BAKU, Azerbaijan – Oil-rich Azerbaijan is booming and the wealth is trickling down to its poorest people. It all means that its president doesn't even need to clamp down too hard to ensure he extends a decades-long dynastic rule in elections this week.
Ilham Aliyev appears to be so certain of his popularity that his government has magnanimously eased tight restrictions on the opposition and allowed it to freely convene for rallies in the center of the capital — only to see the events draw tepid crowds of a few thousand. Aliyev hasn't even really bothered to campaign for Wednesday's election, confident that the cult of personality that has sprung up around him is sincere.
Aliyev looks and sounds like a Western statesman — sporting immaculately tailored suits and speaking fluent English — but he has in the past shown little tolerance for dissent and extended his rule through elections criticized by Western observers. At the same time, he has firmly allied the Shia Muslim nation with the West, helping secure its energy and security interests and offset Russia's influence in the strategic Caspian region.
That strategy has translated into fabulous wealth.
Under Aliyev, the nation of 9 million has basked in oil riches that have more than tripled its gross domestic product and transformed the once-gritty capital, Baku, into a shining modern city. The State Oil Fund that accumulates oil revenues held $34 billion as of the start of the year.
With his political foes weakened by years of relentless government pressure and bitter infighting, Aliyev is all but certain to roll over the main opposition challenger and eight fringe candidates on Wednesday.
Ali Ahmadov, the executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, said the president doesn't need to campaign because his frequent trips across the country have brought him close to the people. "There is no need for the head of state to engage in propaganda during the election campaign," Ahmadov said.
Aliyev's glamorous wife Mehriban, who sits in parliament and heads a charity, has helped his popularity. "She has drawn the sympathy of many, including some of those who are in opposition," said Elkhan Shahinoglu, an independent political analyst.
Aliyev inherited the presidency from his father, Geidar Aliyev, who had ruled Azerbaijan first as the Communist Party boss and then as a post-Soviet president for the greater part of three decades. The son has presented himself as a guarantor of stability, an image that appeals to many in Azerbaijan, where painful memories are still fresh of the turmoil that accompanied the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
Soon after the elder Aliyev lost his job in a shakeup of the Communist elite launched by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Azerbaijan plunged into an armed conflict with neighboring Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The six-year war left ethnic Armenian forces in control of Nagorno-Karabakh and neighboring areas in Azerbaijan and turned 1 million Azerbaijanis into refugees.
Amid public anger over military defeats, Azerbaijan's first president, Ayaz Mutalibov, stepped down and fled the country in 1992. His successor, Abulfaz Elchibey, was ousted the following year in a rebellion that paved way for Geidar Aliyev's triumphant return to power.
Aliyev senior fully dominated the political scene, and just a few months before his death secured his son's victory in an October 2003 presidential election that drew Western observer criticism over massive violations and triggered violent clashes between protesters and police.
Initially dismissed by critics as a playboy unfit for governing, Ilham Aliyev quickly consolidated his power and stifled dissent. He was re-elected by a landslide in a 2008 vote boycotted by major opposition parties and again criticized by Western observers. He then rammed through a constitutional referendum that scrapped presidential term limits.
International rights groups have accused him of pressuring and harassing government critics. Human Rights Watch said in a report last month that the clampdown on freedom of expression and assembly had intensified in the months preceding the vote. The government, however, loosened the reins ahead of the ballot, withdrawing its long-held ban on rallies in the center of the capital.
While leaving little breathing space for his domestic foes, Aliyev has expanded energy and security ties with the West, becoming an indispensable regional partner for the United States and the European Union.
BP, ExxonMobil and other Western oil giants have invested billions of dollars to tap Azerbaijan's oil riches. An oil pipeline backed by the U.S. and the European Union to pump Azerbaijani crude via Georgia to Turkey, bypassing Russia, went into operation in 2005, a pivotal element in a Western strategy to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian energy resources.
In the future, Azerbaijan would be a necessary conduit for any prospective pipelines under the Caspian to carry energy resources from Central Asian nations to Western markets.
Azerbaijan has further strengthened its relations with the West by contributing troops to the U.S.-led missions in Afghanistan and Iraq and serving as a key supply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Azerbaijan's ties with neighboring Iran, which has a sizable ethnic Azeri community, have grown strained in recent years as Tehran has become vexed by Azerbaijan's growing security cooperation with the United States and Israel. Last year, the Azerbaijani security agency arrested dozens of people allegedly hired by Iran to carry out terrorist attacks against the U.S. and Israeli embassies as well as Western-linked groups and companies.
While Aliyev's foes have compared him to autocratic rulers ousted by the Arab Spring uprisings and warned that he could face a similar fate, experts see few parallels between the former Soviet Union and the developments in the Middle East.
"These are different societies at different levels of development," said Irina Zvyagelskaya, a leading expert with Moscow's Institute of Oriental Studies. "What happened in the Arab world can't serve as a model for the ex-Soviet lands."
The opposition's hopes of challenging Aliyev suffered a humiliating setback when election officials refused to register its original candidate on the grounds that he had dual Russian and Azerbaijani citizenship, something explicitly banned by the constitution.
As windfall oil revenues have filtered down to Azerbaijan's poorest, the opposition has found it hard to assail the government's economic policies, and the main opposition candidate, historian Jamil Hasanli, focused on government corruption and social inequality.
Gyulnara Samedova, a 47-year-old housewife who watched the debates, said nobody in her family was impressed by any of the challengers.
"All we heard were mutual accusations and insults, nothing like a program for the country's development," she said. "We will vote for stability."
Isachenkov reported from Moscow.