Like Father, Like Son?

From a western great gamer's point of view, this week's presidential election in Azerbaijan looks set to yield a happy result. The leading candidate is pro-American, a former boss of Azerbaijan's national oil company, and a friend to oil majors such as BP-Amoco and Exxon, which have invested billions to develop his country's huge reserves. Best of all, in a part of the world where stability is a commodity rarer and more precious than oil, he's the son of the man who's run Azerbaijan for 30 years, Heidar Aliyev, now critically ill in a U.S. hospital. News that Heidar won't be coming home for the election, as the government promised routinely for the past five months, marks a new era. Says a veteran U.S. diplomat in the region--"electing Ilham is the next best thing to keeping his father alive."

Not everyone sees it quite that way, of course. Isa Gambar, head of the Equality Party and Aliyev Junior's main rival, complains that Azerbaijan is heading for a "monarchical system," with power passing from generation to generation within a self-appointed quasi-royal family. But that's the kind of stability outsiders like oil companies, U.S. diplomats and even neighboring Russia seem to prefer. According to one school of thought, it's better to deal with a known quantity than an unpredictable new government drawn from the opposition. "Any business in any country looks for stability," says Roger Nunn of BP-Amoco in Baku.

More surprising, roughly 60 percent of Azeris seem to agree and are ready to vote for 42-year-old Ilham. He may lack his father's charm, has a reputation as a playboy and gambler and was appointed prime minister just two months ago. But why should that disqualify a head of state in a part of the world long known for cronyism and outright banditry? "We know they're corrupt," says Elvira Turanova, 34, a publisher from Baku, who nevertheless plans to vote for Ilham. "The Aliyevs and their cronies have stolen all they need. If the opposition comes to power they will bring more hungry snouts to the trough." Ilham Aliyev, for his part, insists that it's his oppponents, not him, who are corrupt.

That's hardly a ringing endorsement of Azeri democracy, but so be it. A similar sense of resignation is found elsewhere among voters across the former Soviet Empire. More and more, "democracy" is becoming a choice between local strongmen or a chaotic, weak and unelectable opposition. In Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, human-rights groups chronicle a depressing litany of harassment of opposition politicians and crackdowns on independent media. In Azerbaijan, which has a livelier free press and political opposition than many former Soviet republics, a delegation of election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe last week nonetheless slammed the current campaign for incidents of intimidation and corruption. Two of the strongest leading candidates were disqualified on technical grounds, and opposition election rallies have been broken up by police. Ilham himself is on the record as saying that "we will not allow the opposition to win." State television, as well as most private channels, slavishly report the doings of Aliyev--while the opposition gets a regulation 10 minutes a week on air.

But while he shares his father's name, policies and advisers, Ilham Aliyev may not deliver on the stability that voters expect. He lacks the legendary charisma and guile that kept Heidar Aliyev at the top of Azeri politics for more than three decades. That could be dangerous if protests break out in the wake of the election, as many opposition candidates have predicted.

Ex-presidential aide Eldar Namazov, one of the disqualified presidential candidates, claims that Ilham is just a puppet of his fathers' advisers, commanding little respect even from his closest associates. When Ilham received an award at the Russian Embassy last week, both presidential chief of staff Ramiz Mekhtiev and Deputy Prime Minister Artur Rasizade didn't bother to stick around to hear his acceptance speech--something they wouldn't dare do in front of his father. "The old regime has to have a new figurehead in order to continue its business dealings uninterrupted," says political analyst Ilter Gazmanov, a former parliamentarian. "The problem is that Ilham is not his father. He has inherited the crown, but it is too big for him." The ostensibly safe option could turn out to be more dangerous than many think.