Fresh dynasties sprout in post-soviet lands
as democratic succession withers

The New York Times, 20 February 2001

By Douglas FRANTZ

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- The demise of President Heydar A. Aliyev, 77 years old and a survivor of major heart surgery, is so nearly unthinkable in this former Soviet republic, which he has dominated for most of the last three decades, that the local press refers to it only as Event X.

What Mr. Aliyev wants after Event X seems increasingly clear: his only son, Ilham, 39, deputy chairman of Azerbaijan's state oil company, should inherit his father's political throne.

This model of monarchy seems increasingly to be taking hold in the former Soviet lands, republics that have often become the personal fiefs of rulers who mostly were part of the Soviet system.

In many ways the autocracies are an outgrowth of the Soviet era, when regional leaders were chosen in Moscow and few people took an active role in politics. Now the leaders argue that more time is needed to build the democratic institutions necessary for stability and smooth transitions of power.

Others criticize the absence of mature opposition voices and legitimate heirs after a decade of transition that has brought little gain for many residents of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Indeed, there is a widespread sense of being dispossessed as citizens who have grown increasingly impoverished watch leaders, their families and cronies prosper.

''You don't see any signs of accommodation with the rest of society, and you get more and more frustrated with the leaders as time goes on,'' Martha Brill Olcott, an expert on the region at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a telephone interview from Washington.

The prospect of instability or violence when one of the current leaders leaves office also raises the prospect of intervention by Russia, which is already reasserting its influence and could argue that it needs to act to restore order.

''Where do they draw the line when it comes to independence?'' asked a senior adviser to one of the region's presidents.

The only leader in the region who has tried to train a post-Soviet generation of politicians is President Eduard A. Shevardnadze of Georgia, who is 73.

He took that course only after making his share of unsavory alliances at home and with Russia to beat back three civil wars that arose in the 1990's out of his country's deep ethnic divisions.

Those divisions continue, making succession more complicated. One of the few people identified by diplomats as a possible challenger to Mr. Shevardnadze, for instance, is Aslan Abashidze, the autocratic leader of the semiautonomous region of Adjaria on Georgia's Black Sea coast.

Already Mr. Shevardnadze has dodged several assassination attempts. Economic woes and endemic corruption are mounting, leaving his government deeply unpopular.

On the other side of the Caspian Sea, President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan retains a strong grip on power as the prospect of oil riches increases. The mercurial Mr. Nazarbayev, 60, frequently shuffles cabinet members to keep potential rivals at bay, and last year Parliament granted him immunity from prosecution for life.

Mr. Nazarbayev's eldest daughter, Dariga, 37, who owns a media empire, is mentioned most often as a potential successor, along with her husband, Rakhat Aliyev, head of the country's internal security apparatus.

Neighboring Kyrgyzstan was once the most promising democracy among the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia, but the government's repression of political opponents and the re-election of President Askar Akayev, 56, in October have drawn rebukes from monitors and human rights groups.

The United States, once a champion of Mr. Akayev, criticized Kyrgyzstan in January after Felix Kulov, a former vice president and popular opposition leader, was sentenced to seven years for abuse of office after a closed-door trial by a military court. He was acquitted of the same charges in August.

''After studying this case for some nine months, I have come to the conclusion that the prosecution, trial and sentence were all politically manipulated,'' Scott Horton, a lawyer in New York and president of the International League for Human Rights, said in an interview. ''You could hardly imagine stronger evidence of judicial misconduct.''

In Uzbekistan, human rights advocates and diplomats say President Islam A. Karimov exercises a degree of control unusual even in this authoritarian region, keeping a tight leash on rivals within the political elite and using mass arrests to suppress opponents.

A Swiss company, Romak S.A., discovered the extent of his control when it shipped $10 million worth of wheat to Uzbekistan. The contract was signed by the agriculture minister and the wheat was delivered, but people involved in the transaction said Mr. Karimov had refused to authorize payment because he had not approved the deal.

Romak won a court judgment in Britain, but Uzbekistan has refused to honor it, saying it had fulfilled the contract by paying a local company.

In February 1999, Mr. Karimov, 63, was the target of an assassination attempt blamed by the government on Islamic militants. Diplomats in Tashkent said it might have been the work of opponents within the establishment who saw no legitimate way to challenge Mr. Karimov.

''I look for a bodyguard bullet there,'' Ms. Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment said. ''He will always be under risk of assassination.''

President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, 61 and, like Mr. Aliyev and Mr. Shevardnadze, a former Soviet Politburo member, also exhibits no sign of giving up power willingly, though he said Sunday that he would not run for re-election in 2010. Two years ago, Mr. Niyazov was declared president for life and is the focus of a personality cult unrivaled since the days of Stalin.

A 75-foot gilded statue of him stands in the main square in the capital, Ashgabat, rotating so that it always faces the sun. Three new monuments dedicated to the man who calls himself Turkmenbashi, or father of the Turkmen people, were erected in January.

The issue of succession would seem to be most pressing for Mr. Aliyev, in Azerbaijan. He is the oldest of the region's leaders and underwent heart surgery in 1999.

His hospitalization while visiting the United States last fall led to a near-panic in Baku after rumors spread that he had died. People began to horde food and hole up in their apartments, remembering the chaos of civil war that followed independence in 1991.

Mr. Aliyev, the longtime leader of Soviet Azerbaijan and president of the independent republic since 1993, has insisted that he will seek another five-year term in 2003 and presents a vigorous image in the frequent televised broadcasts of his state appearances.

But aides say his unrelenting schedule leaves Mr. Aliyev weary at the end of most days, creating the possibility that he will not run in two years.

Unlike other countries in the region, Azerbaijan has a legitimate political opposition, though its latitude is restricted and parliamentary elections last November were criticized by Western monitors.

''This is a false democracy, and the president is very willing to put power in the hands of his son,'' Sardar Jalaloglu, general secretary of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party, said in an interview.

Still, the opposition press regularly criticizes government officials as corrupt and castigates the president's son as a playboy who is unprepared to run the country, freedoms unavailable in most other countries in the region.

Efforts have been under way to groom Ilham Aliyev to succeed his father. Business executives and diplomats in Azerbaijan maintain that such a succession is the best hope to keep the country in the Western sphere of influence and protect billions of dollars in foreign investment in its rich energy resources.

''If Ilham's succession does not come to pass, it is no clearer here than anywhere else in the former Soviet Union what will happen,'' a Western diplomat said.

People who have dealt with the younger Mr. Aliyev say he appears to be well versed in the energy business as an executive of the state oil company, but they said he has occasionally expressed reluctance about becoming president. He has also not faced the adversity he would encounter running a country where people earn an average of $1,600 a year and hostilities could arise on any of its borders.

No opposition figure has emerged to challenge the president, but his son could face rivals from within the political establishment, diplomats and business leaders said.

Chief among them is Ramiz Mehdiyev, the head of the president's executive staff and the likely choice of the former Soviet bureaucrats within Azerbaijan.

The younger Mr. Aliyev will go to Washington this spring for speeches orchestrated to portray him as a worthy successor and to demonstrate to skeptics that he does want the presidency.

A member of a faction of younger, Western-oriented technocrats that has formed around him said planning was quietly under way to develop a message of continuity and progress for him to deliver once Event X occurs.

The New York Times, 20 February 2001