Recent sweeping changes in the ministerial positions in Azerbaijan’s government have brought a new dynamic to the country’s internal political developments. Whereas these developments highlighted the growing and consolidating position of President Ilham Aliyev, they also revealed the fading role of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP) in the decision-making process.
On February 8, President Aliyev sacked Minister of Labor and Social Welfare Ali Nagiyev, one of the founders and long-time deputy chairman of the ruling party. Nagiyev held this position for more than 10 years and was viewed in the mid-1990s as the second most powerful politician in the party hierarchy after former President Heydar Aliyev himself. Unexpectedly for many, Ilham Aliyev appointed a local businessman, Fizuli Alakbarov, head of the Improshop trading company and Imair airline, to replace Nagiyev (Turan News Agency, February 9).
The new trend of appointing businessmen to key government positions continued with the designation of Azad Rahimov, founder of the ItalDesign trading company, to be minister of youth and sports (Express, February 8). This position plays a key role in domestic politics, as President Aliyev himself chairs the National Olympic Committee and derives most of his success stories in the Azerbaijani political arena from the victories of Azerbaijani sportsmen in international competitions. Both Rahimov and Alakbarov are former members of the Komsomol, the youth branch of the Communist party.
Prior to these replacements, President Aliyev also appointed Aydin Aliyev (no relation to the president), as the new head of the Customs Committee, replacing long-serving Kamaleddin Heydarov, who was put in charge of the new Ministry for Emergencies. In January, another former Komsomol member, Zeynal Nagdaliyev, was promoted to head the regional/administration department of the President’s Office, replacing Yusif Humbatov, a long-time Heydar Aliyev loyalist.
These appointments, combined with the previous firings of other ministers and YAP loyalists Ali Insanov (minister of health), Vilayat Guliyev (minister of foreign affairs), and Namik Abbasov (minister of national security) show that President Aliyev is forming a new team that is not based on YAP apparatchiks. The new faces of the Azerbaijani government are either former Komsomol members or representatives of the business elite who are close to the president himself.
Before his death in 2003, President Heydar Aliyev heavily relied on the YAP as a way to promote his message on the ground and to recruit necessary cadres for key government positions. Thousands of teachers, doctors, and other people with state-funded salaries were recruited into YAP. The party was also used as a tool to control parliament and relations with other political parties. Most of the cabinet-level posts were filled by YAP supporters, because they were either the founders of the party or long-time supporters. Most of them helped Heydar Aliyev to come to power in 1993 and stayed with him during the turbulent years of 1994-95.
Following Ilham Aliyev’s election to the presidency in 2003, the official attitude toward the ruling party changed. The younger Aliyev relies more on his personal contacts and friends for personnel changes rather than on the party nomenklatura. This process has intensified in recent months, as the end of the November 2005 parliamentary elections and the collapse of the opposition’s hopes for a “velvet revolution” have increased the president’s power even more and untied his hands for making cadre changes. Parliament itself is now mostly dominated by friends and business associates of the powerful ministers and oligarchs rather than by YAP apparatchiks.
YAP’s marginalization in domestic politics can also be explained by the introduction of a purely majoritarian system of voting in the country, as opposed to the mixed regime that existed until 2002. In a majoritarian system, the role of the party’s central apparatus significantly decreased, and the individual characteristics and assets of individual candidates play more of a role in winning the elections than does party support. This explains why the recent parliamentary elections saw a weaker role for YAP in the campaign process and, as a logical consequence of this shift, the ruling party’s representation in the legislative body decreased from 76 deputies to 51. Prominent YAP loyalists such as Ali Alizrayev, Sayad Aran, Zakir Garalov, Sattar Safarov, Amalya Panahova, and Asya Manafova were not even elected.
It is clear that in the future President Aliyev will continue his drive to cleanse the government of old cadres and appoint younger and more dynamic persons to key ministerial posts. The local press continues to speculate that this process will soon affect the minister of education, minister of internal affairs, and the mayor of Baku (Azadliq, March 1). This next round of personnel changes might further decrease YAP’s power in Azerbaijani politics.