The Azerbaijan presidential election slated for 9 October has already attracted an unusually large amount of attention. Incumbent President Ilham Aliyev enjoys the result of a 2009 referendum that freed him from the previously established limit of a maximum of a two-term presidency and provided him with the constitutional right to carry on in office if re-elected. The opposition coalition nominated a single candidate to stand against him, Rustam Ibrahimbeyov, a 74-year-old screenwriter, dramatist and producer who is quite popular in the post-Soviet space. In order to run in the election, Ibrahimbeyov decided to strip himself of his second, Russian, citizenship, however, the completion of this involves a lengthy process of de-naturalization and requires the signature of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This very factor is a lever through which Russia can exert pressure on its Caucasian neighbor.
In the event of winning the presidential election, Ibrahimbeyov intends to overhaul the political system of Azerbaijan. According to the program drawn up by the opposition, the screenwriter's "transitional" presidency would continue for only two months. His program envisages the drafting of a new constitution with the president's powers curbed and those of parliament enhanced. The nomination of Ibrahimbeyov will not likely influence the outcome of the election much in which the 51-year-old Aliyev will most likely cement victory in the very first round. Ibrahimbeyov himself has refrained from arriving in Azerbaijan for fear of being arrested in Baku. When the screenwriter was nominated as a presidential candidate, criminal proceedings were almost simultaneously instituted against him for alleged tax evasion during his tenure as the chairman of the Cinematographers' Union of Azerbaijan.A "political neophyte," as he calls himself, Rustam Ibrahimbeyov has had mixed relations with both Heidar and Ilham Aliyevs. A video released via YouTube in December 2012, features Ilham Aliyev, with a glass of vodka, making a toast to him as a person who "sees more and better, than we." The screenwriter's first appearance in the political arena was in 2008, when he published a vast article criticizing the parliament, government and intellectuals of Azerbaijan. In 2009, the Azerbaijani media obstructed him, blaming him for inviting members of the Armenian nationalist party Dashnaktsutyun to one of his film festivals. In 2011, Ibrahimbeyov established the Intelligentsia Forum uniting writers, scientists, composers and human rights defenders. This move prompted another attack from the pro-government media which questioned everything from Ibrahimbeyov's patriotism to his mental state.
Ibrahimbeyov is supported by a powerful circle of friends in Moscow, a diaspora of Azerbaijanis known as the "billionaires' union." This group is comprised of the richest Russia-based Azerbaijanis, including one of the richest people in Russia and president of oil giant LUKoil, Vagit Alekperov; property mogul Araz Agalarov, who is among the top 100 richest persons according to the Russian Forbes index; and billionaires Iskander Khalilov and Temlan Ismailov. In forming this organization, its founders renounced their membership of the All-Russia Azeri Congress, an organization loyal to Aliyev's regime. A short while ago, a member of the billionaires' union and the former vice prime minister, Abas Abasov, harshly criticized the government of Azerbaijan.
The establishment of the billionaires' union caused an uproar amongst the Azerbaijani media and various experts. According to the internet edition, haqqin.az, the wave of critical publications about relations between Russia and Azerbaijan in that period were sanctioned by Aliyev's administration. In June, Azerbaijani journalists intensified discussions about Russia's imperialistic intentions, after Russia hosted a conference, which in their assessment smacked of separatism, discussing the rights of the Lezgian and Avar peoples as well as the issue of granting dual citizenship to ethnic Dagestanis living in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan saw a link between this conference and a visit of the Russian ambassador to compact Avar and Lezgian settlements, which took place shortly before the conference. Over the same period, reports were released about the Lezgian National Movement, Sadval (Unity), being restored in Russia – something which Baku viewed as a result of the activity of Russian special services.
Azerbaijani public officials and analysts reckon that Russia is attempting to influence Baku with these moves. Government-controlled media outlets claim that the aim of the billionaires' union is to undermine President Aliyev's administration. According 1news.az, only the Kremlin could have been capable of bringing so many Russia-based Azerbaijani businessmen into one organization. A public opinion poll conducted by the Azerbaijani research center Atlas shows that 63 percent of respondents describe the billionaires' union as a Kremlin tool for pressurizing Azerbaijan. In a speech made on 2 July, President Ilham Aliyev hinted that the opposition "is constantly looking at the big brother."
The most straightforward statement about Russia's involvement in the Azerbaijani opposition was made by the President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili. On 28 February, having returned from a visit to Baku, Saakashvili told reporters that Russia was drawing up the same scenario for Azerbaijan as Moscow used against Georgia in the October 2012 parliamentary elections: "by applying money, oligarchs, Russian capital, blackmail and various provocations." The insufficient official reaction to this statement from Azerbaijan gave rise to doubts that Aliyev, with the help of Saakashvili, sent out the necessary message.
Before Saakashvili's statement, Rustam Ibrahimbeyov, in an interview given to the Turan Information Agency, tried to dispel doubts concerning a replication of the "Georgian scenario" in Baku. According to Ibrahimbeyov, the billionaires' union did not include anyone who might become the "Ivanishvili of Azerbaijan."
Speculation about a possible Georgian scenario continues in the Azerbaijani media too. In early August, happin.az released information about a plot being prepared against Ilham Aliyev, according to which, the Kremlin was planning to use "a method tested in neighboring Georgia" in order to bring its billionaire to power. It was declared that Vyacheslav Volodin, the first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration of Russia, was behind this plan. At the end of the day, the plan of the plotters was thwarted by Vladimir Putin giving his support to Ilham Aliyev, something which, in one journalist's view, was demonstrated by Putin's recent visit to Azerbaijan.The emergence of the billionaires' union in September 2012 was in line with the general context of tense relations existing between Azerbaijan and Russia. Aliyev declared that Baku was not interested in joining the Eurasian Union. Aliyev was the only leader in the Commonwealth of Independent States who had not held an official meeting with Putin after the latter was elected for a third time. In December 2012, Russia stopped using the Gabala Radar Station in Azerbaijan after Baku significantly increased the fee for its use (from seven to 300 million USD) and, in so doing, gave up its military presence in Azerbaijan. Furthermore, in May 2013, the transit of Azerbaijani oil to Russia via the Baku-Novorossiysk pipeline was halted with non-profitability being quoted as the reason.
Against the backdrop of generally deteriorated relations, Putin's visit to Baku on 13 August came as a surprise for many observers. The Russian President's delegation included Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Energy Minister Alexander Novak as well as the heads of two of Russia's oil giants Rosneft and LUKoil, Igor Sechin and Vagit Alekperov. The Baku-based Atlas Research Center's director, Elhan Şahinoğlu, reckons that, considering the unexpectedness of the visit, in order to secure support in the elections, Baku might have had no other choice but to get in touch with Putin, because the participation of Ibrahimbeyov depends on Putin's will. According to Şahinoğlu, Vladimir Putin could protract any decision on the dual citizenship of the screenwriter, thereby enabling Aliyev to calmly win.
The central event during Putin's visit was the framework agreement made between the head of Rosneft, Igor Sechin, and the chief executive officer of the Azerbaijani state oil company, SOCAR, Rovnag Abdullayev. The parties agreed on the exploration and development of oil and gas fields in Azerbaijan, Russia and third party countries. According to Thomas de Waal, a commentator of the Carnegie Endowment, Rosneft was trying to gain hold of part of the Absheron gas field and the Russian side must have been disappointed by only reaching a verbal agreement.
Russia became more concerned about strengthening its position in supplying natural gas to Europe after the December 2011 signing of a memorandum between Azerbaijan and Turkey envisaged the construction of the Trans Anatolian Gas Pipeline (TANAP). Deepening its relations with Azerbaijan in the energy sphere and seeking new levers of influence have increased in importance for Russia.
The head of Rosneft and a leading figure amongst the Kremlin's hawks, Igor Sechin, also visited Azerbaijan in July. One topic of negotiations occurring with Azerbaijani oil business representatives during that visit was Russia's participation in a consortium which will operate the Shah Deniz gas field phase II. Over the same period, the Shah Deniz gas field operators opted against participation in the Nabucco West pipeline project, which would carry gas to Europe, and instead decided to participate in the rival Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP). According to the Russian news agency, Lenta.ru, during Igor Sechin's visit the Russian side persuaded Baku to refuse the EU-backed Nabucco West project. By choosing the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, Azerbaijan avoided additional problems with Russia, whose South Stream project was designed with the aim of competing with Nabucco.
The October presidential elections in Azerbaijan will probably be a mere fiction. The Kremlin prefers to do business with Ilham Aliyev, the leader of a regime similar to that of the Kremlin itself.