Behind Azerbaijan’s facades

In Azerbaijan, power is strictly a family business. RU

Sergey Rumyantsev
21 March 2017

A member of the presidential guard at Azerbaijan’s presidential palace in Baku, 2017. Photo CC-by-2.0: CJCS / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The inventiveness of Baku’s urban planners when it comes to designing fences is inexhaustible. These barriers, designed to keep guests away from the less elegant side of life in Azerbaijan’s capital city, will make an impression on even the most demanding visitor. Fences block the view on the road connecting Baku’s Heydar Aliyev airport (named after the country’s former president) to the city centre, which Heydar’s son, the current president, is feverishly trying to turn into a second Dubai. In downtown Baku, which is lavishly decorated with tonnes of expensive marble and granite, pseudo-neoclassical facades take on the role of these fences in order to hide the ugly old Soviet-era apartment blocks.

The regime is persistent in trying to hide anything that might complicate its image of Azerbaijan as a developed and prospering country — from locals, tourists and probably themselves. “If you tore down all the fences, you’d have enough metal to build two more cities,” I once heard a Baku resident remark. This sentiment reminded me that Azerbaijan’s facades are not merely built from stone, but from discourses, ideologies and institutions too. These ornamentations are also designed to conjure up the image of a modern democratic society.

Every authoritarian regime has its riddles and enigmas. What kind of Azerbaijan will be revealed to us once we remove these facades and fences, so carefully designed to keep up pretences?

A presidential dynasty

Reflecting on the specifics of Azerbaijan’s political field reminded me of an article by Pierre Bourdieu. It’s a rather free association, but attempting to describe the specifics of how the political field is constructed in Azerbaijan takes me back to his image of the “King’s house”, or most importantly, politics-as-inheritance.

Of course, the country’s leadership is technically elected. In accordance with the constitution, regular parliamentary and presidential elections are held. But it’s also inherited. According to the rules of the “household”, members of the same family — who possess social and symbolic capital — inevitably keep their places at the helm of state. And this has allowed the Aliyev family to keep control of Azerbaijan for over two decades.

Not long ago, a new government position was created, which entrenched the system of inheriting power even more. If Ramiz Mekhtiyev, head of Azerbaijan’s presidential administration and chief ideologue of the regime, is to be believed, “the Azerbaijani people, following the spirit of globalisation and changes across the civilised world, will not forget their great history.” It was probably in this spirit that the great event of 21 February came to pass — namely, the appointment of the first lady as Azerbaijan’s first vice-president.

The post itself was only created in September 2016 after a nationwide referendum on constitutional amendments. For the first time in history, Mehriban Aliyeva, the wife of president Ilham Aliyev, received this cushy job. Should some unforeseen tragedy befall Azerbaijan’s fit and cheerful head of state, his ambitious wife will lead the country.

The regime’s style of rule is largely personal, and is guaranteed by a reliable and loyal group of courtiers close to the family on whom the president depends

In this case, Azerbaijan will see its third transfer of power within the Aliyev family. Or to be more precise, the Aliyev-Pashayev family (Mehriban’s maiden name). Following the death in 2003 of Heydar Aliyev, patriarch and founder of the ruling dynasty, Mehriban’s family members strengthened their positions. They held several high-ranking posts at the time, and in the years since the Pashayev family has become seen as an independent political force. Mehriban’s appointment is not simply a sign that they are growing stronger, but an acknowledgement from on high of the Pashayevs’ influential and lasting status.

Most probably, and according to the rules of the “King’s house”, Heydar Aliyev the second, son of the current president and grandson of the former president, is being prepared for high office. For the moment, any predictions as to how that situation could develop remain speculative. But one thing is clear — after the next pale imitation of parliamentary elections is held in 2020, the young Aliyev could find himself in a deputy’s seat in the country’s parliament. That will probably be the first step in his official nomination as successor to Ilham.


A carpet with an image of Heydar Aliyev, father of the ruling president of Azerbaijan. Photo CC-by-NC-2.0: Esther Dyson / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Of course, Azerbaijan’s constitution states this country is a democracy, with the president as its head. All the institutions necessary for a modern administrative state exist in the country — ministries, parliament, constitutional and other courts, municipal government. But the real practices of how power is executed, how positions in the bureaucratic apparatus are assigned, and, most importantly, the principles of transferring the state’s highest post from one set of hands to the next, suggest many parallels, and, it should be said, points of contrasts, with a dynastic state. 

With this in mind, it’s worth looking at these strategies of inheritance that further the ruling family’s prosperity — the aim to which the state and its functions have been reduced. The regime’s style of rule is largely personal, and is guaranteed by a reliable and loyal group of courtiers close to the family whom the president depends on. But even this style of rule has its risks and its rules. Can the head of state ever sacrifice his own interests in order to guarantee his material and symbolic legacy? Will the family try to manage this legacy within the household to help its own assets prosper?

An uncivil society

Upon returning to power in 1993, Azerbaijan’s former Soviet-era strongman Heydar Aliyev started reconstructing the country’s political landscape and established an authoritarian regime that outlived its creator. He was also able to found a dynasty, which has successfully monopolised power over the country and dominates the political field.

How was Aliyev able to ensure a successful transition from Soviet bureaucratic state to Azerbaijani presidential dynasty? Stephen Kotkin suggests that totalitarian states or states with totalitarian tendencies don’t simply destroy society — they create their own anew. The result could be called an “uncivil society”, or “those formidable bonds and forms of social organisation that accompanied an illiberal state, particularly an illiberal state without private property.”

Regardless of its presidents’ clear sympathies for such a style of rule, neither in its early years in the 1990s nor today can the Azerbaijani regime be described as “totalitarian”

When Aliyev senior created Azerbaijan’s uncivil society, he also instituted the right to private property. Nowadays, this right isn’t so much regulated by the law as by the appetites and interests of members of the ruling family or inner circle. But regardless of its presidents’ clear sympathies for such a style of rule, neither in its early years in the 1990s nor today can the Azerbaijani regime be described as “totalitarian”.

Yet it still makes sense to use Kotkin’s term to understand the practices and processes taking place in Azerbaijan, as well as in civil society. We can then identify from where the regime draws the resources for its legitimisation and how it’s able to attract significant support from among the population, thereby securing a dynasty.

How the people were tempered: founding a multiparty system

In the early years of Azerbaijan’s independence, Heydar Aliyev didn’t waste his time riding the wave of reform and radical political social change. He chose what he knew. In November 1992, he became chairman of the Yeni Azərbaycan (New Azerbaijan) Party. In its design and pre-eminent position in the political field, the YAP brings to mind up all kinds of parallels with the old Communist Party — or even with United Russia, founded several years later. Soviet ideology was replaced with the slogans of populist nationalism. The Politburo may have gone, but the practice of nominating the permanent chairman of the country’s largest party as head of state remained. For a couple of years before becoming president, Ilham Aliyev acted as the first deputy to the party chairman (i.e. to his father, Heydar).


In Baku, the practice of imitating elections has a long and ignoble history. A Soviet-era poster urging citizens to vote in Baku municipal elections, 1924. Photo CC-by-NC-ND-2.0: Kitchener.lord / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Throughout the long years of his rule, which began in 2003 after Heyday Aliyev’s death, Ilham has also acted as permanent party chairman. Mehriban is one of his deputies, and in her first interview as vice-president, she claimed that the YAP counted some 700,000 party members. Officially, Azerbaijan has a population of 10 million, but given mass emigration, the real number is almost certainly lower. In any case, the number of YAP party members as a proportion of the Azerbaijan’s population is the same as Communist Party members across the Soviet Union in 1989.

It’s not unusual to hear stories about how a random public official discovers that they’re a member of the YAP by chance. But undoubtedly, a significant number of those who joined did so voluntarily, in order to gain social capital. Among them are more than a few eager young people, who dream of a career in government service. Since 2005, they’ve had their own mass movement: “Ireli” (“forward” in Azeri), which has lately been reformed into a civic organisation under the slogan “Ilhamla Ireli” (“Forward with Ilham!”)

It’s customary to believe there are over 50 political parties in Azerbaijan today, though far from all of them are really active. There are dozens of pro-government parties orbiting Yeni Azərbaycan, and they’re generally rightwing (such as the Civic Solidarity Party, the Motherland Party, and the Alliance for Azerbaijan). Their members are recruited to parliament, along with independent deputies, in order to keep up the image of a democratic, multiparty system. There have been no genuine opposition politicians in Azerbaijan’s last two parliaments.

At the beginning of 2017, there is next to no space left for opposition parties in the battle for resources

In December 2014, Ramiz Mekhtiyev outlined a new approach towards the opposition in a book entitled “The World Order of Double Standards and Modern Azerbaijan”. Writing on the country’s “Fifth Column”, a term which has become increasingly popular across the post-Soviet space, he denounced as its members all active human rights defenders, critically-minded journalists and well-known opposition political parties. All these figures and organisations, in Mekhtiyev’s opinion, receive direct support from “the west” and the historical enemy in the form of “the Armenian lobby”, and are preparing to launch a colour revolution in Azerbaijan.

At the beginning of 2017, there is next to no space left for opposition parties in the battle for resources. This affects all genuine oppositionists, whether in the Azerbaijani Popular Front, Musavat (the country’s oldest political party), or the National Independence Party. With every year, the opposition has less and less access to the public sphere and are even more marginalised as their support melts away.

To a great extent, these parties came out of the Popular Front, founded in 1988 to unite Azerbaijan’s opposition parties in the last years of Soviet rule. Their political sympathies mostly lie between the centre-right and the far right; their leaders and activists declare support for “western-style democracy”. 

In 2009, the authorities held a referendum to remove limits on presidential terms (two had previously been the maximum). That very same year, a fascinating new political movement came into being: the “Republican Alternative” (REAL). Its leader was Ilgar Mammadov, sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment in 2013 for his political activities. The group mostly comprises young intellectuals, and over the last couple of years, repression against the movement has grown to such an extent that it’s hard to say if REAL can survive.


Government House in Baku. Photo CC-by-2.0: Andreas Kontokanis / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Azerbaijan’s fractious Islamic opposition should also be mentioned, in all its complexity. In Autumn 1991, a Shi’ite Islamist party was founded with its electoral base in the town of Nardaran, not far from Baku. As its members were sympathetic to Iran, the “collective West” (in particular Israel and the USA) made its discomfort quite clear. In May 1996, five of its leaders and activists were arrested. Following its public criticism of the regime, party suffered further repression in 2011, and seven of its members were arrested along with their relatives.

Nardaran hit the news again in late autumn 2015. In the course of a police raid against members of the Muslim Unity Movement, two policemen and four members of the Islamist group were killed. Following these events, a special operation was held to restore order to the village where the Islamists had established control. The criminal case against the movement’s leaders continues to this day.

Ilham Aliyev’s reign has seen the end of any concerted political battle against the government (or even imitations of it), and the intensification of repression against all and any opponents

For the most part, political Islam in the first post-Soviet years was connected with disparate groups, based around certain mosques and the religious leaders who preached in them. Among the more prominent Shi’ite groupings was that of the Juma Mosque in Baku, led by Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoğlu. Several Sunni Salafist circles also emerged, centred around the Şehitler and Abu-Bakr mosques, among others — although these were most closed to visitors in the 2000s. 

However, Heydar Aliyev did prove himself able to make small compromises with all these groups if came to improving the regime’s image. By contrast, Ilham Aliyev’s reign has seen the end of any concerted political battle against the government (or even imitations of it), and the intensification of repression against all and any opponents and their marginalisation from the public space. The current president’s rule will be remembered by the arrests of political opponents, the destruction of human rights organisations and severe pressure against independent and critically-minded media outlets, bloggers and journalists.

The importance of family friends

Amid such repression, the regime is nonetheless able to increase the ranks of its supporters. In the Milli Mejlis, the parliament which is strongly reminiscent of the Supreme Council of Soviet Azerbaijan, deputies are not selected, but appointed. A place in the parliament has long since served as nothing more than a reward for loyalty. And ever since the opposition has stopped getting its requisite five or six meaningless seats in parliament, the Mejlis has been able to rubber-stamp all the president’s decrees and laws without wasting any time on pointlessly debating them.

Cities and regions are not ruled by elected mayors or governors, but by rulers appointed from on high. Once they’re handed control of some district or city, they can rule it with impunity, and the most important factor on their governance is how close they are (or wish they were) to the president and his entourage.

Azerbaijan’s high-ranking officials are those who have proved their loyalty to Aliyev over many years. That said, there has been some discord — such as the important arrest in 2005 of Ali Insanov, minister of health, along with several other senior officials. On this level, preference is given to long-term relationships. Alongside the irreplaceable president, many of the most hardworking ministers even began their careers in the late Soviet period.

For example, let’s take the no less irreplaceable head of the presidential administration, Ramiz Mekhtiyev, who was once secretary of the Communist Party of Soviet Azerbaijan. Since 1996, he’s worked with the irreplaceable prime minister Artur Rasizade, who was first deputy chairman of the council of ministers in Soviet Azerbaijan. Ramil Usubov, irreplaceable minister of the interior, also spent most of his professional life working in Soviet Azerbaijan’s interior ministry.


President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev arrives in Moscow to attend 70th anniversary celebrations of the USSR’s victory in the Second World War. To his right sits Mehriban Aliyeva. Photo (c): Evgeny Biyatov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Getting a government position depends on family and regional ties and, in the final instance, on the possibility of keeping ties with the Aliyev family. The shorter the distance, the greater and more immediate the reward. This principle of rule by the “King’s house” operates at every level of government. The pyramid of power in Azerbaijan starts with closely connected families, with fierce loyalties to each other, and above all with their crowning loyalty to the president. The latter distributes posts in state institutions and departments as awards for loyalty and as payment for enduring devotion. This practice not only helps these lucky few control the country and support themselves and their families, but embeds the state and its employees in the financial wellbeing and corrupt schemes of the Aliyev family and their entourage.

This presidential dynasty has monopolised all resources in the country and distributes them as though they were personal property 

The most sought-after positions are with the siloviki (security services, interior ministry or military), or in the local authorities. Lower down the ladder, jobs as high-school teachers or doctors in clinics are in great demand. The overwhelming majority of this immense army of state employees and bureaucrats unquestioningly obey the rules of loyalty to the system. They vote as they’re told. Their fear of losing their position, and with it the symbolic capital and the sources of income (albeit often insignificant), outweighs their desire to show discontent.

This presidential dynasty has monopolised all resources in the country and distributes them as though they were personal property. After the death of Heydar Aliyev, when Azerbaijan’s financial fortunes were on the rise due to oil and gas dollars, the “King’s house” stopped playing at politics altogether. The Aliyevs felt that everything was running like clockwork, and neither the EU nor the US would bother to sanction them. Yet the crisis of 2014 proved a blow to their growing ambitions, and a big one. It became clear that the ruling family does not know how to deal with economic hardship — and no matter how hard the president tries to play the role of the caring, patriarchal leader who tries to keep low prices for his people’s bread and bus tickets, the prestige of the dynasty is still fading. 

For the moment, social unrest has been limited to local outbreaks of protest, which are quickly extinguished by the authorities. However, the problem remains: there are simply fewer resources with which to buy loyalty.

Where next for the “King’s house”? 

Throughout their rule, the Aliyev family has purged the political field so thoroughly that, as Jörg Baberowski would have put it, revolution is now only possible through riots and chaos. The powers that be never thought it necessary to educate their subjects in political culture. Their demand was simply that the people learn how to obey, and how to demonstrate that undying obedience. Consequently, the population are unable to demonstrate en masse and achieve changes within the legal limits of public political protest — for the simple reason that they were never allowed to in the first place.

For now, the crisis may pass and the Aliyevs will hold on to power. But economic hardships will return eventually — or there’ll come a day when the oil and gas run out. After 25 years of independence, the Aliyev dynasty have shown that they are incapable promoting a sustainable prosperity for the country they have inherited. The current system is excellent at using the institutions of state to siphon away Azerbaijan’s resources, creating little in return. It’s only possible to convince the majority of Azerbaijanis that they live in a blossoming country full of hope when the economy peaks — and it’s unlikely that those moments will return soon. 

The Aliyev family has purged the political field so thoroughly that revolution is now only possible through riots and chaos

This situation can only be remedied through radical economic reform (not to speak of political changes). In such a scenario, the Aliyevs would likely lose the support of the army of bureaucrats and state employees on whose loyalty they depend. The Aliyev dynasty will be rudely interrupted, and perhaps that’s what fate has in store. But it won’t be the opposition’s political protests that sweep them away, but bread-and-butter economic and social unrest. 

The very design of the current system suggests that it doesn’t have a long-term future. Returning again to the idea of a “presidential dynasty,” it’s clear that despite its best efforts, a real “King’s house” cannot take root in Azerbaijan. No matter how close the Aliyevs come to their ideal, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that one day, Azerbaijanis are told that Ilham has become president for life, or has declared himself a Sultan. The family can win election after election, but the president (whether the second or the third) will never achieve the legitimacy of the regime’s founding father. Attempts to convince Azerbaijan and the world that there’s substance behind the democratic facade frequently come to nothing. 

In today’s realities, when Azerbaijan must play a part in the European political arena, the Aliyev family will only ever be regarded as authoritarian usurpers — and their system of a presidential dynasty as a political oxymoron.

Translated from Russian by Maxim Edwards

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