While Ilham Aliyev appears to have been rattled by rumours of Russia’s plan to replace him, most observers believe it is just that: rumours.
Since the advent of the New Year, the Azeri press and society have been awash with rumours, reports and analyses about the upcoming Russian instigated regime change in Azerbaijan. According to several political groupings, activists and media organizations, Moscow has decided to topple the regime of Ilham Aliyev during the upcoming presidential “elections” due in October 2013. Without going into the minute details of such rumours, an attempt will be made to dissect the Russian position in Azerbaijan and beyond into Central Asia.
Rumours about Russia’s planned regime change gained momentum after a well-known screenwriter and producer turned anti-regime activist, Rustam Imbragimbekov, stated “there will be a new president and a new government in Azerbaijan after the upcoming elections.” Ibragimbekov’s statement made last month was taken seriously by many in Azerbaijan due to the fact that until recently he was very closely associated with the unelected regime in Baku.
In late 2012, Ibragimbekov travelled to Moscow, where he has lived most of his life, and met several wealthy Azeri businessmen. There, he announced the creation of a new council, which will supposedly begin taking care of the problems Azeri immigrants face in Russia. This announcement was taken up by the Azeri media as a preliminary step in consolidating an elitist opposition against the current regime, even though Aliyev’s relative, Araz Agalarov is one of the members of the so-called new council.
Last month Ibragimbekov an-nounced that several socio-political organizations are creating a political bloc to secure free elections in Azerbaijan. Imbragimbekov announced that he and the organization called the Intelligentsia Forum consisting of various prominent anti-Aliyev scientists, writers and journalists will support this new political bloc.
Apart from petty aspects of the rumour, proponents cite two strategic reasons behind Moscow’s alleged plan for regime change. In December 2012 Russia suspended its use of the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan after disagreements over leasing costs arose. The Gabala radar station was built in 1985 when Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union. After collapse of the USSR, Russia leased the facility from the Aliyev regime. The radar station can detect missiles within a radius of 6,000km and covers most of the Muslim East. It was reported that presence of the Gabala radar station annoyed the US government immensely and Washington often pressured Aliyev to get rid of it. Many analysts believe that by hiking up the lease price, Aliyev “diplomatically” fulfilled Washington’s long desired wish.
Also in December 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that building a Eurasian Union would be Russia’s foreign policy priority. Since becoming president in May 2012, for the third time, Putin has mentioned on numerous occasions his desire to revive cooperation between Russia and the republics of the former Soviet Union and create an economic and political bloc in the region that formed the former USSR.
Analysis of the two so-called strategic reasons behind the alleged Russian plan to topple the Aliyev dynasty from power reveals that the Gabala radar station controversy is not a plausible argument. Russia has many similar radar stations. In November 2011 Moscow installed the newest Russian radar system that protects it from missile attacks and covers all of Europe and the Atlantic in Russia’s westernmost enclave of Kaliningrad.
The hypothetical basis for the second argument appears more plausible. Moscow views the ongoing uprisings in the Muslim East against US-backed dictatorships as an opportunity to return to Central Asia and South Caucasus without facing much resistance from Washington. The Kremlin correctly calculates that the US is not in a position to seriously challenge Russia’s imperial ambitions while it is facing unprecedented strategic challenges in the Muslim East.
It may be that Moscow as well as many others know that the Aliyev regime is bound to collapse, sooner rather than later. Moscow, therefore, wants to initiate a fresh project in Azerbaijan in order to create a positive image of itself in the former republic and beyond, as a force for change. Power brokers in Russia might be calculating, perhaps with some plausibility, that if they foster changes in Azerbaijan and other former Soviet republics, they can create new socio-political and economic elites that will be dependent on and therefore loyal to Moscow. The current regimes in all the Muslim states of the former Soviet Union, except Tajikistan (that is already under Moscow control), have to balance between their loyalty to Moscow and Washington.
The above analysis of a hypothetical Russian plan in Azerbaijan comes with a lot of dangerous baggage for Russia. First, to put it mildly, Russia’s image throughout the former Soviet Union is not particularly positive. Due to historical realities in the region Russia is viewed as a potential aggressor and occupier. From Tajikistan to Ukraine, the nationalist anti-Russian sentiment is strong and this greatly limits Russian power in the former USSR region. It would require only limited effort on the part of an internal or external force to mobilize the public against Russian geo-strategic interests in all the Muslim republics.
Second, any significant change in the ruling apparatus in any of the republics will bring forth independent forces, as the central governing authority will naturally weaken. This will last for at least a year as happens during most dramatic transitions. The socio-political landscape in the Muslim regions will become multipolar. This will lead to the strengthening of the Islamic movement, a prospect Moscow would like to avoid. Today’s Russia is not the same as it was in the 1970s. A phone call from Moscow can no longer order a particular set of actions to bring things in line with Russia’s strategic interests. Those days are gone and Muslims of the former Soviet Union hope that they will never return. At the moment Washington and its allies have significant influence among the current ruling elites that keep most of their looted wealth in Western banks. The West will, therefore, attempt to show some resistance to preserve its limited influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia by backing the current ruling caste. Even though Moscow can overcome Western plots in a sphere of its historic dominance, what unintended consequences this will have is not clear. The only point that is clear is that the shake-up of the current systems will lead to the emergence of grassroots forces.
Third, due to the growing number of Muslim immigrant populations in Russia, any dramatic change in Central Asia and Azerbaijan will play out inside Russia itself. Potential changes in Azerbaijan and Central Asia would be fuelled by ethnic tensions in those countries that would resonate within Russia itself. The uprising in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 showed that any changes in the region will be bloody and accompanied by ethnic tensions.
Taking into account the above factors it is highly unlikely that Moscow would initiate a project of change in any of the former Soviet republics. Moscow’s moves should only be viewed as pressure tactics, nothing more. However, if internally a situation in any Soviet republic gets unstable, Moscow will try to make the most out of it as they did in Kyrgyzstan in 2010.
The Aliyev regime often spreads rumours of planned “revolutions” and “terrorist acts” in order to “survive” them and then use these to show how “strong” the regime is. A new government in Azerbaijan that desires minimum credibility would be forced to deal with the issue of occupied Karabakh, which would mean a weaker Armenia, a historic Russian ally in the Caucasus. Therefore, rumours regarding the planned Russian changes in Azerbaijan are most probably just that, rumours.