Dynasty looks to rule strategic US ally

In Azerbaijan, president's son could succeed his father in vote Wednesday. At stake, a US-backed regional oil pipeline.

There are few apparent signs of crisis in bustling, sun-drenched Baku. The streets of the old town overlooking the Caspian Sea are jammed with foreign cars. A forest of construction cranes, testimony to an oil-fueled real estate boom, hover over the city.

But ubiquitous billboards and posters heroically depicting the republic's long-time leader, Geidar Aliyev, and his son Ilham betray a tense political battle under way here. They are part of an elaborate campaign, orchestrated by the elder Mr. Aliyev from his bed in a US clinic, to create the first post-Soviet dynasty through elections slated for Wednesday.

Independent surveys suggest that the presidency cannot be won fairly by Ilham, a political neophyte appointed prime minister by his father in August. Azeri officials exude confidence that Ilham, whose main program is to continue his father's policies, will win by a wide margin.

But observers question whether he can fill his father's shoes. "Aliyev senior had real authority; he could keep the Army and security forces under control," says Vadim Teperman, an regional expert with the Moscow-based Institute for International Economic and Political Research. "The son is far less experienced."

Both Aliyevs were listed as presidential candidates for the first month of the election campaign, along with eight representatives of Azerbaijan's fractious opposition. But in early October, the ailing father dramatically withdrew, throwing support to his son.

That spells the end of an era for Azerbaijan. Geidar Aliyev has run the republic for much of the past 35 years as the Soviet-era KGB chief and Communist Party head. As president of an independent Azerbaijan since 1993, he steered the country away from civil war, forged a truce with neighboring Armenia following military defeat, and signed contracts with Western oil firms to develop reputedly huge Caspian petroleum reserves.

In recent years, Azeris have enjoyed a modest prosperity and grown accustomed to stable - if authoritarian - government.

"Azerbaijan is one of the few states in the Muslim world that is completely allied to the West, and has a secular society and democratic practices," says Agalar Abbasbeylin, chair of the international relations department at Baku State University. "All this is thanks to the strong leadership of Geidar Aliyev."

The traditionally Shiite Muslim Caucasus state, wedged between Russia and Iran, is of key strategic interest to the West. The US is backing construction of a pipeline through Georgia and Turkey to carry the hoped-for Caspian oil bonanza to world markets, bypassing existing Russian pipeline routes. Azerbaijan has been a loyal US ally, sending 100 troops to Iraq.

But many doubt the father's popularity will rub off on the son, whose reputation as a playboy and gambler is openly discussed. A poll in late September by the Baku-based Center for Political and Economic Research, an independent agency funded by the US National Endowment for Democracy, found the leader of the opposition Musavat Party, Isa Gambar, leading with 36.3 per cent of respondents, while Ilham Aliyev trailed with 27.4 percent.

Citing a history of flawed elections, opposition leaders allege the voting may be rigged for Ilham. "We do not suspect, we know that the authorities are planning to falsify the ballot," Mr. Gambar says. "These are anticonstitutional intentions."

A monitoring team sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has documented a pattern of official abuses. "Violence persists as police intervene against rallies or tolerate violence against the opposition," says the OSCE's interim report. "Unequal treatment of the opposition persists.... Three candidates assert their lives have been threatened."

The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders also reported recently an upsurge in attacks against independent Azeri journalists trying to cover opposition activities.

The head of Azerbaijan's official Central Election Commission, Mazahir Panahov, insists the government "is committed to holding free, fair, and transparent elections."

Mr. Manakhov blames the opposition for the violence and unrest. "These incidents occurred because these candidates tried to hold meetings in areas where order couldn't be guaranteed," he says. "Local authorities are required to carry out order." As for allegations that state resources are being used to promote Ilham, Manakhov says: "We have received no information about that."

Scattered signs of opposition activity are visible in Baku, but beyond the capital, newspapers and public spaces reflect only the Ilham campaign. At the Lezgin Ahmed Public School in the town of Qusar, children file through an entrance plastered with his election posters. The school's lobby is dominated by a large board featuring photos of the Aliyevs, father and son, accompanied by a long, glorified biography of Geidar.

"Personally I don't think it's fair, as the law orders equal treatment for all candidates," says teacher Zahid Aleskander.

Experts worry that even if Ilham gets elected, he may not be able to handle Azerbaijan's problems, in particular the simmering conflict with Armenia. The five-year conflict ended in 1994 with victorious Armenians in control of their ethnic enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as large swathes of Azeri territory.

"Azerbaijan has the right to free those territories by any means necessary," says Azeri Deputy Prime Minister Ali Hassanov. "Our patience is not limitless."

And, if skyrocketing global oil prices should tumble, Azerbaijan's fragile prosperity - based on difficult-to-reach Caspian oil - will collapse. "Almost all the economic good news in Azerbaijan depends on high petroleum prices," says Mr. Teperman. "If they go down, whoever is president will have huge problems."

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