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Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev speaks to Russian President Vladimir Putin (not seen) during their meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, August 8, 2016. REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool

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By Margarita Antidze

BAKU (Reuters) - A move by Azerbaijan's president to extend the head of state's term in office to seven years from five drew fire on Wednesday from Council of Europe experts who said it would seriously upset the balance of power in the oil-producing state.

Constitutional amendments, clearing the way for the changes, will be put to a national referendum on Sept. 26 and would allow President Ilham Aliyev, in power since 2003, to further tighten his grip on power after his third term ends in 2018.

A 2009 referendum scrapped Azerbaijan's two-term presidential limit, effectively enabling Aliyev to rule for life, provided he keeps being re-elected.

"Many proposed amendments would severely upset the balance of power by giving 'unprecedented' powers to the president," experts of the Venice Commission said in a statement.

They also criticised other amendments, which give the president power to declare early presidential election at his convenience, as well as to dissolve parliament.

Members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to Aliyev last week, saying that the forthcoming constitutional referendum would create a crisis of legitimacy.

"By lengthening presidential terms and expanding presidential authorities, the proposed constitutional changes are susceptible to abuse that would entrench political authority, making it less responsive to the will of the Azerbaijani people," the members of Congress wrote.

Azerbaijan is a significant exporter of oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to Western nations.

In 2003, Aliyev, now 54, succeeded his father, Heydar, who ruled Azerbaijan initially as a Communist Party leader within the Soviet Union and then as president following independence.

At first, his rule benefited from an economic boom fuelled by oil pumped to Europe from a region where the West and Russia are vying for influence over huge energy reserves.

But a slump in global oil prices in the last two years has weakened the Azeri manat currency and contracted the economy.

(Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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