Azeri Opposition, Emboldened by Egypt, Warns Aliyev

Feb. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Azerbaijan's political opposition is seeking to replicate the uprisings that drove out authoritarian rulers in Egypt and Tunisia, this time in a former Soviet oil province that supplies an increasing share of Europe's energy.

President Ilham Aliyev, who took over from his father in 2003 in the first dynastic succession in the former Soviet Union, faces the same fate that befell Egypt's Hosni Mubarak last week if he doesn't annul the November election that gave his supporters all but one of 125 seats in parliament, said Isa Qambar, head of the Musavat, or Equality, political party.

"All autocratic regimes are doomed to failure," Qambar said in an interview in the capital Baku on Feb. 13, after protesters forced Mubarak, 82, to resign after three decades in power. "In two months, they may beg us for a fresh election. In that case, we may agree, but the people won't."

The U.S. and Europe have been courting Azerbaijan, where the first oil well was drilled in 1846, as an alternative crude supplier to Russia and the Middle East since the senior Aliyev, a former KGB officer, was in power. The country has the third- largest oil reserves in the former Soviet Union and can pump enough crude to meet 75 percent of British demand.

Oil companies led by London-based BP Plc have invested more than $31 billion in the Caspian Sea state since the 1991 Soviet collapse, equal to almost two-thirds of the country's annual gross domestic product.

Flash Point

More than 90 percent of Azerbaijan's 9 million people are Muslim and the growing disparity in living standards between the ruling elite and the general population could reach a flash point similar to that in Egypt, said Anna Walker, a Central Asia analyst at London-based advisory firm Control Risks.

The Aliyev family has dominated Azeri politics for 40 years. Heydar Aliyev, father of the current leader, became president in 1993 after serving as the Kremlin's local Communist Party boss from 1969 to 1982. His son, 49, scrapped a two-term limit in 2009, allowing him to stay in power indefinitely.

Azerbaijan is more corrupt than Tunisia and Egypt, according to Transparency International, which in 2010 ranked the country 134 out of 178 on its global corruption index, compared with Tunisia's 59th place and Egypt's 98th. Since the recent unrest in the Middle East, the government has started a rare anti-corruption campaign, using state-controlled media. Yesterday, Aliyev sacked the head of the prison service and the national water company.

Circumventing Russia

Azerbaijan can pump up to 1.2 million barrels of oil a day to Turkey through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, a project funded in part by western governments to allow Caspian energy supplies to circumvent Russia. The country may also be a key source of natural gas for the European Union-backed planned 7.9 billion-euro ($11 billion) Nabucco pipeline across Turkey.

Eldar Namazov, a political analyst in Baku, said Aliyev appears increasingly unconcerned or distant from the plight of average Azeris, more than 11 percent of whom live below the official poverty line. In September, during a visit by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, state television spent hours showing Aliyev at his new retreat near Baku that resembles the presidential Elysee Palace in Paris. The same state media largely ignored the events in Egypt and Tunisia.

"Like in Egypt and Tunisia, an authoritarian regime is in charge in Azerbaijan," Namazov said. "Corruption is rife. Elections are rigged and young people are jobless. Despite all the pressure, the opposition has survived."

Opposition 'Dreaming'

Ali Hasanov, a presidential aide, declined to comment on whether the events in Egypt and Tunisia have altered the president's governing strategy. Ali Ahmadov, deputy head of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, said in comments reported by the pro-government Azeri-Press Agency that opposition leaders are "dreaming" if they think the events in Egypt and Tunisia can be repeated in Azerbaijan.

Abdullah Gul, president of Azerbaijan's western neighbor Turkey, said after Mubarak resigned Feb. 11 that the entire Islamic world is experiencing an extraordinary awakening.

"Change is being led by the people because the leaders wouldn't do it," Gul said on CNN-Turk television. Mubarak's departure followed that of Tunisia's Zine el Abidine Ben Ali last month.

Iran, Yemen, Bahrain

Demonstrators in Iran, Yemen and Bahrain, inspired by the Egyptian uprising, all clashed with security forces in their respective countries this week. Azerbaijan, carved up by the Russian and Iranian empires in the 1800s, continues to have extensive cultural and commercial ties with both neighbors, particularly Iran, where almost a quarter of the population speaks Azeri. Azerbaijan's relationship with Egypt has been more personal, with Ilham Aliyev erecting a Mubarak statue in Azerbaijan in 2007 after Mubarak erected one of his father.

The Mubarak statue in the northern Baku suburb of Khirdalan was the focus of protesters last week demanding the monument's removal. That campaign by youth activists was one of the first in the country to use social networking strategies similar to those employed by protesters in Egypt and Tunisia.

One of the new breed of activists, a 20-year-old student named Jabbar Savalanli, was arrested after using Facebook to try to organize a "Day of Rage" protest in Baku's main Azadliq Square. He was held on drug charges and faces three years in prison if convicted, said Asabali Mustafayev, a defense lawyer.

"Sweeping changes are inevitable in Azerbaijan, too," said Qambar of the Musavat party. "The Azeri people, society and opposition are prepared to implement these changes."

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