I recently introduced the topic of “pet peeves” to my class of 10 students in Baku, Azerbaijan.
“A pet peeve,” I explained, “is something you find annoying about something or someone, that perhaps another person would not. Does anyone have a pet peeve they would like to share with us?”
A particularly bright girl in the back immediately raised her hand.
“My pet peeve is when the President’s motorcade comes through the city. It slows all the traffic down and creates huge problems for the rest of us. I hate it!”
There was a collective gasp followed by a silence which I immediately attempted to fill by moving on, though not before another student had replied.
“You can’t say that!”
It was true, even I knew the risk that the student was taking. A relatively trivial, insignificant comment such as this might have fateful consequences in a place like Azerbaijan. The wrong person getting word of such a remark, made by a 17-year old engineering student in her English class, and the rabid cult surrounding the Aliyev family was sure to bite.
And it wouldn’t be the first time.
There are currently over 140 journalists, bloggers, and political and religious activists serving prison terms in Azerbaijan. But bring this up to many in Azerbaijan and they proudly side with the government. People have jobs, relations with the West are closer than ever before, and Azerbaijan’s oil wealth has made it the richest country in the Caucasus. While friends can be bought with oil, as we’ve seen time and time again (ahem, Saudi Arabia), one thing money can’t buy is democracy. And people might have jobs, but what does “prosperous” mean when the average family in Azerbaijan makes 300 manat ($380) a month? Where exactly is all that oil wealth going?
Meet the Aliyevs. Azerbaijan’s worst family makes the notoriously power hungry, vengeful, egomaniacal Clintons look like amateurs. Heydar Aliyev is the now dead patriarch who “rescued” (read: seized) Azerbaijan after the post-independence blues wrought by the fall of the Soviet Union left it looking vaguely democratic, and the former KGB man quickly established his family as something of a brand name within the country.
Following his death in 2003, his son- and appointed successor- Ilham took the reins and unleashed the Aliyev cult at full force. By the time I moved to the country, in September 2014, there were over 60 museums and centers dedicated to Heydar Aliyev, including Baku’s recently renovated airport. As for how many monuments, paintings, and various other items emblazoned with Aliyev’s image there are, does anyone really know for sure?
A Canadian colleague I worked with in Baku had the brilliant idea, certain to be approved by the ruling government, to toss out the measurement systems of old entirely, and replace them with “Heydars,” as in, how many (billboards or signs with his image) Heydars would you spot while driving from Baku to Ganja (Azerbaijan’s second largest city)? A colorful betting game revolved around this new system of measurement and by all definitive accounts it appears to take 27 Heydars to travel the four and a half hours between the two cities.
On the surface the Aliyev family is a laughably easy target to lampoon. The wife is often seen hobnobbing with princes and sultans, one daughter is married to a Russian pop star and runs a style magazine designed (like much in Azerbaijan) to reach out to Westerners, and the son reportedly bought property worth $44 million in Dubai in 2011… when he was 11. The cumulative wealth of the three children’s property in Dubai alone is estimated to top $75 million. As for the President himself, he can be summed with just a few of his own tweets.
Azerbaijan and Armenia have been at it since 1989 over a previously forgotten patch of hilly terrain in between their two countries, in what was formerly Soviet Azerbaijan. Armenia swooped in and occupied the territory, leaving Azeris understandably upset. The area is still an active conflict zone and most Azeris won’t miss an opportunity to tell you of their evil neighbors to the southwest. But none can squeeze it into a tweet and still have characters to spare like Ilham Aliyev, who on January 13th succinctly tweeted the following, “Armenia is a powerless and poor country.”
When he isn’t tweeting about the weakness of Armenia or the good relations Azerbaijan has with the West (because his father bought and paid for them), Ilham touts the shipyards which now produce ships and the parks with trees in them.
You know things in your country are bad when your illegitimately elected President is touting the fact that your shipyards produce ships and your parks have trees.
I taught a class at a government owned oil fund which doubled as a kind of shrine for the Aliyevs, as there did not appear to be even one wall that didn’t reflect back at you the serene face of Aliyev Sr. or Jr.
One wall actually featured a seated monument of the elder Aliyev, on either side of which stood two bookshelves with books exclusively about the former Dear Leader as well as videotapes containing all of his many speeches.
While government propagated conspiracy theories abound (particularly in reference to Armenia), not all Azeris are so painfully ignorant.
As a former Azeri colleague put it while driving me to a class one day last October, “in public we praise the Aliyevs, but only because we don’t want to wind up in their prisons.”
For whatever reason Muslim countries seem to repel democracy like a cat repels mice, and the choice often seems to be between a strong man dictator (think Hosni Mubarak) or a medieval Islamist. Given the choice, it’s safe to say the West would rather deal with the former. But how odd that this always seems to be the only choice given. In any case, the area of the world containing Azerbaijan as well as the equally wacky and authoritarian “Stans,” seems ruled by father-son tandems who give no hint of letting go of the reins anytime soon. It’s North Korea lite, for those who prefer their dictators Western friendly and oil rich. The moniker “Corruptistan” fits so well it appears tailored.
Heydar: Hahaha! Look at all the priceless shit we have! Let’s rub it all over our faces! The West will love us now!
1. Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan: http://civicsolidarity.org/article/800/azerbaijan-updated-list-political-prisoners
2. On the cult of the Aliyevs and the number of public works dedicated to them: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heydar_Aliyev%27s_cult_of_personality
3. Ilham Aliyev’s (fantastically absurd) English Language Twitter Account: https://twitter.com/presidentaz
4. The Two Faces of Azerbaijan’s Mr. Aliyev: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/12/opinion/the-two-faces-of-azerbaijans-mr-aliyev.html?_r=0
5. Azerbaijan receives a democracy score of 6.68, on a scale from 1-7 with 7 as the worst possible score: https://freedomhouse.org/article/azerbaijan-pardons-small-number-political-prisoners#.VMP2tTRdaK0