Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan's Late President to Live on

Everything from city streets to the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline may soon bear the name of former president Heidar Aliev.
By Zulfugar Agayev

In a lavish renaming spree that supporters say honours the greatest Azerbaijani of the last century - and critics say smacks of Stalinism – the government in Baku has announced plans to call a string of public buildings and scores of streets and squares after late president Heidar Aliev.


On March 10, Heidar Aliev’s son – and new president of Azerbaijan - Ilham Aliev signed a decree instantly naming the former Baku Bina International Airport, the Baku Higher Military School, the Republic Palace, and the Palace of Sports and Culture after the former leader, who died on December 12. It is yet to be decided which streets will have Heidar Aliev’s name bestowed on them.


The presidential decree, printed in state-run newspapers, said that as Heidar Aliev was the founder of the modern independent Azerbaijani state and also because of his “unprecedented services” to the nation, special commemorative golden and silver coins will be minted in his honour. The parliament will devise a medal and the cabinet of ministers will create an award named for the former president.


Aliev will also be remembered by memorial complexes to be built in Baku and in Aliev’s native region of Nakhchivan.


The elder Aliev dominated Azerbaijan, with one interval, for more than 40 years, first as head of the KGB, then as Communist Party boss, and finally as president of independent Azerbaijan from 1993 to 2003. His plans to run for a third term last October at the age of 80 were thwarted by ill health, and he handed on power to his son while already dying in a hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.


Heidar Aliev’s portrait is still more common than that of his son in public places and offices – often the two are portrayed together – and his legacy has left a strong impression. Virtually all the former members of the father’s presidential administration and government are still in place around the 42-year old Ilham.


The most ambitious renaming project – still to be approved – would affect the entire 1760 km Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline currently under construction. The idea was first floated by Shahlar Askerov, a parliamentary deputy with the governing New Azerbaijan Party.


BP, which operates the pipeline, has provisionally given its approval.


“BP and other sponsors of the pipeline welcome the recent presidential decree,” BP’s press secretary Tamam Bayatli told IWPR. “We believe that this symbolic name will add to the importance of the pipeline to Azerbaijan and the region.”


Bayatli said the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline had been the brainchild of Heidar Aliev and that the project was successfully implemented under his leadership. Neither the Georgians nor the Turks who share the pipeline route have given an official response to the proposal.


But opposition politicians have been scornful of the renaming plans, saying they are more reminiscent of the dictatorship in Turkmenistan or of the Soviet past than of a supposedly democratic country.


Mirmahmud Miralioglu, head of the “classical” branch of the Azerbaijani Popular Front, told Turan news agency said that it was all reminiscent of Communist times, suggesting that names could be very easily turned around. “We all know what happened to all these names in the end,” he said.


Azerbaijan’s main opposition leader, Isa Gambar, head of the Musavat party, pointed out that in 1999 Aliev himself signed a decree under which higher education institutions were stripped of the names of politicians, musicians and other public figures. “So is it logical now to name so many objects, streets, and squares after [Aliev]?” asked Gambar.


Zardusht Alizade, co-chairman of Azerbaijan Social Democrat Party, said, “This order serves to strengthening the ideological foundations of the ruling regime.” He said most Azerbaijanis understood that Aliev’s supposed services were actually “fictitious”.


In response, Mubariz Gurbanli, deputy head of the New Azerbaijan Party accused the opposition of being “either politically sick, ungrateful, or just unable to realise political processes”.


Gurbanli said that naming airports, streets, squares and other places after important public figures is a common practice over the world, asserting that the United States had named an airport and library after John F. Kennedy, France was full of places bearing the name of Charles de Gaulle and – inaccurately – that Britain had named streets after Margaret Thatcher.


According to Gurbanli, the idea of renaming the pipeline came not from the government but from the international companies who make up the oil consortium, the Azerbaijan International Operating Company, the AIOC.


Ordinary Azerbaijanis are bemused by the fuss about the renaming process, but more for it than against.


“Aliev’s name should be given to various places,” said a 29-year-old Baku woman, Aynur, who declined to give her surname. “But we have to refrain from going to extremes on this issue.” She said she was worried about the precedent from Soviet times.


Shamkhal Aslanov, 41, a refugee from the Nagorny Karabakh war from the Kubatli district, said that when Aliev died, “I felt helpless.” But at the same time, he felt, naming “unimportant things” after the late leader would only belittle his memory.


Zulfugar Agayev is a journalist with the Baku Sun newspaper.