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New Generation at the Fore as Azerbaijan Heads to Polls

Azerbaijan is witnessing a quiet revolution – one that involves no upheavals or violence – but a revolution nonetheless. Unlike its troubled neighbourhood, Azerbaijan stands out for bringing in a generational change with minimum fuss, a key development that is expected to be cemented at the country’s parliamentary election on Sunday.

The snap parliamentary poll on February 9th is part of President Ilham Aliyev’s reform programme, in support of the young western-educated administrators appointed by him to accelerate reforms. The last year has seen dizzying changes in the government, with new faces trained at prestigious western universities, such as Harvard, Oxford and the Sorbonne, appointed to key positions in the government.

Aliyev has promoted this new generation of young politicians to help run the economy and his presidential team, signaling that he will not allow vested interests or entrenched ministers to slow the reform programme. He appointed economist Ali Asadov as prime minister in October 2019. The presidential administration has also seen a major reshuffle, with 44-year old Duke University alumnus Samir Nuriyev made its chief, and former vice-presidential aide Anar Alakbarov and former SOFAZ executive and Harvard alumnus Shahmar Movsumov appointed as assistants to the president.

A graduate of the McGeorge School of Law, Tax Minister Mikayil Cabbarov was promoted to economy minister last year. He is also responsible for taxation and the privatisation of state enterprises.

Azerbaijan’s customs system has been digitised to make it transparent by removing the need for the State Customs Committee to intervene in duty collection. This has provided a level playing field for import-export companies and has succeeded in breaking up monopolies.

This top-down change of guard in the country’s institutions has been effective in speeding up the pace of reforms and in implementing modern systems to end corruption. It has the support of the country’s leadership, with First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva coordinating reform policy, particularly in the economic, social and judicial areas.

Azerbaijan’s e-government model ASAN has been praised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations, and received the UN Public Service Award for the best public service delivery worldwide.

Due to such reforms, the country’s economy grew by 80 percent between 2007 and 2019 and has attracted $111 billion in total foreign investment during this period. Poverty levels have fallen by more than four times over this period, with unemployment at a low of 4.9 percent.

The country’s efforts have been recognised by the World Bank’s Doing Business Index, where Azerbaijan is ranked 34th among 190 countries. It is also listed among the top 20 reformers in the areas of registering property, obtaining credit, protecting minority investors, and enforcing contracts.

Strategically located at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, Azerbaijan is a global transit hub, and a key player in the North-South and East-West transport corridors. Initiated by Azerbaijan, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway that connects Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey became operational in October 2017. It makes Azerbaijan an integral part of the logistics and transport routes between China and Europe. Azerbaijan also built the largest port in the Caspian Sea, the Baku International Sea Commercial Port, that was commissioned in May 2018.

The country has been a consistent and reliable ally of the West for decades. Apart from providing oil to Europe, Azerbaijan successfully completed the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) with Turkey in November 2019 to transfer Azerbaijani gas to Europe.

To capitalise on Azerbaijan’s strategic location, President Aliyev has made his country a beacon of stability and predictability in an otherwise troubled region. In particular, Azerbaijani society is well known for its religious tolerance, a Muslim-majority country that is also home to Christians, Jews, and many other religions.

However, relations with Armenia continue to simmer. The Azerbaijani province of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjoining areas remain occupied by Armenia after nearly three decades, despite four UN resolutions calling for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian forces. A resolution to the conflict seems elusive.

Azerbaijan nevertheless has its sights firmly fixed on the future, and with a new generation stepping in to carry the flame of reforms forward, its ambitious plans to further modernise its economy and administrative systems are expected to reap rich dividends for this forward-looking nation at the crossroads of two continents.