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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Time for a Change, Not a Revolution

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All but invisible to the wider world, a crisis is developing within Azerbaijan that could threaten regional stability and the future development of Caspian basin oil and gas.

Though largely self-created, by a combination of endemic corruption and institutional underdevelopment, the emerging calamity is being greatly aided by opportunistic measures by others, including Russia, the United States and especially Iran.

In many ways, this is developing into a 21st-century version of the Great Game -- that epochal struggle between the British and Russian empires, which dominated the lives of all sorts of tiny Eurasian countries throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th century.

But Azerbaijan is not Afghanistan, which has had the misfortune of historically always having been someone else's buffer state or strategic beachhead.

Azerbaijan is a prize in its own right. It can claim one-fifth of the oil and gas of the Caspian Basin, one of the world's last great pools of hydrocarbon wealth. Led by BP, the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline has just opened, creating a new gateway to world markets for Azeri oil. With gross national product growth increasing at about 11 percent annually, this should be the most economically successful of the former Soviet states. Should be, and in some ways is -- but not in nearly enough ways to make Azerbaijan the happy and stable place it ought to be.

Instead, it is a place that is starting to come unglued. Run until recently by an authoritarian, but politically astute, former KGB general named Heidar Aliyev, Azerbaijan is now run by a fractious group of his ministers, ruling in the name of Heidar's son, Ilham.

Ilham Aliyev is an intelligent, quite well-educated man of 44 whose instincts do not appear to run to strong-arm tactics or dictatorship. But he is surrounded by ministers and minders for whom there is much to lose in the event of a regime change. Billions of dollars, in fact.

This is because Azerbaijan, under the elder Aliyev, functioned as a giant franchising operation, with nearly all aspects of Azeri national life hived off as vertically integrated businesses. If you want to pass a university exam, you pay the instructor $50, a large part of which he pays to his supervisor, who then pays part to his superior, and so on all the way to the top. To be named police chief in a medium-sized town costs about $10,000, most of which winds up with whoever's signature is required for such an appointment.

This was a relatively stable and predictable situation under Heidar Aliyev, because he was imaginative enough to control its excesses and tough enough to be able to do so.

There is room to doubt that Ilham Aliyev has that kind of authority. He has in fact replaced few of his father's lieutenants and has remarkably few allies of his own in government from his own generation or cohort. Increasingly, he appears to be more dependent on his father's aging cronies than they are on him.

Apart from the personalities at the top, the world around them has changed utterly. Part of the change occurred in the streets of Tbilisi, in neighboring Georgia, where just a month before Heidar Aliyev's death in 2003, the Rose Revolution replaced another former KGB chieftain's regime.

Understandably, a lot of people have been sticking colored pins in their wall maps of the former Soviet Union ever since, trying to guess in which state the next so-called color revolution might happen: Tbilisi, Kiev, Bishkek -- and now Baku? With parliamentary elections set for Nov. 6, the Azeri opposition parties are playing up that trend for all it is worth. But many of the opposition leaders in Azerbaijan are every bit as corrupt and as much a part of the old guard as the men they wish to replace. Many were involved in an ill-fated 1992-93 government, almost universally condemned for chaos, corruption and incompetence.

But the color revolutions have had an important influence, if not domestically then externally.

For one thing, they have made it more difficult for Russia, still the leading power in the region, and the United States, the remaining world superpower, to collaborate, even when it is practical to do so.

The United States now faces a dilemma in dealing with the former Soviet states with which it is friendly, including Azerbaijan. For commercial and geopolitical reasons, Washington would obviously prefer stability over chaos. But it can also no longer afford to be seen to be propping up an unreformable kleptocracy.

Meanwhile, Moscow also would prefer stability instead of another revolution in its own backyard.

For both, there are other complications. Iran, along the southern Azeri border, is chief among them. There are 20 million to 25 million ethnic Azeris in Iran, and the dominant religion in both nations is Shiite Islam. Fundamentalism has started to surface in Azerbaijan's border areas, and there are reports that some theological schools across the country are leaning toward Iranian-style militancy. In an otherwise secular state, these are disturbing developments.

This must be disturbing Washington too. Rumors abound that it is looking to redeploy military contingents from Uzbekistan, which has asked the U.S. Army to vacate a military base there, to Azerbaijan, including to one site close to the Iranian border.

Rumors also abound that Russia is redeploying troops formerly based in Georgia to regions of Armenia that border Azerbaijan. Apart from the historic enmity between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, such movements could redraw the military map of the entire region.

But is a U.S.-Russian rivalry in the area inevitable? The truth is that Moscow and Washington have more interests in common than they have in conflict, particularly with respect to Iran, which is a source of even bigger worry to Russia than to the United States.

Intriguingly, in recent weeks, some members of the Russian media have been playing up the disruptive influences in Azerbaijan of Wahhabi militants. But Wahhabism is used as a catch-all term for all forms of radical Islam, whether Sunni or Shiite.

There may well be some Wahhabi activists in Azerbaijan, especially in the north, where Chechen and Dagestani refugees have settled. But the real fundamentalist threat is overwhelmingly from the south, from Iran. The Kremlin certainly knows this, but, for complex and remarkably narrow commercial reasons -- the sale of nuclear reactor technology -- it cannot bring itself to say so publicly.

And that, almost literally, is what is keeping Russia and the United States from collaborating in Azerbaijan. In nearly all other matters of consequence, their interests in Azerbaijan coincide: stability, moderate reform, and even curbing corruption -- since even Russian companies like LUKoil must be finding the spiraling cost of graft hard to manage.

There does not need to be a color revolution in Azerbaijan. There does need to be fundamental change, bringing new young modernizers into power and giving the rising middle class its say in the country's future.

But with Moscow eyeing the Americans with suspicion, and Washington unable to rely on the Russians while facing Iran, Azerbaijan appears headed unstoppably toward a less-than-promising future.

Ednan Agayev, an Azeri-born former senior Russian diplomat and executive vice president of the Russian-American Business Council, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.