a number of oddities have occurred in Azerbaijan: the president is presenting himself more often to the public, credit debts have been forgiven, political prisoners pardoned, the backbone of the old guard was suddenly dismissed – and now, the dissolution of an unpopular parliament.
Why suddenly in Azerbaijan, in a country with “pathological stability”, have such things began to occur? JAMnews looked into the issue.
Pro-government journalists call this shake-up either the “Azerbaijani Spring” or the “White Revolution”.
Both comparisons are unsuccessful. The ‘Arab Spring’, which began in 2013, ended not with democratization, but with a civil war. Meanwhile, the ‘white revolution’ of the last Iranian Shah resulted in the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iranian.
There is a third metaphor – the ‘wind of change’ – which is more successful. The wind is really blowing.
The ruling family is trying to save money – why did the authorities decide to change the composition of their loyal team?
This largely concerns permutations in state structures made in the second half of 2019.
Ilham Aliyev has been in power for 16 years. That’s four terms in the USA presidential system. The first years of his power were during peak oil revenue times when there was a lot of money, and all projects (except for the restoration of territorial integrity) were solved relatively easily.
The crisis of 2014 opened the eyes of the top Azerbaijani elite.
First, oil revenues declined. Second, it suddenly turned out that the old management, formed on the principle of family ties and bribes, is not able to respond quickly and competently in a crisis situation in order to minimize losses in a crisis.
As a result, they made purely pragmatic calculations. It is necessary to hire managers who can minimize losses (including the loss of the Aliyev family) to a minimum in a crisis (including a drop in oil revenues).
The old guard, operating since the time of the Soviet Union, was obviously not able to respond to the vagaries of a market economy. So it was necessary to attract young “Chicago boys” (in our case, “Harvard boys”) in order to save the economy and personal capital.
The leash will become a little longer: how personnel changes will affect domestic politics
We predicted an inevitable aggravation of the struggle within the ruling elite as oil revenues decreased.
Two main groups were in opposition relatively speaking, the Mehdiyev clan (headed by the former head of the presidential administration Ramiz Mehdiyev, a faithful ally of Heydar Aliyev since the time of the CPSU Central Committee) and the Pashayev clan led by the first lady, who became two years ago the first vice president in the country, Mehriban Aliyeva.
Now we can more or less confidently conclude that the undercover fight ended in victory for the latter. The dismissal of the Milli Majlis will be the last highlight in the symbolic coffin of the old elite.
What will change? I’m afraid nothing special.
If we continue the analogy with the “Chicago boys” of Pinochet, they helped to fix the economy of Chile in the 1970s and pull it out of a deep depression, largely because Pinochet himself did not interfere with their actions and strictly punished everyone who put sticks in their wheels.
In Azerbaijan, alas, the authorities have grown together with the shadow economy, and attempts to reform, say, tax policy are already facing a very strong rebuff. The leadership itself is not very interested in eradicating corruption, it is simply trying to reduce the gluttony of individual oligarchs. Azerbaijan is in no hurry to sign an agreement with the EU on in-depth cooperation, is in no hurry to enter the WTO. Then all tenders and other operations will have to be conducted transparently. While the authorities themselves are not ready for this.
Snap parliamentary elections are also likely to be held according to a system of fraud. It is possible that new young, English-speaking lawyers and economists will appear in parliament, even the number of opposition members will increase.
But the parliament will not become a “second power”, the obedient majority will continue to ratify documents that have been handed down by the presidential apparatus.
Media with the departure of the “chief censor”, the former head of the socio-political department of the presidential apparatus Ali Hasanov, will be at a loss.
Since Azerbaijan does not have a free advertising market, all media outlets, whether print or online, depend on the handouts of some officials or oligarchs. Hasanov contained (at the expense of the budget, of course) an entire army of trolls and obedient pocket publications.
Most likely, funding will be cut off for them, most of them will die out, the smartest ones will try to find new “donors” in another, victorious clan.
And finally, the NGO sector may breathe some relief. Back in 2014, draconian laws were passed that blocked the funding of objectionable NGOs. Many civil society activists were put on a travel ban or dubious list. It can be expected that this “leash” on which the authorities hold civil society will become somewhat longer.
“Europe is falling apart”: what will change in foreign policy?
President Aliyev, during a speech at a ceremony marking the centenary of Baku State University, officially announced what many already knew: Azerbaijan was not going to integrate into Europe.
Immediately after this, the First Vice President visited Moscow, where she was received by Russian President Vladimir Putin and presented her with a high award (a very rare, if not the first case, when Putin accepts not the first, but the second person of a foreign state).
These events even more marked the displacement of the foreign policy vector of Azerbaijan from West to North. The honeymoon in relations between Russia and Azerbaijan, which I spoke about last year, seems to have borne fruit and relations have consolidated on a more permanent basis.
Does this mean Azerbaijan’s entry into pro-Russian military or economic blocs, like the CSTO or the Eurasian Economic Union?
In the near future, this is extremely unlikely.
Azerbaijan has a good “excuse” with the CSTO. This year it led the Non-Aligned Movement, and therefore, over the next two years, it has pledged not to join any military blocs. And Armenia, as a member of the CSTO, is threatening to veto the entry of Azerbaijan into this military-political bloc anyway.
It is more complicated with the Eurasian Economic Union. I think that Azerbaijan will start with observer status in this pro-Russian economic organization. But, taking into account his interests in the issue of exporting natural gas to Europe, he will pursue a cautious policy.
“We are preparing the people for peace.” What will change in the Karabakh issue?
The year 2019 will still be remembered by the slogan “preparing the people for peace.” What the foreign ministers had in mind when making such an appeal in March is not clear to me personally.
Because the warlike rhetoric has not decreased in either the Azerbaijani or Armenian media (as far as I can judge by the Russian-language versions of certain sites).
If they mean the exchange of visits of journalists organized by the OSCE in November, then, again, I doubt that this idea will help bring people closer together.
This event can hardly be called a journalistic mission in view of the serious restrictions imposed by the organizers, which resembled censorship. The articles obtained as a result of this mission frankly disappointed many readers.
`they were compared with school essays on the topic “How I spent my holidays.”
It is possible, however, that this visit became the first link in the chain of subsequent humanitarian actions, for example, the exchange of prisoners of war.
In any case, from changes in the Azerbaijani ruling elite, the policy regarding the Karabakh conflict will not change. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Assistant to the President for Foreign Affairs and all the ambassadors in key countries, as well as almost all members of their team, have retained their posts.
The year 2020 promises to be even more interesting.