Azerbaijan recently amended its Constitution, further extending the powers of the presidency. Both Russia and the West appear to support these changes, seeing them as a way to guarantee peace and stability in the region.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev casts his ballot at a polling station during a referendum in Baku, Azerbaijan, September 26, 2016. Photo: AP

On Sept. 26, Azerbaijan held a referendum on amendments to the nation’s Constitution, which included twenty-nine different changes intended to strengthen the institution of the presidency. All of them received the support of the voters.

From now on, the President of Azerbaijan will be elected for a term of seven, rather than five, years. The head of the state now has the right to call early elections and dismiss the national parliament, and the age qualification for presidential candidates has been lowered. Moreover, the governing system will now include the posts of First Vice-President and Vice-President, both of them under the President.

So will this “reform” solve problems in this Caspian republic, or aggravate them instead? How important are the changes taking place within Azerbaijan to foreign policy partners such as Russia, the U.S., the European Union, Turkey or Iran?

A brief history of constitutional change in Azerbaijan

The present constitutional reform is the third alteration of the national governing law of post-Soviet Azerbaijan. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the first Constitution of the independent state was adopted during the referendum of November 1995. Then, in August 2002, 39 amendments to it were adopted. They were mainly concerned with Azerbaijan’s joining the European Council and were seen as a step by the official Baku toward democratization.

Two other waves of reforms followed a completely different trend. In 2009, the Constitution was changed so as to considerably expand the prerogatives of the presidential power. The limitation on the number of terms possible for one person was lifted. Thus, every new head of state received the right to be elected for more than two terms in a row.

Another important amendment, which also contributed to the strengthening of the presidential power, was the innovation concerning possible postponement of a presidential election in the event of war. From then on, the President received the authority to postpone the elections of both the head of state and parliament until a time when the confrontation had ended. In view of the unresolved crisis of Nagorno-Karabakh, any breakout of violence on the contact line of the sides provided an opportunity to postpone electoral campaigns. In 2013, Ilham Aliyev was elected President by the new rules.

Three years after that campaign, the Constitution of Azerbaijan underwent another change. The trend of the reforms has been more than obvious, too: they have given the President additional powers. The fall in the price of oil has created challenges in replenishing the budget, meeting social obligations, and ensuring the stability of the national currency. All those socio-economic challenges make it more difficult for Baku to solve Azerbaijan’s main problem — how to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Also read: "Russia searches for pragmatic solutions in the Caucasus"

Against the background of the lack of progress at the negotiations, the prospect of a war-like scenario has become more and more realistic. But the potential for a military solution, limited as it was, is further blocked by the socio-economic complications. As a consequence, there is a danger of public protest sentiment and dissatisfaction with the authorities. Under these conditions, Ilham Aliyev is trying to consolidate his team in power, test the loyalty of the nation’s officialdom, and formally secure freedom of action for himself.

Currently, Aliyev has levers in his hands to postpone elections or stage an early campaign, or pass the power on to a possible successor — including his own son. In 2025, Heydar Aliyev Jr. will reach the age of 28 and will formally be able to claim the highest post in the state. In this scenario, the posts of two vice-presidents will help ensure the support of the possible successor by two political heavyweights who can guarantee the continuity of the political course and stability during the transfer of power.

How do powers like Russia view the changes?

However, the internal processes in this post-Soviet country have not escaped the attention of outside powers. In the case of Azerbaijan, the foreign policy factor is extremely important. And for many years, that factor has worked in favor of Azerbaijan. That republic has occupied a special place in the Caucasus policy of Russia.

Azerbaijan does not tie itself to any of the two extreme positions, represented by Armenia and Georgia. Armenia is Russia’s strategic partner, a member of the CSTO and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). In contrast, Georgia has no diplomatic relations with Russia and regards it as an occupant of two territories (Abkhazia and South Ossetia), strives for integration with NATO and the EU, and takes an active part in the international military operations of the U.S. and its NATO allies.

In turn, Russia sees Baku as an important strategic partner, while Azerbaijan, unlike Georgia, is interested in Russia’s participation in the processes in Transcaucasia, primarily in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis.

For a number of years already, Moscow has regarded Ilham Aliyev as a predictable partner. The Kremlin does not see any real opposition (if opposition is understood as secular forces rather than radical extremists). As they observe the situation in the Middle East, the Russian politicians and diplomats believe that the strengthening of stability and security is much more important than revolutionary transformations. Hence, the support of Baku’s aspirations.

At the same time, since 1994, Azerbaijan has been a priority partner of the West, primarily for its role in global energy markets and as a bulwark against instability in the Caucasus. According to Jeffrey Mankoff, expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “The United States’ major interests and priorities in the South Caucasus remain similar to what they have been for the entire post-Soviet era… preventing regional conflict (e.g. over Nagorno-Karabakh) and other forms of destabilization, promoting geopolitical pluralism, and securing Caspian oil and gas for Europe.”

Recommended: "Why the future of the Russian oil and gas industry is in the Caspian"

The role of Azerbaijan may wax or wane over time, says Mankoff: “Depending on developments in global energy markets in the coming decade or so, the importance of Caspian energy for Europe may wane. The U.S. will still support pipelines through the South Caucasus as a means of ensuring geopolitical pluralism, but energy per se could become less of a priority.”

For that reason, Washington is not as demanding here in terms of democracy and human rights as the American officials usually are when dealing with other countries.

The European Union is a much more awkward partner for Azerbaijan. Representatives of the European governing authorities have given a largely critical assessment of the political process within the country while pointing out numerous violations of democracy and human rights, as well as abuses of power by officials at all levels.

Still, Azerbaijan, just as the allegedly more democratic Georgia and Armenia, has been included in the EU program Eastern Partnership. Moreover, the European Commission, unlike the European Parliament, has traditionally avoided tough confrontation with Baku. Meanwhile, the most consistent European allies of the U.S., primarily Poland, have supported an active role for Baku.

Azerbaijan maintains active relations with its neighbors, Turkey and Iran. As Turkish expert Кerim Has from the International Strategic Research Organization notes, “Politically, Azerbaijan has always been the closest to Turkey among all the post-Soviet republics.”

Unlike those with Ankara, Baku’s relations with Tehran were problematic for a long time. However, in recent years, the neighbors have made quite a few steps toward each other, and the two presidents, Ilham Aliyev and Hassan Rouhani, have established relations of trust. Despite the differences that Ankara and Tehran have over Syria, both states see Azerbaijan as an important, stable, and predictable partner.

Both Turkey and Iran regard the constitutional changes aimed at the strengthening of Ilham Aliyev’s power as useful steps, even if they are far from democratic standards. But, for that matter, neither the Turkish nor the Iranian politicians have ever been in the vanguard of struggle for rights and freedoms.

How these changes are perceived within Azerbaijan

Thus, in September 2016 Azerbaijan made a choice in favor of strengthening the stability and personal power of the current president. The Azerbaijani system of power appeals to various strata of the population. To the pro-Western intellectuals, it is perceived as the “lesser evil,” and an incarnation of the principles of secularism and an active (primarily economic) cooperation with the U.S. and the EU.

Complaints against the authorities, like those concerning the restriction of personal freedoms, are balanced out by the desire to contain the Islamic threat. The rural population is attracted to the paternalistic style of the president. The authorities’ interest in the strengthening of the army (against the background of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict) have converted the country’s armed forces into a trusted ally.

Stability is also an attractive political product for the ordinary citizen in Azerbaijan who, aware of the turbulence in the Middle East (and now also in Turkey, which is connected to Azerbaijan by dozens of various ties), sees the alternative to authoritarianism as chaos rather than democracy. For the same reasons, the constitutional reforms have not caused any considerable protest from the outside powers.

However, this outwardly logical and respectable picture has its flaws. In society, there is dissatisfaction with the authorities, and the complicated socio-economic situation (from the devaluation of the national currency to the situation with the main sector of the economy, the power industry) only strengthens the negative trend, provoking mass protests.

In the absence of well-known and trusted secular leaders, the fear is that radical groups, such as the Jihadists, could use dissatisfaction with the authorities as a way to gain power. Thus far, Azerbaijan has been saved from that prospect, and it appears that the latest changes to the Constitution are meant to further protect the nation from internal instability.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.