Travels in the Former Soviet Union

The Cult of Heydar Aliyev
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 20 2008 1:27 PM

Travels in the Former Soviet Union

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Click here to launch a slide show on day 2: the cult of Heydar Aliyev.

GANJA, Azerbaijan—In the State History Museum of Ganja, Azerbaijan's second city, there is a painting called "A Great Voice Rises From Moscow." It shows an ethereal being plunging a fiery sword into a chaotic city full of rioters. Clearly, there is a message here, but for the life of me, I can't figure out what it is.

"This is in 1990, when Russians and Armenians were attacking our people and we said, 'Heydar Aliyev, come help us,' " explains my guide, Ulker, a second-year university student in history. But I don't understand the sword and who is holding it, I say. "This is God saying, 'Enough,' " she explains.

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That painting is subtle compared with one in the next room that features a bare-chested Mikhail Gorbachev peering over the turret of a tank that he is driving across a map of Azerbaijan. Gorbachev—who is portrayed as hairy as a gorilla—is thrusting a long spear at Baku, the capital. From outside Azerbaijan's borders, sharks and wolves attack from various directions.

"This one is about how everyone attacked us like animals," Ulker explains.

By most measures, Azerbaijanis shouldn't have this victimization complex. Their economy is the fastest-growing in the world, and with vast, recently discovered reserves of oil and gas off the Caspian Sea coast, they (unlike most of the neighbors) have largely been able to run their country without interference from the United States or Russia, both of which are eager to curry favor with the government rather than strong-arm it.

But Azerbaijan still smarts from the humiliating loss of nearly 14 * percent of its territory, including the former autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, to its enemies, the Armenians. Aliyev, who died in 2003 and was succeeded by his son, Ilham, skillfully manipulated this humiliation to build his personality cult into one of the most extensive in the world.

Today, Azerbaijan is full of Heydar Aliyev boulevards, parks, statues, and billboards. Every history museum has at least one room devoted to Heydar Aliyev, and every major town has a museum devoted exclusively to him. An American who taught in Azerbaijan tells me that the school curriculum is similarly Heydar-heavy.

Throughout the museum in Ganja, a simple narrative explains the country's recent history: Armenia attacked Azerbaijan without provocation, Russia schemed behind the scenes to help the Armenians, and no one in the world was on Azerbaijan's side. Then Heydar Aliyev came to lead Azerbaijan into the era of peace and prosperity it currently enjoys.

"All people love Heydar Aliyev," Ulker says. "Before, we used to be poor. Now we are rich. He doesn't think about his family; he only thinks about the Azerbaijani people," she says.

Ulker asks whether I'd been to Armenia and whether I liked Armenian people. "Of course. They're good people, like everywhere," I say. She is shocked: "No! They killed our people." I say that Azeris killed Armenians, too. "No, they didn't," she insists.

I expected the anti-Armenian propaganda. But what surprises me is how many anti-Russian elements the narrative contains. The standard villain is "the Armenians and Russians," always paired together. In the room on World War II, Ulker explains how Azerbaijan sent people to fight fascism and Moscow took 80 percent of Azerbaijan's oil. "Before, the Russians took all our oil and gave it to other countries, and we were poor. Now we're independent, and we can sell the oil ourselves," she says.

Over-the-top propaganda notwithstanding, most Azerbaijanis do seem to like Heydar Aliyev. Even his critics admit that he was shrewd and highly intelligent and that his strong hand was what Azerbaijan needed in the chaos of the early 1990s, during which he succeeded two feckless post-Soviet presidents at a time when many observers doubted Azerbaijan could survive as an independent country. And most people, while rarely as devoted as Ulker, don't admit any reservations about him. They do, however, seem faintly embarrassed about the abundance of memorials.

"When he was ruling the country, he didn't let this cult of personality get too out-of-hand," says Eldar Namazov, a former top aide to Heydar Aliyev who broke with the president in the late 1990s and now heads a small opposition political party. "He was smart, and he knew what he was doing."

"But the people in charge now aren't as smart. They're going too far, and now people are laughing at it," he says. He describes a fountain in Baku, which, at its grand opening, spouted a wall of water on which was projected a movie of Heydar Aliyev saying, "The independence of Azerbaijan will be forever." Namazov laughs at the memory. "I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes," he says.

The current regime has concerns about its legitimacy, and the celebrations of Heydar Aliyev are a way of shoring up their authority, one Western diplomat tells me. He says the government is tying the broad national agenda that Heydar Aliyev established—secularism and a Western orientation—to the personality of Aliyev, who is regarded by most Azerbaijanis as the founder of their nation.

"Ataturk is everywhere in Turkey, and he represents secularism and democracy. Here it's the same thing: Heydar Aliyev represents a secular government and an orientation toward the West," the diplomat says.

The proliferation of Aliyev memorials across the country is not ordered from the top, both the diplomat and Namazov say; overzealous local officials are to blame.

"Power is pretty much concentrated at the top here, and local officials understand that to curry favor with the central government they can put up these statues and parks," the diplomat says.

Namazov tells me the narrative that I saw in the Ganja museum is one that Heydar Aliyev himself established. "He had a standard story that he told a million times whenever he met international officials or journalists. If the person was new in the region, he told the long version, which took maybe an hour. If the person knew what he was doing, he got the short version, which was 15 or 20 minutes."

"There were several key episodes in the story," he says. Heydar Aliyev was invited to go to Moscow to be part of the Soviet government, but he didn't want to go. If he hadn't been from a Muslim republic, he would have been premier of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev schemed against him. He left the Communist Party as a protest against Soviet policy on Nagorno-Karabakh. He then went back to Nakhcivan, his hometown, to be a private citizen. After the first two disastrous governments of independent Azerbaijan, "the people" demanded that he come to Baku and lead them. As president, there were two assassination attempts and, again, "the people" saved him.

"He also told this story around Azerbaijan, and this is the same story you see today—maybe with some embellishments," he says. "Like the sharks."

Correction, May 26, 2008: This story originally stated that Azerbaijan suffered the loss of nearly 20 percent of its territory. Most analysts estimate the loss at closer to 14 percent. (Return to corrected sentence.)

Joshua Kucera is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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