Heidar Aliev: A Political Colossus

The extraordinary career of the man who dominated Azerbaijan for more than 30 years.

Heidar Aliev, who died recently at the age of 80, was perhaps the ultimate political operator in the former Soviet Union.

Of all the men who ruled the 15 new post-Soviet states, his career was the most dramatic - from a Stalinist intelligence officer in the Forties to a Politburo member in the Eighties, disgrace and exile, and then rebirth as the pro-western leader of independent Azerbaijan.

Aliev, who died on December 12, was a formidable presence, with piercing blue eyes, plenty of charm and - when required - a towering anger.

His stamina was legendary, as was his phenomenal memory - he knew literally hundreds of Azerbaijanis by name, many of whom he had personally launched on their careers.

One western diplomat famously remarked, "Heidar Aliev gets up each morning, looks in the mirror and decides he doesn't have enough control."

His leadership was heavily personalised. He took decisions alone, suppressed all political rivals - many are still either in exile or in prison - and reluctantly appointed an heir only when already seriously ill.

But he could also be extremely flexible, and was a born pragmatist who skilfully shifted Azerbaijan's strategic priorities westwards in the new era.

According to official records, Aliev was born in May 1923 in the poor and barren exclave of Nakhichevan between Armenia, Iran and Turkey, the third of eight children.

His father had recently emigrated from the village of Jomartly in the Sisian region of Armenia across the border. Rumours have long circulated that Aliev was in fact born two years earlier, but that it was decided that a senior Azerbaijani politician should not have an Armenian place of birth.

Little is known about his early life and the perfect school reports in the Heidar Aliev Museum in Nakhichevan do not tell the full story. We know that at the age of 18 he joined the Stalinist secret police and rose rapidly through the ranks. When President Vladimir Putin visited Baku in 2001 and presented Aliev with his graduation certificate from the Leningrad KGB academy in 1949, it was the first anyone knew that he had studied in Leningrad.

Aliev clearly had the survival skills needed to prosper in this world. It was reported - but again never confirmed - that in the Fifties he was employed by the Eastern Department of the KGB and had worked in the Middle East. His political opponents often alleged that he was involved in setting up a Kurdish terrorist organisation, the PKK, another claim strongly denied.

In 1960, aged just 37, Aliev became head of the KGB in Azerbaijan and nine years later, was appointed the republic's first party secretary.

As party boss, he put Soviet Azerbaijan on the map. He secured increased funds for the republic, promoted ethnic Azerbaijanis to top positions and got them places in Moscow universities.

Above all, he befriended Leonid Brezhnev, who came to Baku on three lavish visits. On one of these occasions, Aliev famously presented the Soviet leader with a ring which had one large diamond in the middle - representing Brezhnev - surrounded by 15 smaller ones, the Union republics.

Aliev also presided over a climate of corruption and patronage that the Gorbachev-era investigative journalist Arkady Vaksberg later dubbed "Alievshchina" or "Alievism". Members of his "Nakhichevan clan" were given key jobs and positions were bought and sold.

In 1982, shortly after Brezhnev's death, Aliev was promoted to become "the first Turk in the Politburo" and deputy prime minister of the Soviet Union, giving him enormous influence.

His star began to wane when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. Two years later he was forced to resign on health grounds - he did indeed have heart problems - and his career seemed to be over.

He began his comeback in January 1990 with a public and forceful denunciation of the Soviet army's bloody intervention in Baku. The following year he went back to his home region of Nakhichevan and became speaker of the local parliament. As Azerbaijan gained its independence, he turned Nakhichevan into a semi-autonomous fiefdom.

Aliev watched from the sidelines as the new state descended into chaos under its first two presidents, Ayaz Mutalibov and Abulfaz Elchibey. His return to power in 1993 was a textbook study of political manoeuvring.

When dissident colonel Suret Husseinov staged an uprising against Elchibey's government, the administration invited Aliev to come to Baku to help them - the equivalent, as veteran Azerbaijan-watcher Thomas Goltz said, of "inviting a crocodile into the goat-pen".

Within four months, Elchibey had fled. Aliev had outwitted everyone and was president of Azerbaijan.

The price to be paid was in the ongoing war with the Armenians over Nagorny Karabakh. Between the disintegration of the Popular Front government in June 1993 and Aliev's election in October Azerbaijan lost five whole regions and 350,000 people became refugees. Aliev ignored the war effort in favour of the domestic political fight. He disbanded 33 Popular Front battalions, which were central to the defence of the Karabakh front, but were also a threat to his authority.

With a typical zigzag, once elected, Aliev held secret negotiations with the Karabakh Armenian leader Robert Kocharian in Moscow after the election and then, when these talks were going nowhere, launched the bloodiest campaign of the conflict, which cost the lives of thousands of young conscripts. Then in May 1994 he negotiated a ceasefire with the Armenians.

Aliev gradually and ruthlessly restored stability to Azerbaijan. Democracy faded, while order returned. An especially unpleasant surprise awaited the chief rebel Suret Husseinov, who was appointed prime minister under President Aliev only to be accused of plotting against him several months later, denounced and arrested.

As president, Aliev's great achievement was to negotiate a series of oil and gas agreements that made Azerbaijan a big new player in international energy politics.

Over the next 20 years, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Erzerum pipelines should give Azerbaijan billions in revenues. He became a popular figure in Washington. He built a new strategic alliance with Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze, who had been his ideological opponent in Gorbachev's Politburo.

With the departure of another old Politburo rival, Boris Yeltsin, relations with Russia significantly improved such that President Putin, at Aliev's funeral said that, "Not only did I think of him with a lot of respect - I loved him."

Aliev inspired strong feelings. Pro-government deputy Sirus Tebrizli said, "Heidar was a great and irreplaceable politician. He was able to rule the country on his own, to perform all the duties of the government single-handed."

Opposition analyst Zardusht Alizade said, "Aliev was the last representative of the political heritage of Stalin and Beria. [He] personified the most terrible experiences in the fate of the Azerbaijani people."

It was characteristic of Aliev that he wanted to stand for a third term as president this year, aged 80, and only failing health prevented him from doing so.

The outpouring of grief at his funeral on December 15 was obviously genuine. Any Azerbaijani under 50 had lived their whole adult life in his shadow. For once the stock phrase is true - his country is utterly different without him and will never see the like again.

Thomas de Waal is IWPR's Caucasus Editor. Shahin Rzayev in Baku contributed to this article.


Also in this issue

New government restrictions designed to curb Armenians' gambling craze.
Public grief for a dead president gives way to speculation about what the future holds for his son.
Russian forces are pursuing a mysterious group of Islamist fighters in the mountains of Dagestan.
The extraordinary career of the man who dominated Azerbaijan for more than 30 years.