A Year in Review: Azerbaijan Pursues Internal Reforms and External Multilateralism

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 9

(Source: Commons.Wikimedia.org)

The politics of Azerbaijan were unusually dynamic in 2019, compared to recent years, shifting dramatically between January and December. President Ilham Aliyev notably continued the transformative reforms he began several years earlier. And almost every month, the Azerbaijani leader caught domestic and international observers by surprise by announcing a variety of reforms and new appointments. His actions throughout 2019 have nearly completed the transition of government management to the younger generation. Along with reforms, the economy of Azerbaijan improved according to several international organizations’ metrics (Azernews.az, September 28, 2019; Report.az, October 17, 2019).

In neighboring regions, political dynamism has usually been triggered from the bottom–up by protests of discontented masses—in most cases leading to turmoil. But in the case of Azerbaijan, the president has been accelerating reforms from the top–down and enacting a smooth and uninterrupted transition to a younger generation of officials. Notably, on June 20, 2019, President Aliyev transferred the long-serving Ramil Usubov from the post of minister of internal affairs to the post of secretary of the Security Council of Azerbaijan (President.az, June 25, 2019). Usubov was instrumental in combating numerous coup d’état attempts and tackling Azerbaijan’s widespread crime, transforming it into one of the safest countries in the region.

For observers, one of the most important staff changes last year was within the office of the president. Namely, on October 23, Azerbaijan’s head of state dismissed Ramiz Mehdiyev, who had headed the Presidential Administration since 1995, and replaced him with Samir Nuriyev, a graduate of Duke University (1news.az, November 1, 2019). Aliyev then appointed Mehdiyev to the Security Council (President.az, October 23, 2019). The entire structure of the Presidential Administration was also redesigned (President.az, November 29, 2019), and a new generation of young and energetic officials was brought in, including Anar Alakbarov as an assistant to the president; Gunduz Kerimov, a graduate of Indiana University, as the head of the Department of Legislation and Legal Policy (Ednews.net, December 2, 2019); and Shahmar Movsumov, a graduate of Harvard University, to lead the Department of Economic Issues and Innovative Development Policy (Oilfund.az, November 29, 2019). Movsumov, in his former position as the CEO of the Azerbaijani State Oil Fund, was instrumental in efficiently managing oil revenues and several strategic regional infrastructure projects. Just last year, Azerbaijani State Oil Fund revenues increased by more than $4 billion, of which at least $1.8 billion was not from greater sales but from the more efficient management of existing revenues (Report.az, December 28, 29, 2019).

On October 8, 2019, the president appointed Ali Asadov as the new prime minister (Xalqqazeti, October 8, 2019), who presided over the further restructuring of the Cabinet. On October 23, President Aliyev merged the Ministry of Economy with the Ministry of Taxes and several other state agencies, and he appointed Mikayil Jabbarov, a graduate of the McGeorge School of Law (University of the Pacific, in Sacramento, California), to oversee this expanded ministry. Jabbarov, in his previous positions as a minister of education (2013–2017) and a minister of taxes (2017–2019), demonstrated successful and efficient management and launched groundbreaking reforms at the governmental bodies under his control. Just last year, the Ministry of Taxes collected 415 million manat ($244 million) more than predicted (Trend.az, December 27, 2019) thanks to a successful policy of fighting the shadow economy (Sesqazeti, December 30, 2019) and building friendlier relations with business.

In line with the president’s reform agenda and at his request, the ruling New Azerbaijan Party dissolved the parliament on December 2, 2019, and agreed to hold early parliamentary elections. The parliament stated that the purpose of the dissolution was to increase legislative efficiency and to adapt deeper reform strategies (Azvision.az, December 2, 2019). On the same day, the Constitutional Court ruled that the chief executive’s request for the parliament’s dissolution was legally valid, and the head of state, in turn signed a decree to schedule early elections for February 9, 2020. Opposition parties, including Musavat and REAL, have already nominated their candidates for the upcoming election.

Since 1993, both the leadership and society of Azerbaijan have been cautious of any political moves that might be deemed irresponsible or uncalculated, which could destabilize the country and region. The learned lessons of the first two tragic years of independence instilled strategic patience and clear priorities that persist to this day. The inexperienced leadership of 1992–1993 brought the country almost to the brink of civil war, and Armenia took advantage of the political instability to occupy parts of Azerbaijan.

Ever since, the highest priority of Azerbaijan has been not revolution, like in some other former Soviet states, but stability: continuty and predictability in domestic politics along with consistent relations with neighbors and international partners. Last year, the president underlined several times the importance of commiting to Baku’s time-tested foreign policy (President.az, November 26, 2019). Despite the risks and pressures inherent to Azerbaijan’s complicated region, the long commitment to a consistent foreign policy has allowed the country to realize a number of groundbreaking energy and infrastructure projects that will continue to reshape the geopolitics of the region for decades to come.

Illustratively, on November 30, 2019, the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkey inaugurated the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline (TANAP), which is set to deliver Azerbaijani natural gas to Turkey and Europe. But perhaps the most notable event of 2019 for Azerbaijan’s foreign policy was the 18th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, held on October 25–26, in Baku, and attended by delegations from more than 120 states. As a small country in an ever more complicated world (Horizons, Issue 11, Spring 2018), participation in the Non-Aligned Movement has become one of the central pillars of Azerbaijan’s multilateral foreign policy in recent years (Iai.it, May 11, 2015).

In contrast, last year saw no real progress toward resolving the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, despite initial hopes at the beginning of 2019 (see EDM, April 1, 2019). Yerevan largely maintained its strategy of delay and deflection to prolong the conflict resolution process and preserve the status quo. Until late last summer, Armenian officials consistently argued that they could not speak on behalf of the ethnic Armenians of separatist Karabakh. But suddenly, on August 5, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan declared in front of a crowd in the occupied territories that “Karabakh is Armenia—period,” thus escalating tensions between the two countries (Twitter.com/shafiyev_farid, October 24, 2019). In response, the president of Azerbaijan said, on October 3, “Karabakh is Azerbaijan—exclamation point,” in front of a large international audience, demonstrating his government’s resolve to resolve the Karabakh conflict only in line with the principle of preserving the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan (President.az, October 3, 2019).

President Aliyev has declared on multiple occasions that Azerbaijan is pursuing proactive domestic and foreign policies aimed at strengthening the country’s regional leadership and making it a safer and more prosperous state. As such, in the coming years, Baku can be expected to continue the pace of the recently observed transformations, which, ultimately, will also help Azerbaijan in the resolution of its conflict with Armenia.