Azerbaijan’s constitutional referendum: Entrenchment of the Aliyev clan

Azerbaijan’s constitutional referendum: Entrenchment of the Aliyev clan

Tomorrow, authoritarian Azerbaijan will hold a constitutional referendum over expanding presidential powers. The results are a forgone conclusion.

A constitutional referendum will take place in Azerbaijan on the 26th September. The proposed changes will hand greater powers to the current President, Ilham Aliyev, and will lead the way to a “legal” entrenchment of his clan’s political power.

What are Aliyev’s proposed changes to the constitution?

The current presidential term stands at five years and one of the proposed amendments is to prolong this term to seven years. This is in addition to a change that was passed in the 2009 constitutional referendum wherein a presidential candidate may stand an indefinite number of times. The president’s powers will also be strengthened as he will gain the right to call early elections or to dissolve parliament if it rejects nominees to the Constitutional Court, Supreme Court or board of the Central Bank.

The minimum age at which one may stand for president will be reduced from 35 to 25. One should take into account that the current president’s son, Heydar Aliyev, is 19 years old. Furthermore, a new post will be created – that of vice president – who will be second in command of the country after the president and not the prime minister, who is currently 81-year old Artur Rasizade.

Certain other amendments are envisaged to circumscribe the right to free assembly and ownership of land.

Why these changes and why now?

It is clear that these changes have been proposed in order to entrench the position of the Aliyev regime within Azerbaijan. One must look at the factors that have stimulated the regime to feel the need to find “legal” means to strengthen its position. It comes down to a lack of legitimacy in the eyes of the public that it is meant to serve.

Economic discontent is rampant throughout the country and has been voiced on occasion. Azerbaijan suffers from similar structural economic problems that other post-Soviet countries experience, however, since it possesses large oil and gas reserves, the level of corruption and repression is higher than the norm. It is no surprise that the oil and gas sector represents the “greatest source of corruption in the country” as it makes up around three-quarters of government revenue.

As with other oil-rich countries in the region, profit generation is focused largely on the oil sector, thus diversification of the economy is stifled; this marginalises those that do not enter such government-sponsored jobs. A recent drop in Azerbaijan’s national currency, the manat, against the dollar due to a reduction in oil revenues has had a large impact on the socio-economic situation of ordinary Azerbaijanis and many have voiced their frustrations on the streets. The Aliyev regime has certainly not turned a blind eye to these frustrations.

One member of parliament, Gudrat Gasanguliyev, who is not part of the reigning “New Azerbaijan Party”, but is simply a token opposition, has noted a couple of geopolitical risks that have spurred on the Aliyev regime to make these constitutional changes. One such risk is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which has been used on numerous occasions to imbue the state’s actions with legitimacy.

It has been argued by the Aliyev clan that Azerbaijan requires a stable regime in order to work towards a “positive” resolution of the conflict with Armenia. The apparent need for a stable regime and the high level of sensitivity that surrounds the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict provides a scene that is conducive to the prorogation of the idea that presidential powers should be strengthened. The second risk coincides with the coup attempt in Turkey.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the Turkish coup attempt took place on the 15th July and the declaration of the referendum in Azerbaijan was announced on the 26th July. Although the internal political situation in Azerbaijan is not very similar to that of Turkey’s, especially with regards to state-military relations, there are still oppositional forces within the country that want to see the end of the Aliyev regime. These constitutional changes may act as a further defence against such forces.

What are the possible consequences of these changes?

Those already disillusioned by the Aliyev regime will be further disappointed after these changes. Opposition movements, such as “Musavat”, the oldest existing party in Azerbaijan, have already voiced their displeasure before the referendum has even taken place. The proposed changes would undoubtedly lead to a further suppression of the society’s frustrations and it is possible that we may witness a coalition of underground opposition movements in the future.

Further repression of Azerbaijani society may lead to an even more dynamic use of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia as a legitimacy issue as it may divert people’s attention away from daily problems. This is especially true since Azerbaijan has been preparing more and more for war, as was made evident during the so-called “four-day war”, instigated by Azerbaijani military forces.

Many believe that the results of the referendum are a foregone conclusion and that they will be in favour of the president. If this is so, then we may see a backlash, whether it be in the near future or in the long term. Such undemocratic changes also present a geopolitical threat in terms of the escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. There is, at the moment, little reason to feel optimistic about the security, economy and politics of the South Caucasus.

The region does not only require democratic figures to avert this situation, since they may be excessively nationalistic in nature, but also needs smaller egos and more compromise.

About Author

Leon Aslanov

Leon Aslanov holds an MSc in International Public Policy from University College London. He is a researcher and political analyst with an in-depth knowledge on the languages, societies and politics of the South Caucasus, Turkey, Iran and the surrounding region. His specific research interests lie in conflict resolution, divided societies and history of the aforementioned regions.