Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliev and his Georgian counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze have been in power for the better part of three decades. Both are now sending signals that they wish to transfer power to those from a younger generation. Yet, ensuring a stable transition is proving to be perhaps the most difficult task ever faced by these two survivors from the Soviet era.
At present, Azerbaijan and Georgia are caught in a geopolitical maelstrom, fueled in large part by the struggle for control of Caspian Basin natural resources and export routes. Large regional powers -- Russia, Turkey and Iran - have resorted to bullying the Caucasus countries. At the same time, international powers, including the United States and the European Union, have exerted influence to improve democratic practices and the rule of law.
Exacerbating external interference, domestic political and economic conditions in Azerbaijan and Georgia are marked by corruption, popular discontent, poverty, and widespread population displacement. Large portions of the territories of both countries lie outside of state control.
Under such conditions, the challenges of political succession in the Caucasus are enormous. Incumbents face the conundrum of how to exit the scene while ensuring the survival, if not prosperity of the nation while empowering friends and protecting themselves and their families from prosecution by the next man in power.
Shevardnadze and Aliev have taken somewhat different approaches to the task. Shevardnadze has followed what could be described as a "divide and rule" strategy. While insisting that he will remain in power until his term ends in 2005, Shevardnadze has commenced a search for a successor. His apparent preference would be to slowly relinquish the day-to-day running of the state to a Prime Minister who would become an heir apparent, much as was the case in Russia when Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin.
However, Shevardnadze is keeping the two main factions of his Citizen's Union party jockeying for power. These are the "young reformers" headed by Parliament Speaker Zurab Zhvania, and the Soviet-era stalwarts, led by Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze. Shevardnadze's son Pata works for UNESCO in Paris, and is not part of the succession struggle. While the fight remains within the ruling party, other important players - the armed forces, the security services, the Church, and economic interests - have not been sufficiently consulted. And Shevardnadze has succeeded in keeping outside forces, first of all, Moscow, on the sidelines in Georgia's succession struggles.
In contrast to Shevardnadze, Aliev clearly is aiming for a dynastic-style transition. Nominally, Aliev has left open the possibility of seeking a third term. On August 19, he said he would be a candidate in the 2003 presidential election. Nevertheless, many experts say he is maneuvering to pass power to his son Ilham, Vice President of SOCAR, the national oil company. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
To secure Ilham's succession as president, Aliev needs the support of some key factions, including the powerful Nakhichevani clan, the military, and the blessing of the Baku intellectual elite, which largely sides with the opposition. Complicating Aliev's challenge, outside powers are taking sides in the succession.
The Azeri media has reported that Russia may support Ilham, but this could be an attempt to discredit him in the eyes of Azeri nationalists. Turkey seems to desire a candidate who is jointly supported by the opposition nationalist and democratic parties, including Musavat, the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, and others. However, the likelihood of such a candidate materializing is low, given that the opposition is riven by rivalries.
Both leaders must recognize that politics have changed fundamentally since they launched their successful careers in the security apparatus of the then-Soviet Union. The new generation has to provide leadership within systems that are more interdependent and business-oriented than under Communism. Thus, corporate world lessons can be valuable.
First, Aliev and Shevardnadze would do well to ensure that their successions are public and transparent. The transfer of power must be open to the "shareholders" - the citizens of the two countries, and follow "corporate bylaws" - the state constitutions. Given that recent elections in both countries were roundly criticized as fraudulent, international observers need to be involved in all stages of the free and fair elections, which must be part of the succession. There could be nothing worse for the future of Georgia and Azerbaijan than the emergence of rulers who are perceived as illegitimate by the population and/or the outside world.
Communication with the domestic and foreign audiences is also important. There is a great deal of apprehension and fear concerning the future, as these two leaders transition from the scene. Older generations still remember the mass hysteria and uncertainty associated with Stalin's funeral. No succession was prepared. Any similar scenarios must be avoided.
Succession must be part of taking both countries into the future and selecting new leaders capable of doing the job. Deng Xiaoping of China, Lee Qwan Yu of Singapore, and Boris Yeltsin of Russia managed to formulate their visions of a future, whether we like it or not, and supervise the transition to an "heir." Both of the Caucasus leaders have to formulate goals and clearly describe the tasks of the future leadership in achieving those goals.
In the corporate world, even top leaders cannot make the succession decisions alone. They must consult with boards, experts, senior staff and rank and file. They have to gain the support of those who will vote for the future leader. And they must avoid selecting a clone: new times pose new challenges, for corporations and countries alike. Aliev and Shevardnadze would do well to launch a "listening tour," with the explicit goal of choosing successors while building coalitions to support the future heads of state.
Nine years before his anticipated retirement, Jack Welsh, the highly successful Chairman of General Electric, said, "From now on, choosing my successor is the most important decision I'll make. It occupies a considerable amount of time of thought almost every day." Aliev and Shevardnadze would do well to emulate Welch's example.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. is a Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the author of Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis (Praeger/Greenwood, 1998).