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Ilham Aliyev and the Making of Azerbaijan
Ilham Aliyev turned Azerbaijan from a Russian vassal into a pro-Western petrostate. Now, a new Turkish alliance and military victories against Armenia are revealing his ambitions for regional power.
The past two years have proved challenging for strongmen. Some were deposed, and others were unexpectedly confronted by challenging economic and military situations.
However, one of them has outshined the rest in his victories. That man would be Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan. Palladium correspondent Fin Depencier has released a new analysis-focused article that profiles Aliyev and how he won the West’s favors, despite the transparently authoritarian nature of his reign.
As a small country neighboring its sworn enemy, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 Azerbaijan had to find ways to generate revenue and make prevent itself from getting subjugated by its more powerful neighbors, Russia and Iran. By using “caviar diplomacy,” Aliyev was able to onboard Western stakeholders into Azerbaijan’s national project. Down the road, this would help explain the West’s muted response to Azerbaijan’s recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh against Armenia.
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.
Another classic problem for any incoming dictator is disciplining the ranks. While Aliyev began to staff his regime with Western-trained administrators and advisers, he had to also remove inconvenient powerholders from his father’s reign:
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.
The difference between Armenian and Azerbaijani soft power is instructive. While the Armenians have a wealthy, well-connected diaspora lobby in the United States and elsewhere, it mostly seems to translate into activism and awareness. The Azeris, meanwhile, leveraged strategic assets to establish strong diplomatic ties with the partners they needed, who would then turn a blind eye to its governance model and human rights record. Azerbaijan also doesn’t overcommit to one power, giving them the flexibility they need to stay sovereign. In this sense they behave in a way similar to nearby Kazakhstan or even Turkey.
Our correspondent Fin Depencier has done excellent reporting from the the Caucasus before. Check his 2021 article “Armenia Is an Orphaned Client State.”
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