By Azer Kerimov (07/11/2007 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Last week, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev sacked the long-serving chief of Baku police department Maharram Aliyev (no relation to the President) in an attempt to further distance himself from his father’s old guard. Maharram Aliyev headed the influential central police department of the capital city since early 1990s, as a favor given him for the political support he provided to then President Heydar Aliyev. He belongs to the so-called “Western Azerbaijanis” group, commonly referred to Azerbaijanis who were deported from Armenia throughout the twentieth century. He possessed significant influence not only in the law enforcement field but in the general political landscape of the country.

The firing of Maharram Aliyev, who according to the News site submitted his own resignation letter – a usual procedure to avoid public embarrassment – has two significant implications. Foremost, Maharram Aliyev is a close relative of former Minister of Health Ali Insanov. Insanov, another prominent political figure, is the rumored head of the “Western Azerbaijanis” clan, and is serving a prison term as a result of a court verdict passed two months ago. Insanov was accused of a coup attempt in the wake of the Parliamentary elections in November 2005, yet the real reason for his arrest remains a subject of debate – some allege it was his split and disagreements with President Aliyev.

The departure of Maharram Aliyev from such a crucial post means that the political leadership of the country has decided to replace him with a more trustworthy person prior the Presidential elections of 2008. The loyalty of the Baku police chief is always a crucial factor in a post-election situation, as many disturbances and clashes with police have taken place after past elections. Keeping Maharram Aliyev in this position was no longer viable for the interests of the central authorities.

Secondly, Maharram Aliyev was engaged in a long-standing feud with the Minister of Internal Affairs Ramil Usubov. Their battle was so fierce and ugly that often it spilled over into the newspapers and caught the public’s attention, thus causing much damage not only to the reputation of the police, but also to the image of unity of the central authorities. Specifically, the relations between the two officials worsened after the arrest of Haji Mammadov, a head of department in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, who was accused and found guilty of murder and the kidnapping of businessmen and public officials. Maharram Aliyev blamed the Minister himself for patronizing this gangster group and concealing information about their misdoings from the President.

Later on, Maharram Aliyev went on to say that his life was in danger and that high officials in the Ministry planned to kill him. Minister Usubov fought back with all means he could, accusing the Baku police department of patronizing brothels and other illegal operations.

The sacking of Maharram Aliyev will certainly put an end to this ugly dispute, which significantly harmed the public image of the authorities. It could also open up new opportunities for the departure of Minister Usubov himself, who is publicly perceived as a corrupt and outdated minister. President Aliyev has seemed to be seeking to remove Minister Usubov for a long time, but has been thought to be looking for the right moment to do so.

It is clear that this cadre change is another step in the gradual process of replacing old cadres with new ones, and securing more loyal persons to President Aliyev in the political hierarchy of Azerbaijan. Although many expected President Aliyev to replace the old guard with his loyalists overnight after being elected President, such a traditional western-style change of government officials appeared too risky, considering the complexities of the political situation in the country and the informal power wielded by the old guard. Therefore, President Aliyev chose a more gradual approach to the issue, replacing ministers and other key officials at a slower pace.

In the aftermath of Maharram Aliyev’s departure, a very important question is who will replace him. The position is still vacant, and the authorities seem to be looking for a very loyal person, who will guarantee the stability in the capital city during the election period. As for Maharram Aliyev himself, the former police boss indicated a desire to stay in politics and be loyal to the President. “I will serve in any position which the President will suggest,” he said upon his resignation.