By Armen Zakarian and Emil Danielyan
Official Yerevan remained on Monday silent on the apparent transfer of power from Azerbaijan’s veteran President Heydar Aliev to his son which could have serious repercussions for the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenia’s main security challenge.
President Robert Kocharian’s office and the Armenian Foreign Ministry refused to comment on Ilham Aliev’s appointment earlier in the day as new prime minister of Azerbaijan in what is widely seen as the first step towards a dynastic succession in Baku. “We are closely following the developments there, but find it too early to make any comments,” one senior official told RFE/RL.
Meanwhile, leaders of the three pro-Kocharian parties making up Armenia’s governing coalition suggested differing implications of elder Aliev’s imminent exit for the stalled Karabakh peace process. But they were unanimous in seeing the 41-year-old Ilham as the next president of their country’s arch-foe.
Aliev’s health condition has sharply deteriorated since he twice collapsed during a televised speech in April. The 80-year-old president has not been seen in public since July 8 when he was again flown to Turkey for further medical treatment, prompting speculation he will not run in the October presidential elections. It was heightened by Ilham’s appointment as prime minister, confirmed by the Azerbaijani parliament amid rumors that Aliev senior is dead.
Under the Azerbaijani constitution, Ilham will become a caretaker president if his father dies or is declared unfit to continue to rule his oil-rich state. His participation in the presidential vote now looks a forgone conclusion.
Galust Sahakian, the parliamentary leader of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party (HHK), may expressed mirrored the dominant mood inside the Armenian leadership when he said that Heydar Aliev was “beneficial for Armenia.” “It is not certain what policy they are going to pursue from now on,” he said. “And that uncertainty is dangerous.”
Last May Markarian personally praised the ailing Azerbaijani leader as a guarantor of a peaceful Karabakh settlement and expressed hope that he will recover from his grave heart illness.
But a senior member of another governing party, the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), dismissed the political processes in Azerbaijan as largely irrelevant to the Armenian side. Hrair Karapetian said he thinks that Aliev’s departure will not affect the long-running Karabakh peace talks and that the Armenians should be primarily concerned with the combat readiness of their armed forces.
Heydar Aliev and Kocharian have held numerous face-to-face meetings in recent years and were reportedly close to hammering out a compromise peace accord in 2001. Their last meeting, held in Prague last November, was followed by an unofficial freeze on the peace talks connected with the 2003 elections in both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Both men have stressed all along that they are better placed to resolve the Karabakh conflict than their political opponents. "If we don't solve this problem, then who else will solve it?” Kocharian declared after yet another Armenian-Azerbaijani summit in August 2002.
U.S., Russian and French negotiators spearheading the international efforts to end the dispute were due to renew their shuttle diplomacy after the Azerbaijani elections. But Aliev’s health troubles and the resulting political uncertainty in Azerbaijan may further hold up the peace process. A lot depends on whether Ilham Aliev, a reputed former gambler seen as lacking his father’s political skills and ruthlessness, will be strong enough to accept a peace deal requiring concessions to the Karabakh Armenians and Armenia proper.
"No one takes him seriously," a Western diplomat in Baku was quoted by AFP news agency as saying on Monday.
But according to Mher Shahgeldian, chairman of the Armenian parliament’s committee on defense and security, Aliev junior has long been groomed for the Azerbaijani presidency and will inherit all of his father’s political and economic levers, giving him the capacity to continue the latter’s Karabakh line. Shahgeldian, who is affiliated with the Orinats Yerkir party also represented in the Armenian government, suggested that Heydar Aliev must have already secured the consent of major foreign powers for installing Ilham as his successor.
The United States and other Western powers are particularly interested in political stability in Azerbaijan given its substantial oil and gas reserves that have attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment during Aliev’s 10-year rule. The Karabakh conflict hangs ominously over the implementation of the contracts signed by Baku with Western oil multinationals.