Azerbaijan: Presidential Parent Larger Than Life

Ten years after his death, Heydar Aliyev still looms large over the country.
  • Poster of Heydar Aliyev in Sumgait. The words say "I will be in Azerbaijan forever”. (Photo: Shahla Sultanova)
  • Banner on a Baku school: "Education is the nation's future - Heydar Aliyev”. (Photo: Shahla Sultanova)
  • Poster on a Baku street:  “Heydar Aliyev, founder of modern Azerbaijan”. (Photo: Shahla Sultanova)
  • Heydar Mosque in Yeni Surakhani, Baku. (Photo: Shahla Sultanova)

As Azerbaijan marked the tenth anniversary of the death of long-term leader Heydar Aliyev, commentators said the personality cult surrounding him was more pronounced than during his lifetime.

On December 12, government officials visited Aliyev’s grave and then the brand-new Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre. Television stations aired programmes about his legacy.

Aliyev ran Azerbaijan for long periods both before and after the end of Soviet rule. A KGB general, he ran Soviet Azerbaijan as local Communist Party chief from 1969 until 1982, when he was moved to Moscow to join the party’s Politburo. He made a surprise comeback in post-independent Azerbaijan, and was president from 1993 until 2003, when he stepped down shortly before his death.

He was succeeded by his son Ilham Aliyev, who remains in power and was re-elected in October.

As president, Heydar Aliyev brought the ruinous war in Nagorny Karabakh to an end and signed Azerbaijan’s first deals with international oil companies.

All over the country, people drive along Heydar Aliyev Avenues and walk through Heydar Aliyev Parks. Children study at schools and academies named after him, while adults work in institutions and attend cultural centres and sports stadiums that bear his name. When they travel abroad, they fly from Heydar Aliyev Airport. The Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline running from the Caspian to the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the country’s largest charitable foundation, is named in his honour.

As well as December 12, Azerbaijan marks June 15, the day he returned to power in 1993, as Salvation Day, while his birthday, May 10, is Flower Day.

According to Azerbaijan’s culture and tourism ministry, there are 60 Heydar Aliyev museums around the country, most of them new, containing statues, busts and photos of him both as Soviet-era and post-Soviet leader. For those interested in studying him further, the National Academy of Sciences established an Aliyev Studies Department in 2008.

In Baku’s Yeni Surakhani district, the Heydar Mosque bears a plaque dated 1999 dedicating the building to the late president. Inside the mosque complex, yet another museum.

On the streets, images of the late leader watch passers-by from billboards and posters, sometimes accompanied by a quotation. Those outside public institutions bear particularly apt inscriptions.

The government’s statistics committee, for example, has a quote from Aliyev praising its work.

Meri Amirova, head of the committee’s information office, said it was staff who decided to put up the quotation.

“He’s a national leader. We are proud that he valued our work. That was the only time he talked about the committee. The words are high recognition of our work by Heydar Aliyev,” she told IWPR.

High school and universities use quotations about education and patriotism, while healthcare institutions quote Aliyev on medical care. One says, “I love doctors a lot, I love health a lot. I am their friend. They are my number one friends.”

Like Amirova, health ministry spokesperson Sefaye Ahmadova said this was a grassroots initiative by staff.

“There is no order from the ministry. But we know about it. We can only encourage it,” Ahmadova said.

One of the less obvious dates in the Aliyev calendar is July 14.

The Yeni Surakhani district has a July 14 Street, the significance explained by a small monument noting that this was the day in 1969 when Aliyev first took charge of Azerbaijan.

According to local government spokesman Barkhudar Barkhudarov, “Aliyev took political power for the first time in 1969 and saved a backward nation. He developed Azerbaijan’s economy and agriculture. The monument was built and the street named after him to immortalise that great, historic day.”

Taleh Babayev, 20, who lives opposite the monument, is delighted his street is named in honour of Aliyev.

“He saved Azerbaijan from the Armenians and Russians. He deserves it,” he said.

July 14 is not celebrated officially, but state television marks it by broadcasting special programmes about Aliyev’s Soviet-era activities. The authorities in Baku stage open-air outdoor concerts, and the day ends with fireworks in the city centre.

Eldar Namazov, who once served as aide to Heydar Aliyev, said that when he was president, the personality cult was not as widespread as it was now.

“It wouldn’t even have been possible. When Aliyev came to power for the second time [in 1993], Azerbaijan was still inspired by a spirit of freedom from the Soviet Union, which had just collapsed,” Namazov said. “Also, Azerbaijan had independent media at the time. That environment would not have allowed a personality cult to the extent that we see today.”

Leila Alieva, head of the Baku-based Centre for National and International Studies, said the current government had struggled to articulate an attractive national ideology, and had resorted to enhancing the image of the current president’s father.

“That’s why they are using Soviet techniques in the shape of an artificial personality cult; it’s the most convenient way of legitimising their government,” she said.

Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.

Also in this issue

Too many dams will dry up rivers downstream, they warn.
Ten years after his death, Heydar Aliyev still looms large over the country.
Influential church leader warns devolution means separatism. “Nonsense”, say critics.