Ilham Aliyev and the Making of Azerbaijan Aliyev visits Gubadly and Zangilan Districts, 2020

Statecraft has been tricky for the post-Soviet republics. Independence was unexpected, and the ability to function as a sovereign state had either atrophied or was completely unfamiliar. Elites across the former Soviet Union struggled to keep power. Belarusian leaders stuck to what they knew, embracing a kind of neo-Sovietism and dooming the country to terminal decline. Ukraine and Armenia’s political elites tried to pivot away from the Russian sphere and ended up with war as their punishment. Coming out of a long history of Russian rule and decades as an oil supplier to the Eastern Bloc, Azerbaijan seemed unlikely to become a leading regional power in the post-Soviet world.

The new country had a rough beginning: neighboring Armenia claimed military victory in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994, and Soviet dissolution kicked off a recession that lasted until 1995. But under the steady and authoritarian rule of Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan is now undergoing a category upgrade in regional influence. Azerbaijan has pivoted decidedly towards the West, strengthening ties with NATO, the EU, Israel, and Turkey during his rule.

It’s a pivot that might have easily failed in the face of Russian opposition or a Western cold shoulder, but Aliyev has revealed himself to be a cunning diplomat. While completely reorienting Azerbaijan’s foreign affairs, he simultaneously destroyed the Soviet husk that he inherited from his father. In its place, he has promoted a new generation of Western-educated loyalists with far greater national ambitions than their Soviet predecessors. However, his program has not brought about national success on all fronts; Aliyev’s critics can point to corruption, oil dependency, and stagnant growth for much of Azerbaijan’s broader population.

What Aliyev’s regime has cultivated instead is a winning political strategy for consolidating its rule. The result is expanding Azerbaijani power in Central Asia and influence with governments around the world.

The Struggle for Power

In 1997, a 36-year-old Ilham Aliyev—then vice president of SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state oil company—addressed students, faculty, and oil executives at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “It is a great honor to speak at this university,” he began. “I have heard a lot about it over the years, since I was once a student myself.”

Ilham began his own academic life in the elite schools of the USSR. At just 16, he was admitted into Russia’s most prestigious university, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). A cynic might say that he only got in as the son of a powerful apparatchik. His father, Heydar Aliyev, spent decades as a high-ranking KGB officer and Politburo member, eventually leading both Soviet and post-Soviet Azerbaijan.  But Ilham proved himself to be a dutiful student, and after he completed his bachelor’s degree in 1982 he went on to obtain a PhD in history in 1985. He then lectured at the university from 1985 to 1990. “We were then on opposite sides of the globe,” he recounted to his Harvard audience. “We were divided by politics, by systems, by confrontation, and it was very difficult for me to imagine, at that time, that someday I would be here, speaking to you.”

While Ilham himself experienced a privileged upbringing, his life was very much like other Soviet children when it came to his education, in which he was thoroughly indoctrinated with communist propaganda. But according to biographer Graeme H. Wilson, author of Ilham: Portrait of a President, the young Ilham wasn’t complacent in his thought. Wilson describes a “serious young man, a child who read a lot and one given to spending time in adult company rather than among his peers.” A similar picture emerges from his time at MGIMO: fellow student and Russia Today journalist Aleksandr Gurnov later recalled that “Ilham really studied hard and could never be accused of taking it easy.”

It’s hard to say when his disillusionment with the Soviet experiment set in. What is known is that Ilham emerged as an Anglophile at MGIMO. He learned fluent English and focused his studies on British culture, history, and political thought. His doctoral research was on Britain’s anti-war movement of the 1970s and ‘80s.

In 1987, the fortunes of Ilham’s father took a turn for the worse. Gorbachev dismissed Heydar from his post in the Politburo, officially for health reasons. Then in 1990, Heydar criticized Gorbachev’s government for the killing of Azerbaijani civilians in Baku. This turned the Soviet general secretary against him. Only days later, Ilham received a curt letter on MGIMO letterhead informing him that he was fired—his father’s disfavor with the regime had ended his academic career. Despite having an impressive resumé, Ilham discovered that he was politically tarred when looking for new positions: “I applied for many jobs in Moscow, and indeed elsewhere, but it became clear that I was on a blacklist somewhere. Several people even told me, ‘I would like to hire you, but I’m not allowed.’ It was very depressing.”

As the Soviet Union collapsed, Ilham decided to join the wave of new entrepreneurs. He ended up in the clothing business, purchasing a factory on the outskirts of Moscow. He had learned his lesson about relying on Moscow’s patronage and even briefly relocated to Istanbul. Then, in 1993, his father reappeared on the political stage in Azerbaijan. After winning a power struggle with the incumbent leader, the nationalistic Albufaz Elchibey, Heydar became president. It proved the turning point for both father and son. In April 1994, Ilham received a phone call: Azerbaijan’s first post-Soviet drilling partnership was being negotiated, and Heydar needed more trusted men. He requested Ilham return to Baku immediately and work as vice president of SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state oil company.

Thrust into the role, Ilham’s first task was to help broker the deal. Longtime SOCAR executive Khoshbakht Yusifzadehe later recounted that Ilham “soaked up information and details like a sponge and was pretty much up to speed on the salient issues within six weeks.” Many who worked with Ilham throughout this process, and indeed throughout his career, have described him similarly. SOCAR president Natig Aliyev (no relation) once reported that “if you tell President Ilham Aliyev something once, he retains it and, weeks later, he brings up any deviation if the same thing is explained again. He is a nuts and bolts man.”

On a visit to Houston, when the deal was finally supposed to be signed, Ilham demonstrated the skillful diplomatic instinct that would later come to characterize his tenure as president.

Negotiations were breaking down over disputes about drilling rights around the Caspian sea. Azerbaijan was demanding the existing terms established by Moscow; other Caspian states, such as Iran, wanted a revision into equal regions. Western companies told the Aliyevs that they would sign the deal only once the Caspian states had come to terms—effectively putting it on hold indefinitely. A $30-billion-dollar commitment and an immediate advance of hundreds of millions were on the line. Calling the Houston negotiating team, Heydar reportedly conveyed his and the country’s urgency: “We need schools. We need hospitals. And we cannot wait for some elongated negotiations on the Caspian that will ultimately make not one bit of difference to our territory.”

Big oil was firm, and the clause stayed. But so was Ilham, who went against his father’s wishes and decided to walk from the deal.

Under immense pressure to get Azerbaijan’s oil flowing, the Aliyevs moved to Plan B. Azerbaijan had no independent foreign policy to speak of during the Soviet era, and it was time for that to change. Heydar made a call to Washington to speak with the newly-inaugurated President Clinton. Having spent only seven months in office at that point, Clinton had already met several times with Azerbaijani ambassador Hafiz Pashayev. The president apparently had a solid grasp of the Caspian region’s main issues. Being the only country that shares a border with both Iran and Russia, cultivating Azerbaijan as an ally was a priority of U.S. foreign policy. Sensing their moment, the Aliyevs circumvented the Western oil companies and leveraged their recently-established ties with the U.S. government.

While Heydar and Clinton discussed terms, Ilham and the negotiating team were on a flight to Washington, where they met with U.S. Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary and convinced her of the propriety of a contract without the offending clause. Then, they flew right back to Houston. In the same board room, representatives of the U.S. oil companies announced that the federal government had convinced them to drop the clause. On September 20th, the deal was signed in Baku: SOCAR would hold a 20 percent stake in the new consortium that also included British Petroleum, Aramco, Russia’s Lukoil, Pennzoil, and others.

It was the beginning of a broader Azerbaijani strategy of investing in diplomatic ties with Western governments. This strategy has let Azerbaijan export oil and gas almost exclusively to the West ever since—the only state in the region with such privileges. They also circumvented both OPEC and Russian oil companies, thereby maintaining the country’s sovereignty. The strategy balanced Azerbaijan’s relationship with nearby Russia with close ties to the West.

Decades later, the Caspian states still haven’t come to a final agreement. Ilham’s gamble paid off handsomely.

De-Sovietizing the State

While Heydar had jump-started the country’s oil production with the help of his son, he had not managed to carry out state reform. Just like all post-Soviet republics, Azerbaijan inherited corrupt Soviet institutions and the corrupt officials who ran them. When Ilham was controversially elected in 2003 after his father’s death, he inherited that same Soviet husk.

Heydar, like so many apparatchiks, was betrayed by the Soviets after a lifetime of service to the regime. But Ilham’s early years suggest he always had an affinity for the West. He would turn out to be a true reformist. “It was uncertain at the time for [Ilham] Aliyev, whether he could stay on his feet,” Azerbaijani journalist Cavid Aga told me. “So he had to rely on Heydar’s apparatchiks.” But he was determined to forge his own legacy, and this reliance on the powerful old guard was short-lived.

As president, Ilham Aliyev embarked on a generational purge. He started spying on oligarchs and officials, banishing those caught red-handed engaging in corruption. By the end of the 2010s, Aliyev’s purge of the old guard was almost complete. But a few crucial figures still remained: one of these was his father’s second-in-command, Ramiz Mehdiyev. Ramiz was seen as a fifth column of the Russian regime within Azerbaijan. When Mehdiyev decided to flaunt the COVID rules and attend a wedding in 2020 while Azerbaijan was in lockdown, Aliyev seized on the opportunity. Mehdiyev was demoted from head of the presidential administration to head of the national academy and later stripped of all state responsibility.

Today, one of the only members of the old guard who remains is the current minister of emergencies, Kamaladdin Heydarov. “The rest are all completely defeated, or spending their last days in a resort in the UAE,” says Aga. “No one really knows what happened to them besides that they aren’t dead or in prison.”

Aliyev also used the pandemic to jail hundreds of functionaries belonging to the main opposition party, the Popular Front of Azerbaijan. Joining these political opponents in jail are hundreds of journalists, activists, and other opponents of the government from the last two decades. As of 2015, Azerbaijan had more than twice the number of political prisoners as Belarus and Russia combined.

Aliyev has supplanted those he purged with a team of English-speaking, Western-educated technocrats. “[It is] this inner circle that mostly decides on foreign policy. They are hawks that have all been educated in Turkey, the UK, or the U.S.,” says Aga.

Hikmet Hajiyev, one of Aliyev’s closest foreign policy advisors, is an archetypal example of the new generation. After studying international relations and law at Baku State University, Hajiyev obtained master’s degrees from NATO’s defense college in Rome and from the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. The latter is an institute run by the German and U.S. militaries. As the Head of the Foreign Policy Affairs Department of the Presidential Administration, he has proximity to power. But despite this, Hijayev is a presidential appointee that has no de jure decision-making authority. Hijayev’s role represents the ceiling faced by Aliyev’s new men in the Azerbaijani government.

Turkish and Western actors are thought to have played a significant role in curating this new class of advisors. “Aliyev brought them in as deputies first. Then he purged their superiors and had the deputies take their place,” Aga says. By ridding Azerbaijan of its Soviet cronies, Aliyev created a much more efficient state with a single hierarchy of effective political leadership. Aliyev’s selection for Western education does not just reflect a desire for competency; it buffers the influence that Russia once held over the old guard. What Aliyev has selected for, most of all, is loyalty to him personally. As far as power structures go, everything is centralized around him—especially in foreign policy.

Caviar Diplomacy and Palace Nepotism

Aliyev didn’t intend to root out corruption as such with his purges. While his father tolerated a certain degree of profiteering, Ilham Aliyev expects most corruption to flow through him and his family. “Heydar Aliyev maintained very tight control of corruption… he certainly wasn’t blatant about it in the way Ilham and his wife Mehribian and their respective families are today,” said Richard Kauzlarich, U.S ambassador to Azerbaijan from 1994 to 1997. In 1983, Ilham married Mehriban Pashayeva, whose grandfather was a famous Azerbaijani writer that already had amassed enormous wealth. He expanded the already-large Pashayev fortune by giving family members positions in government, which they have exploited for personal gain.

Ilham’s wife was made a member of parliament, and in 2009, a survey of journalists declared her, “the most active MP of 2009 in making legislative initiatives.” In 2017, Aliyev made her vice president of Azerbaijan. The extended family all have roles to play in maintaining Aliyev’s familial power. Nargiz Pashayeva, Aliyev’s sister-in-law, is the rector of Moscow State University’s Baku branch. His father-in-law, Arif Pashayev, runs the national aviation academy. Arif’s brother, Hafiz Pashayev, is a deputy minister of foreign affairs and served as U.S. ambassador for over 13 years. And so on it goes—the Pashayevs are now Azerbaijan’s most wealthy family by far. Their conglomerate, PASHA Holdings, owns seven of the ten largest banks in Azerbaijan, along with interests in tourism and insurance.

Aliyev faces little domestic resistance. This kind of nepotism is standard government procedure in modern Azerbaijan, as it was during Soviet times. Most dissidents know it’s best to keep their mouths shut and graciously accept the regime’s spoils. Those who don’t end up behind bars. Instead, it’s on the international stage where Aliyev faces substantial criticism, especially from enemy governments who might have the incentive to displace Aliyev’s favored position in the West.

To combat this, Aliyev has figured out how to manage his international detractors through intimidation and bribery. Azerbaijan manages a network of institutions whose purpose is to distribute funds throughout the West and ensure positive coverage in the media, allies in the business world, and defenders in politics. The network has been most active in Europe: in 2012, the European Sustainability Initiative used the term “caviar diplomacy” to describe Azerbaijan’s practice of bribing EU politicians. Doing state business in Azerbaijan is comfortable. The regime spends lavishly on hotel suites and dinners for its guests. Friendly journalists are offered access to Nagorno-Karabakh and other select locations. In 2017, Aliyev decided to give 255 loyal Azerbaijani journalists free apartments for their service to the regime.

But the real targets of Azerbaijan’s influence campaigns are politicians and business leaders who can use their positions to benefit the regime in more quiet ways. Focusing on mutual interests and quiet influence has brought the former Russian vassal wealth, power, and allies in the West and Asia to balance Moscow’s influence.

The same year Aliyev placated the journalists, the Pandora papers revealed a scheme in which the Azerbaijani government laundered $2.9 billion through four shell companies in the UK. Ali Nagiyev, who is responsible for battling corruption in Azerbaijan, was a “major user of the system.” According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, other recipients included “[a]t least three European politicians, a journalist who wrote stories friendly to the regime, and businessmen who praised the government… In some cases, these prominent individuals were able to mobilize important international organizations, such as UNESCO and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, to score [public relations] victories for the regime.” The European Sustainability Initiative described the scheme as the “biggest corruption scandal in the history of the Council of Europe.”

But these scandals haven’t damaged Azerbaijani relationships with Western capitals. Azerbaijan and the United Kingdom have a particularly warm relationship. British diplomats are the only ones in Baku who make the effort to learn Azerbaijani, and it was British Petroleum that won the contract to operate the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. British mining giant Anglo American PLC has large investments in Azerbaijan and has benefited enormously from Azerbaijan’s victory in Nagorno-Karabakh, as mining sites were seized from the Armenians. Azerbaijan was even invited to take part in Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, in which she was gifted a rare Karabakh horse. In 2021, it was revealed that Aliyev and his family had a secret real estate portfolio in London worth an astounding $694 million.

Another one of Azerbaijan’s closest diplomatic relationships in the past decade has been with Israel—likewise known for its hard realism in diplomacy. In any future conflict with Iran, Azerbaijan’s airspace will be crucial for the Israelis, and a 2012 Wikileaks report showed that Israel has secret bases in southern Azerbaijan near the Iranian border. The strengthening of ties between Israel and Azerbaijan was encouraged by the United States, whose officials presciently theorized in the 1990s that “the Israel-Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan axis, supported by the US, would be a counterweight to the Syria-Iran-Armenia-Russia axis.” Israel supplies Azerbaijan with 69% of its imported weaponry, and Azerbaijan supplies Israel with 40% of its energy needs in return. As Israel’s most hardline government in recent memory gets to work, and as tensions with Iran continue to rise, Israeli-Azerbaijani relations continue to strengthen.

Western powers treat Azerbaijan as a strategically compatible partner in Eurasia similar to Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. Because of their oil wealth and military collaboration, the West turns a blind eye to social and political issues. As with the Saudi royal family, Aliyev rules like a de-facto monarch with unquestionable power. But compared to Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan is a far more palatable ally for Western powers—Aliyev knows how to tout Azerbaijan’s ostensible diversity, secularism, and nominally democratic institutions. But these are mostly a façade, and Aliyev isn’t afraid of being called corrupt, tyrannical, or malevolent because bodies like the European Court of Human Rights have no jurisdiction over him and his allies. Let the United Nations be “deeply concerned.” It makes no difference.

A Pan-Turkic Future?

Despite Aliyev’s multilateral balancing act, he has not completely secured Azerbaijan from foreign influence. Aliyev has bound himself to the hip with Erdogan and Turkey. One incident that illustrates this is the purge of Najmaddin Sadikov. Formerly the chief of staff of Azerbaijan’s armed forces under Heydar Aliyev, he had secured the position of deputy defense minister by 2020 in Ilham’s government. But in July, on the eve of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war, two high-ranking generals were killed in a border skirmish. Rumors quickly spread that Sadikov was responsible—that he had passed information to Russia, who subsequently notified the Armenians.

While the government formally backed Sadikov, rare protests were allowed in Baku that denounced him as a traitor. Once the war began, Sadikov disappeared from the public eye completely.  Bahtiar Ersay, head of the Turkish task force in Azerbaijan, is rumored to have been instrumental in Sadikov’s purge.

The extent of Turkey’s direct influence became most evident in 2020 when Aliyev initiated the reconquest of Karabakh. The region’s fate had loomed large in Aliyev’s mind for decades. “I talk about this issue every single day,” he told Graeme H. Wilson in his 2013 biography of the president. “One-ninth of the people in my country are internally displaced persons. That issue dominates my life.” At one point, Wilson asked Aliyev if Karabakh would be returned to Azerbaijan in his lifetime. “In my presidency,” he firmly replied.

On September 27th, 2020, Azerbaijan launched a full-scale invasion of Armenian-controlled Karabakh. Progress was slow at first—Armenia had been fortifying their defense lines since their 1994 victory. A previous Azerbaijani invasion in 2016 had met so little progress that it was called off after only four days. But by 2020, Azerbaijan had gained a qualitative military edge. Syrian mercenaries were hired to fight on the frontline, but even more important were the Turkish and Israeli weapons supplied in the run-up to the conflict.

The invasion also served as an acid test of Azerbaijan’s “caviar diplomacy” to shore up support abroad. British and EU politicians were a prime target. British MP Bob Blackman has taken seven free trips to Azerbaijan since 2011 worth tens of thousands of pounds. Shortly before the war in 2020, Blackman explained how he had been lobbied on the issue: 

One of the things that happens, I’m afraid, in these types of conflicts is that […] whoever gets the best propaganda tends to grab the attention of the listeners and the viewers… And in this regard I’ve been fed the information through the Azerbaijan embassy in the UK—so they’ve been very, very helpful, very, very proactive from the start.

Armenia’s international strategy was primarily one of advocacy; attempting to convince the world of its moral superiority in the conflict. But this paled in comparison to what Azerbaijan was able to accomplish with its powerful relationships. After Russia brokered a ceasefire on November 10, Armenia was forced to relinquish large swaths of territory in addition to what Azerbaijan’s military had acquired in battle. Russian peacekeepers soon swept through what was left of Armenian-controlled Karabakh.

Aliyev rewarded his Turkish allies with an open display of unity. After Azerbaijan’s victory in November, Erdogan and his army joined Aliyev in Baku. The two leaders gave a joint address, military bands played Ottoman songs, and the Turkish flag was just as omnipresent as the Azerbaijani. In his speech, Erdogan praised the Ottoman general Enver Pasha, known as the architect of the Armenian genocide. Aliyev declared that they would soon return to Armenia’s capital of Yerevan, which they claim as ancestral land. When Erdogan visited the newly recaptured city of Shusha (Shushi in Armenian), Aliyev announced that “Azerbaijan will create a smaller version of the Turkish military.” The two armies now effectively operate as a single unit in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Aliyev’s decision to bind Azerbaijan to Turkey on this institutional level also reflects its ideological dimension. The two nations are bound by the ethnic bond of pan-Turkism, which espouses unity between Turkey and the ethnically Turkic states in Central Asia. Turkey has aggressively promoted the concept in recent years and Azerbaijan has been very receptive. The alliance is mutually beneficial: Azerbaijan is the tip of the spear against Armenia, one of Turkey’s most hated enemies. During his rule, Heydar had once declared Azerbaijan and Turkey “two nations, one people.” At the time, it was mere sloganeering. Ilham is making that a reality.

As Russia became preoccupied with the war in Ukraine, Aliyev began to suspect that it would not be able to maintain its commitments in the region. On September 12, 2022, he put that theory to the test and launched an attack along Armenia’s eastern border, even firing on Russian military positions. Under Russia’s defense pacts with Armenia, it should have responded with military force. Instead, Russia did nothing. Aliyev proved that the security guarantee was worthless. Turkey, in contrast, has always come through for its ally.

Under the Aliyev family, the country went from being a Soviet oil vassal to carrying out acts of war against Russia with impunity and tacit Western backing. Aliyev has not yet exhausted his potential territorial gains. Russian peacekeepers still remain in Karabakh, and so far he has not been able to force the Zangezur corridor through southern Armenia, which would give Azerbaijan unfettered access to its exclave of Nakhichevan. But the war in Ukraine allowed Aliyev to secure Azerbaijan’s largest energy deal since his time as vice president of SOCAR in the 1990s. In July, he signed a deal with the EU that will double Azerbaijan’s gas exports to the region by 2027, further cementing Azerbaijan’s economic power. “He is like a cat that always lands on his feet,” says Aga. “He uses every opportunity to forward his strategic goals.” So far, the strategy continues to pay dividends. Azerbaijan and Aliyev are more powerful than ever before.

Fin DePencier is a journalist and photographer based in Yerevan, Armenia. He is active on Instagram and tweets @finlookedintoit.