A plethora of high-profile government changes preceded the early December dissolution of Azerbaijan’s parliament and the scheduling of elections for February 9. They signalled transitions in the internal structure of the government and the recognition that Azerbaijan needs to get on a healthier economic track.
Shifting sands are seen in Azerbaijan's government architecture. When it comes to the two most powerful ruling clans, the Nakhichevan (to which President Ilham Aliyev belongs) and the Pashayev (to which Aliyev's wife Mehriban Aliyeva belongs), the balance is tilting towards the Pashayevs. The first clear signs of this were visible years ago when Aliyeva became the second most important political figure after Aliyev after being given the first vice-presidency.
Lately, Aliyeva paid a high-profile visit to Moscow. After a meeting with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president awarded her the Russian Order of Friendship. Many analysts appear to have overestimated the importance of the visit, arguing that it was in preparation for a potential power transition in the 2020s and that Baku wanted to gauge Moscow's opinion on this. But the argument made is too thin. Nonetheless, the visit demonstrated the growing role of Aliyeva and the Pashayev clan.
Behind the scenes other important personnel changes have taken place in recent months. Many representatives who were close to the late president Heydar Aliyev, the leaders of the Nakhichevan clan, were fired. Their successors are people close to Aliyeva. The development underlined that the Pashayevs are indeed on the rise.
Long-time chief of staff dismissed
On October 23, Aliyev dismissed his chief of staff, Ramiz Mehdiyev, who had held the position since 1995. The 81-year-old was typically spoken of as the country’s second-most-powerful official. He served as a crucial ally of Aliyev’s father, Heydar. Consider this: Donald Trump has so far gone through three chiefs of staff; Putin has had half a dozen since 2000; but in Azerbaijan the same person, Mehdiyev, was chief of staff for nearly a quarter of a century, filling the role under both Heydar and Ilham Aliyev.
Mehdiyev, who’s taken the honorific position of head of the Azerbaijani Academy of Sciences, became well known for efforts he made to undermine improvements in US-Azerbaijan relations and for advancing authoritarianism. This state of affairs undermined Azerbaijan’s attractiveness to foreign investors and it explains why Washington has generally paid little attention in its South Caucasus policies to Azerbaijan.
Though to many geopolitical observers government changes in Azerbaijan amount to little more than a sideshow, they are likely to have a foreign policy impact. For example, Mehdiyev’s replacement is Samir Nuriyev, 44, a Duke University graduate. It is likely that Nuriyev recognises that gas and oil-reliant Baku must diversify its economy to create jobs for young people set to enter the workforce, though whether he will be given the leeway to succeed in this endeavour is unclear. Nuriyev’s appointment also suggests Azerbaijan might seek a stabilisation of bilateral relations with the West overall.
Along with Mehdiyev, numerous of his allies were stripped of their posts and, notably, in some cases they were replaced with younger, technocratic people representing the Pashayev clan. Also, Aliyev appointed Ali Asadov as prime minister. He is believed to be close to the Pashayevs.
Yet another interesting appointment in late October, though it was not associated with either of the powerful clans, was that of a young Western-educated official, Mikhayil Jabbarov, thought of as one of the most dynamic technocrats, who became Azerbaijan’s minister of the economy.
Officials accused of undermining reform
The significant governmental shake-up came after a consensus grew in Azerbaijan that officials had lately not been performing effectively. For example, Aliyev on October 15 in a blistering speech accused several senior government officials of undermining the country’s reform agenda and called the situation inside the government “unbearable”. The economic challenges the country faces are certainly significant. Aliyev might have been pensive that what are purely economic grievances as things stand might turn into a dilemma that could eventually threaten the very existence of the regime. Take the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB’s) recent warning that Azerbaijan has one of the slowest growing economies in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The economic problems explain why, earlier this year, in an effort to reduce public dissatisfaction, Sahil Babayev, acting as minister of labour and social protection, increased wages and pensions.
There is also a fear in Azerbaijan that the successful revolution in Armenia last year as well as the current ongoing anti-government protests in Georgia might impact on the country’s internal situation.
Moreover, as elsewhere across the former Soviet space, Azerbaijan is experiencing sharp generational changes. There is the prospect of growing restlessness. The median age in Azerbaijan is 31.7 years, while 37% of the population is under the age of 24. This means that more and more young people and the young population in general will need more jobs and will also seek more personal freedom.
This governmental shake-up might often be dismissed as simply a case of internal strife between the Pashayev and Aliyev clans, but the troubled economic situation looms large and it is actually highly pertinent in an assessment of what is prompting the arrival of new faces in the ruling establishment. And more and more people set on introducing effective governance are representatives of the Pashayevs, it seems. It’s a fair bet that this clan will have increasing power in the years ahead.