"Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This famous dictum of Baron Acton sounds so true today in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. Here a referendum (March 18) lifted term limits on the presidency granting approval to President Ilham Aliyev to serve as many times as he wishes after his second term finishes in 2013. The poll approved more than 40 amendments to the constitution removing some of the restraints on the presidency. Ilham Aliyev, 47, succeeded his ailing father Heydar Aliyev in the presidential election in 2003 and voted to continue in office for the second five-year term in October 2008.
Nowhere in the post-communist area is power so much personalized as in Azerbaijan. Even in Turkmenistan, notorious for its megalomaniacal ruler Saparmurat Turkmenbashi, the presidential office was not, after the death of Turkmenbashi, inherited by a family member but conferred on an elite insider. In Belarus, where President Lukashenko has been in power for more than 14 years, there is no comparable nepotism either. Perhaps, it would be more insightful to draw parallels (and learn lessons from) with Sub-Saharan Africa where the nascent state institutions were largely “privatized” serving the interests of the post-colonial elites. For example, Pesident Omar Bongo of Gabon has been in power since 1967.
To the surprise of democracy optimists, the breakup of Communist rule saw the emergence of authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes. These regimes have all adopted Western-style institutional and legal setups but the state was typically exploited for private gain. Keeping this in mind, it makes little sense to continue to frame events in the region as steps towards or away from democratization or consolidation of democracy. It is not that the removal of term limits would be a setback to consolidating an Azerbaijani democracy as the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission opinioned about the constitutional amendments in Azerbaijan. Rather, it is a move towards the consolidation of an authoritarian regime.
The Aliyevs have run the country by employing both carrots and sticks. Control of media has also been instrumental. A stream of oil revenues has enabled the government to keep the police force and other “power” ministries well-paid and fit. A brutal clampdown of a protest campaign in Baku in the aftermath of the controversial parliamentary vote in 2005 is just one example. If sticks were used to instill fear and gain mass acquiescence, carrots went mostly to the ruler’s cronies, friends and family members but were also dispersed on public goods. In this country, planned economy was not replaced by a fully-fledged market with a flourishing private sector. A partial economic reform that was implemented meant handing some of the Communist-era state enterprises over to regime cronies. Most important, the state has remained in control of the economy dominated by petroleum sector. Loyalty was compensated with access to state resources. Not only oil and gas industry but also other lucrative sectors like transportation, fishery, international trade and tariffs have been in service of various rent-seeking groups. Patronage was also used: government jobs were given as a means of cooptation (a more thorough discussion of what has kept the system working can be found in my article in the Harvard International Review, Feb 28, 2009).
These were enough to maintain a support base and manipulate public opinion. Added to this was international neglect and Western self-interest as regards setting priorities in the Caspian region. Oil means large investments which require stable environment and predictability. Western governments’ interest in Caspian oil meant they would support whoever ensures that precious stability. While the West has been balancing its energy interests and democracy rhetoric, Russia has used its model of “managed democracy” as an alternative to a more demanding Western model of liberal democracy. Under Putin and now Medvedev, Russia has become more assertive and authoritarian. It has served as a role model for neighboring post-Soviet leaders. In a certain sense, Russia can be said to be promoting authoritarianism in the former Soviet states by sending its election monitoring missions which confirm the results of usually manipulated elections and thus provide external legitimation for undemocratic regimes. The same can be said about a handful of researchers and research institutions as well as some European politicians, lobbyists and some state-backed NGO’s who have all endorsed the strongmen’s grip on power in this Caspian nation (Ken Silverstein has had a series of articles on this in Harper’s Magazine).
While it seems that the Obama administration takes a “quieter” approach to promoting democracy abroad, it cannot — assuming this is an issue of domestic affairs — keep silent about the developments in Azerbaijan. Neither can it abandon democracy promotion from its foreign policy agenda altogether. Instead, this is an ample opportunity for the US to stand for democracy. Itself a model of presidentialist government the U.S. could urge the government of Azerbaijan to create a truly presidential system based on the separation-of-powers and a fixed term in the office for president.
Farid Guliyev is a Doctoral Candidate in Political Science in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Jacobs University Bremen, Germany.