Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev set to crush opponents in election

Claims that Azerbaijan's president has used his power to illegally amass a fortune are unlikely to stop him winning a third term in oil-rich nation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 5:31am

Likened in leaked US diplomatic cables to the fictional Corleone mob family, Azerbaijan's ruling Aliyev dynasty now looks set to extend its grip over the oil-rich Caspian state into a third decade.

President Ilham Aliyev - who took over in 2003 after the death of his father, Heydar, a former KGB officer and communist-era boss - is the overwhelming favourite to win a third five-year term in today's elections.

Ahead of the polls, supporters have praised the Aliyevs for turning a republic once thought of as a Soviet backwater into a flourishing energy supplier to Europe.

But critics argue they have crushed the opposition and used their power to amass a fortune that funds a lavish lifestyle for the president and his family.

Normally fragmented, Azerbaijan's weakened opposition - much of which boycotted the 2008 poll - in May sparked hope of a major challenge by agreeing to rally around a single challenger.

Historian and former lawmaker Jamil Hasanli has managed to mobilise thousands of supporters at rallies but is only expected to poll in the single digits.

There are eight other candidates running, but most are seen as "fake challengers", broadly supportive of the president. Another more serious candidate, from the Republican Alternative party, was jailed in February on charges described as fabricated.

While the Aliyev family has ruled Azerbaijan continuously since 1993, its dominance over politics in the Caucasus nation stretches back much further.

"The whole country of Azerbaijan has been shaped by the legacy of Heydar Aliyev for almost half a century," says Thomas de Waal, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The whole country of Azerbaijan has been shaped by the legacy of Heydar Aliyev for almost half a century
Thomas de Waal, aCarnegie Endowment for International Peace

A communist-era colossus, Heydar Aliyev, seen as one of the Soviet Union's wiliest operators, rose from the Stalinist secret police to be Azerbaijan party boss from 1969 to 1982.

When Heydar, who manoeuvred himself back to the leadership in the chaos of the Soviet Union's demise, died in 2003, his anointed successor Ilham was seen as ill-prepared for the job.

"The son faces more challenges than his father. He can never acquire the total authority his father had - that would be impossible," says de Waal.

But bolstered by billions in oil money, Ilham has overseen 10 years of steady economic growth and followed a pragmatic foreign policy agenda, treading carefully between Russia and the West.

That calculating approach saw him likened in one US diplomatic cable to the cold-blooded character of Michael Corleone from The Godfather movies.

At the same time, Aliyev's heavy-handed treatment of dissent at home saw him compared to another character from the Corleone clan - Michael's hot-headed brother Sonny.

"His goal appears to be a political environment in which the Aliyev dynasty is unchallenged," said the US cable released by whistle-blowing organisation WikiLeaks.

Next to Ilham is the glamorous figure of his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, a prominent ruling party lawmaker and head of the influential Heydar Aliyev Foundation, who is known for her lavish tastes.

"First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva appears to have had substantial cosmetic surgery, presumably overseas, and wears dresses that would be considered provocative even in the Western world," another leaked US diplomatic cable said.

Born into the powerful Pashayev family, she is sometimes seen as a possible successor or even rival to her husband.

In Azerbaijan questions about the Aliyevs' own wealth are usually off limits.

But according to journalist Khadija Ismayilova, the Aliyevs control major stakes in the country's lucrative banking, construction and telecoms sectors.

"It is difficult to estimate the total value of all their property," Ismayilova said. "But I think that we are not just talking in the millions."

Following her investigations, secretly filmed sex tapes of Ismayilova were leaked on the internet.

Authorities in Azerbaijan deny any links to the videos and reject claims that the Aliyev family has accumulated its wealth illegally.

The next generation of the Aliyev dynasty seems set to continue the family's leading role in Azerbaijani politics.

In 2010, The Washington Post reported property worth US$75 million in Dubai in the names of the president's young son Heydar and his daughters Arzu and Leyla.

Agence France-Presse, The Guardian