Throughout the past week, Azerbaijan’s citizens and outside observers have been discussing President Ilham Aliyev’s surprising cabinet reshuffle. On October 19 President Aliyev suddenly dismissed several ministers and high-ranking officials, some of whom were quickly arrested by the country’s law enforcement agencies. This risky, but long-awaited, step happened just two weeks before the upcoming November 6 parliamentary elections.
The decision came right after a failed attempt by exiled opposition leader Rasul Guliyev to return to Azerbaijan on October 17 (see EDM, October 19). Two days later, newspapers reported that President Aliyev had sacked Farhad Aliyev (minister of economic development), Ali Insanov (minister of health), and Akif Muradverdiyev (head of general services for the Presidential Administration) (see EDM, October 21). All three were accused of embezzling state funds, but more importantly they were accused of conspiring with opposition groups to plot a coup against the government.
An official from the President’s Office, Fuad Akhundov, revealled that the alleged coup was to take place on the night of November 6-7. Akhundov accused the main opposition bloc, Freedom, of trying to promote an “orange revolution in Azerbaijan using Bolshevik methods”(Echo-Az, October 25). “The opposition does not want to acknowledge that a revolution, or more precisely a coup d’etat, in Azerbaijan is impossible. According to numerous opinions the support for President Aliyev among the population is more than 70%… [and] the government will prevent any attempt at an unconstitutional change of power in the country,” he added (newsru.com, October 23).
The Azerbaijani opposition was quick to deny any conspiracy. In an October 25 interview with Day.az about his alleged involvement in the coup plot, Guliyev denied the charges and stated, “The government is trying to discredit me in the eyes of the Azerbaijani people…while presenting itself as a reformer.” During a press conference, the leader of the opposition Musavat party, Isa Gambar, ridiculed statements about the failed coup attempt and said these were “absurd accusations” (Echo-Az, October 26).
“We have repeatedly stated that there is no unity in the government and there is a power struggle among elites on the top.” The events are “a sign of crisis and a lack of authority in the government,” Gambar added (Echo-Az, October 26).
Ali Kerimli,a leader of the opposition National Front party , made similar statements calling the coup reports “a political show” and describing recent events as “an elite struggle” that was used as a pretext to “sack disloyal persons within the government” (Zerkalo, October 25).
Meanwhile, on October 20, President Aliyev met with the director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergei Lebedev, in Baku. Aliyev praised the cooperation between the Azerbaijani and Russian security services and highlighted their important contributions to security and stability in the region (Interfax, October 20). Opposition newspapers have claimed that the Russian security services were involved in uncovering the alleged coup plot and identifying the people who were part of the scheme (Azadliq, October 21).
In an interview with Radio Freedom, Zefer Quliyev, a local expert from the pro-opposition Turan news agency, argued that the recent events are the result the ongoing regional power struggle between Russia and the United States (Azadses.org, October 20).
“Russia is interested in preserving the current government in Azerbaijan and Aliyev’s move to sack some of the pro-Western elites is aimed at preventing potential regime change in the country,” said Quliyev. He also accused the conservative bloc in the government, which is also pro-Russian, of being behind the recent shakeup.
Although former minister of economic development Farhad Aliyev was known as one of the few progressive ministers in the government, the other sacked ministers had no particular orientation. In fact, while considering the level of unpopularity of some of these officials among the population, the argument about the ministers’ pro-Western or pro-Russian leanings has little relevance. Corruption has been the major source of Azerbaijan’s public discontent, and the ministries have been the key players in corrupt activities.
In an interview with Gazeta.ru, Russian political scientist Alexei Makarkin said, “Farhad Aliyev may not have been plotting a coup d’etat per se, but he probably negotiated a deal with the opposition – which is an important detail.” Makarkin claimed that even if there had been a plan for a coup or a revolution in Azerbaijan, it most likely resembled the events that took place in Kyrgyzstan earlier this year. In other words, the opposition needed to secure the support of some government elites in order to stage a successful revolution should the political situation in the country become paralyzed (Gazeta.ru, October 20).
Statements by Ali Kerimli seems to confirm this theory. In a press conference on October 23, Kerimli called on the remaining government officials to resign in order to avoid prison and join the opposition “before it is too late” (Zerkalo, October 25).
Whether these personnel changes took place to halt a brewing plan to overthrow the government, elite struggles, disloyalty to president, or simply as part of ongoing internal reforms, the very fact of the dismissal of some of the “old guard” was a development that many in Azerbaijan welcomed with relief. The majority, however, believe that President Aliyev should have cleaned house a long time ago.
Nonetheless, Aliyev’s dismissal of the corrupt officials right before the elections has not only boosted his popularity and allowed him to consolidate power while undermining the opposition’s already weakened efforts to gather support for a “color revolution,” it has also forced skeptics of the “evolutionary” development model to reconsider their arguments.