Constitutional Changes in Azerbaijan. Vox Populi, Vox Caesaris

Photo: http://www.gettyimages.com/
Photo: http://www.gettyimages.com/

The Constitution of Azerbaijan which was adopted in 1995 has been amended 3 times (2003, 2009, 2016) during the last 13 years. Each new package of reform has brought such provisions, which do not limit state authority, but they extend it. According to referendum the 2009 referendum’s “amendment” on the elimination of two-term limit on presidency was not considered as sufficient by Ilham Aliyev, and he decided to amend it once more, prolonging the president’s term of office  up to 7 years. The evolution of one provision already assumes that the country is inclined to become authoritarian.

Theoretically referenda are worked out in order the citizens have an opportunity to make direct decisions on state policy. But in fact the referenda are controversial in a sense that when, how, why and by who they are implemented. Within the given analysis we will try to answer to these questions viewing the recent referendum held in Azerbaijan from different perspectives.

Influence of Identity Formation on Political Control

The behavior and actions of each nation are largely conditioned by how it imagines its identity. As identity is formed as a result of social experience, some methods of its manifestation are necessary. Jacobson believes that “identity is manifested through dialogue and it is a combination of political aspirations and decisions”. It is respect for its own historical past and the desire[i] of the nation to find its place in the modern world. Azerbaijani identity has been established during the battle against the hostile nation, which they feel towards Baku’s Armenian bourgeois, as the huge part of Baku’s oil industry was vested in the latter’s hands. The Armenian-Tatar battles also have their impact on the development of the Muslim social movement. Till that, relatively neutral Muslim masses, which later will form clan system, began to unite against the nations which have centuries- old identity (Armenians, Georgians, Iranians, Russians). Mammad Rasulzadeh, the leader of “Musavat” movement became the leader of a new state. Through democratic component Tatars expressed their aim in the name of Republic to make Azerbaijan the first Muslim democratic state in the East, which was inapplicable in case of newly formed Azerbaijan as it was not formed completely and did not clarify its governmental regime.

Besides, Tatars inclined to idolize their leaders, while the idolized leaders and democratic state are controversial phenomena.

Not managing to form completely its identity Azerbaijan became Soviet. The state which did not have democratic values absorbed the communist dictatorship model. The latter was managed with local clan ties, which united around Heydar Aliyev who was generated from lower sectors of Azerbaijani society. He had a good understanding on real moods and peculiarities of his society, so he clearly comprehended the impact and power of the clan society. Being the secretary general of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (1969- 1982) Aliyev united those clans and strengthened his power in the country.

The collapse of the Soviet Union as in the other countries of USSR, in Azerbaijan as well, lead to serious shocks. On March 17, 1991, pan-union referendum was hold in the Soviet Union, on the issue of preserving the USSR as a renewed federation of  equal sovereign republics. Azerbaijan supported the referendum with a majority of votes i.e. 93%. A few months later, on December 29, 99.58%[ii] of the populations said “yes” to the referendum of independence. This speaks about the country’s incompetent nation, which seeing the collapse of the empire, makes a decision, which dictated the country’s elite.

After independence political crisis broke out in Azerbaijan. In spite of the given promises neither Ayaz Mutallibov, the first president of newly independent republic, nor his follower Abulfaz Elchibbey could not take the country out of chaotic situation. Because of the failure of the Azerbaijani army in the front which followed each other, they lost as the trust of the nation, as well as of the clan elite which has never ever become a pillar for them. During their governance Azerbaijanis did not find “leader- God”.

The current situation has similarities with the pre-Soviet period of Azerbaijan. In both cases dictatorial regime brought political stability to the country. In 1920 it was followed by the approval of Soviet regime, and in 1993 holding the post of the country’s president by Heydar Aliyev. As we have already said, being familiar with the country’s system and being guided by the experience of the past, H. Aliyev could unite the representatives of the clan elite quite quickly, and the mechanism of repression against the dissidents established stability in the country. It is worth mentioning that the repression mechanism ensures stability in the country only if it is done by a strong and powerful leader.

Azerbaijan’s development was accompanied by special socio-economic preconditions of oriental despotism.  All the appointments in post-Soviet Azerbaijan were done by the president Heydar Aliyev. The tradition of transferring the position of the president to his son was affirmed by him. In order to facilitate the transfer of the power Heydar Aliyev held a referendum of constitutional reforms in 2002. It envisaged that the president’s authority would pass to the Prime Minister if the president resigns or is unable to fulfill his duties. In 2003 Prime Minister Artur Rasizade resigned, Ilham Aliyev was appointed Prime Minister, and when he was elected president in the same year, Rasizade was re-appointed as Prime Minister.

In fact, during H. Aliyev’s reign, final formation process of the country’s identity began. It is a pyramid on the top of which is the President of the state with the image of the idolized leader, below is the clan elite united with mutual connections, and the people at the very bottom. Jacobson’s dialogue takes place only at the top of the pyramid, and their decisions are vertically imposed or are often simply informed to citizens. Those decisions are constantly mixed with Pan-Turkic ideas, with the national aspirations of winning the war at any cost, destroying Armenians and thus finding their place in the world. All the opposing elements are thrown out and isolated from the pyramid. Taking into consideration Azerbaijan’s social experience and historical past, at present, this model is applicable to this country, since any deviation in the pyramid (especially the upper parts) leads to a chaotic situation and collapse of the system. That is why father in the past, and today Ilham Aliyev try to legitimize and strengthen this pyramid through referendums.

Towards Aliyev’s presidential dynasty

Referenda are oftenpopular among  autoritarian or authoritarian-minded leaders. Leaders  can manipulate a referendum if they have the opportunity  to decide whether  or not the vote is called, its subject, its wording, the timing of the vote, and the chance to interpret the results. Thus the ultimate vox populi becomes vox caesaris[iii].

Օn September 26 as a result of a referendum held in Azerbaijan, with the majority of the votes i.e. 91.2% the package of Constitutional changes presented by the President Aliyev was adopted.

Most of the characteristic features of authoritarianism, such as the centralization of authority in the hands of the dictator or in the ruling group, alienation of the people from the government, the hindrance of the activities of the real political opposition, the freedom of press and restriction of human rights, are mostly manifested in the provisions of the reforms. Thus:

  • The president has the right to hold early presidential elections and to dissolve the parliament, provided the legislative bodies pass no-confidence to the government twice a year or rejects the presidential nominees to the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court or the board of the Central Bank. .
  • Taking into account the protection of “public order and morality”, the right to “free assembly” is restricted, which gives an opportunity to the state to prohibit any type of assemblies.
  • According to the points of the Article 32 providing and publishing information about the third person was interdicted. At first sight these tenets guaranteeing the security of ordinary citizens can be used by the authorities in order to bring accusation and raise a claim against journalists undesirable for them.
  • According to another amendment, officials have an opportunity to confiscate private lands for the purpose of “social justice and effective use of land”.

The most notable change of the September referendum, however, is the creation of the first vice president and vice president positions appointed by the president which will not be ratified by the parliament. The first vice president becomes the second person of the state and in case of the president’s resignation or failure in fulfilling his duties the president’s authority will be transferred to him, not to the Prime Minister. Analysts unanimously insist that the president aims to appoint his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva or his son, Heydar Aliyev, in the first Vice President’s position. By agreeing to this prevailing viewpoint, let’s try to develop our perceptions about Aliyev’s scenario. The first candidate for the post of first vice president will be the son, Heydar Aliyev, who is named after his grandfather. The current prime minister, 81-year-old Arthur Rasizade, will not be able to serve long, Mehriban Aliyeva will be appointed instead of him, becoming a support for his son in the government. Other constitutional changes also aim at strengthening the position of the son when he holds the office. It will be difficult for Aliyev junior who is inexperienced and used to a rich life to rule the country, so I. Aliyev wants to oppress the opposition and dissent in the country. Besides, prolonging the president’s authority up to seven years, he tries to exclude the appearance of an opposition candidate. If Ilham Aliyev continues presiding country for another seven years, and eliminates the opposition in the country, there will be no possibility for another presidential candidate, and the transfer of the post to his son will become easier.

The strengthening of his son’s authority also comes from the interests of the clan elite, as in the case of Aliyev junior’s failure, the first target of opposition will be the elite. What refers to the age limit reduced to 18 years for MP candidates, it can be assumed that the intention is to hold positions in parliament by younger inheritors of the elite in order the presidential control over them become easier.

For Ilham Aliyev the referendum is a tool through which the state turns into a presidential dictatorship. Using the people’s vox populi, he legitimizes his vox caesaris and manipulates it to achieve his main goal i.e. to provide the heritage of the Alievs dynasty. In current situation the clan elite of the country supports him, which we will refer to later.

Clan Elite and Referendum

According to a number of political scientists the use of referendum is not derived by the desire of the society but the “political entrepreneurs”, who for the sake of their personal interest use wide spread support of society to direct democracy[iv].

In Azerbaijan, the clan system substitutes political entrepreneurs. Let’s introduce some of the “entrepreneurs”. Like  Prime Minister Rasizadem Interior Minister Ramil Usubov has been in office for over 20 years. Ramiz Mehdiyev, the head of the presidential administration, controls the inner policy, in particular is responsibe for the security and law enforcement agencies. Mehdijev, the leading ideologist of anty-western positions is the spine of the system and his mission is to protect it. In 2004 other representatives of elite became rich after the oil boom. Different clans, guided by their business interests, began to control the economy, and in the broader sense, the country as well. Aliyev himself is also linked to one of the most prominent clan, Pashayev family, the most striking representative of which is Mehriban Aliyeva. Pasha Holdings owns hotels, Alpine skiing resorts, banks, insurance, travel and construction companies. The family is also connected to other entrepreneurship companies in particular with Silkway Holding and Azersun[v]. Several other influential individuals also have entrepreneurial networks, including the Minister of Emergency Situations Kemaladdin Heydarov, who owns Gilan Holding company, Transport Minister Ziya Mammadov has a number of transport and shipping companies and Garant Holding, Tax Minister Fazil Mammadov-AtaHolding and etc.

In fact, the Azerbaijani elite has a strong political and economic potential. Walker notes that the referendums are part of a bargaining process between elites who have their basiss of power in different  institutional settings . Although the term “elite” is not applicable for the Azerbaijan’s clan elite in classical sense, the principle of making referendum serve as a tool coincides with the policy of system created by them.

Supporting the referendum of Constitutional reforms by the clan elite has the following motives.

  1. Economic: In recent years the fall of global oil prices and in 2015 the devaluation of Manat in the first decade of 21 century put Azerbaijan having high economic indices against social-economic crisis. 9 Azerbaijani banks were closed, the prices of real estate were fallen. As a result, once implacable positions of the clan elite of the country with oil-producing economy weakened. Moreover, in 2016, in January, there were demonstrations across the country, which were conditioned by the rise in food prices and the lack of jobs.
  2. Geopolitics: It is mainly about the Artsakh conflict, as it is the heart of any geopolitical problem in Azerbaijan, be it the security of regional energetic communications, establishing relationship with Iran and Russia, economic policy with the US ands EU, creation of Pan-Turkic bridge, or implementing the project of trans-Anatolia pipeline. The Artsakh conflict as a tool of political control is used by the elite, when they want to unite the society to solve a problem. It is worth mentioning that the president introduced the project of holding referendum on June, a few months after April four-day war.
  3. Inter-political: economic failures, unsolved conflict of generations often brings complaints and escalation of nationalist sentiment in the country, thus the regime is concerned that extremist Islamic groups will be activated, which will claim for the change of authority in the country. The representatives of both Shia and Sunni of radical Islam direct their anger to the corrupt elite.[vi]

Due to the slogan to save democracy the same elite brings forward the idea of holding referendum, in reality using it to bridge his authority and power. The referendum of  amending the Constitution serves as a tool for them, in order to manipulate public consciousness, offering a plan of economic modernity and of diversification on the one hand, and terrorize with the repetition of 90s chaotic situation of Karabakh war on the other hand.

The End of the Pyramid

The frequent changes in Constitution speak about inter-political instability, and in order to regulate it a referendum is being held, while it cannot completely eliminate deep instability. It seems Aliyev tried to make the future vision of Azerbaijan certain by means of referendum, paving comfortable way to his son. Strengthening the pressure on the lowest part of the pyramid Aliyev ensured stability in the country, only with superficial and with short-term perspective. At the same time the responsibility of keeping the stability became greater, which will be left on Heydar II shoulders.They say he would not be able to implement this mission with several reasons. First of all he does not have the same reputation and power as his father or moreover his grandfather. Second, the same image of idealized leader will be lost, as freethinker independent generation will not take young Heydar into granted as such. Though dictatorship will be strengthened, however, at the same time as a result of long and strong pressure controversial power will arise in the lowest part of the pyramid, particularly radical Islam, which could burst unexpectedly in case of weakening of the upper part. As a result Heydar II will destroy the pyramid, which Heydar I has been building so far.


  1. Конституция Азербайджанской Республики, http://www.legalacts.az/ru/document/271
  2. М. Волхонский, В. Муханов, По следам Азербайджанской Демократической Республики, 2007
  3. Торжество демократии или шаг к авторитаризму: Азербайджан переписывает Конституцию, https://eadaily.com/ru/news/2016/07/21/torzhestvo-demokratii-ili-shag-k-avtoritarizmu-azerbaydzhan-perepisyvaet-konstituciyu
  4. Thomas De Wall, Azerbaijan at Twenty-Five: A New Era of Change and Turbulence, http://carnegieeurope.eu/publications/?fa=64671
  5. Mark Clarence Walker, The Strategic Use of Referendums, 2003,
  6. Yaniv Roznai, Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendments: A Study of the Nature and Limits of Constitutional Amendment powers, London, 2014, http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/915/1/Roznai_Unconstitutional-constitutional-amendments.pdf
  7. freedomhouse.org
  8. opendemocracy.net
  9. rferl.org – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

[i] Yaniv Roznai, Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendments: A Study of the Nature and Limits of Constitutional Amendment powers, London, 2014; p. 125

[ii] The referenda of the Central Asia’s republics have also shown similar results.

[iii] Mark Clarence Walker, The Strategic Use of Referendums, 2003, p. 117

[iv] Ibid, pg. 6

[v] http://carnegieeurope.eu/publications/?fa=64671

[vi] The number of Azerbaijani fighting against Islamic country is not clear, but with approximate accounting it reaches 800. The fact, that in 2012 many radicals were allowed to leave the country to take part in Syria conflict in order the government to get rid of them easily. http://carnegieeurope.eu/publications/?fa=64671


Author: Armine Muradyan © All rights are reserved.

Translator: Lusine Barkhoyan.


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