How Azerbaijan Botched Its Effort To Win Friends in Mexico

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Jan. 30 2013 4:15 PM

Monumental Mistakes

How Azerbaijan botched its effort to win friends and influence people in Mexico City.

Sculpture of former president of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev, pictured on October 22, 2012, at Reforma avenue, in Mexico City.
Sculpture of former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, pictured on Oct. 22, 2012, in Mexico City

Photo by Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

Last August, a statue of Heydar Aliyev, who ruled Azerbaijan from 1993 to 2003, was erected along Mexico City's grand Paseo de la Reforma, in a park renamed the “Mexico-Azerbaijan Friendship Park.” Around the same time, the Azerbaijani government built a second monument in a different park in memory of Azeri villagers killed by Armenian forces in 1992; the plaque in front of the statue refers to the massacre as a “genocide.” Azerbaijan had renovated both public spaces at a cost of about $5.4 million.

The inauguration of the Aliyev monument was attended by several top Mexican government officials, including the mayor. But the Mexican public, then engrossed in a presidential election campaign, paid little attention to a statue of a man who once led a country 8,000 miles away.

When the nouveau riche attempt to use their money to buy respect and prestige, it often backfires. Such was the case of the Azerbaijani government’s effort to honor its former president. Because once Mexico City residents became aware of the statue that had risen in their midst, they saw the effort for what it was: an authoritarian government clumsily trying to buy influence and whitewash the legacy of a dictator.

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This past weekend it ended in humiliation for Azerbaijan, when city workers, guarded by 200 police in riot gear, loaded the monument onto a flatbed truck in the middle of the night and carted it away. “Now everybody talks about Azerbaijan, but in a bad way,” said Guillermo Osorno, a prominent journalist and member of a government commission appointed to study the monuments.

Aliyev's legacy is a complex one. Most Azeris credit him with leading their country, an oil-rich ex-Soviet republic wedged in between Russia and Iran, out of a deep crisis in the 1990s, when Azerbaijan's economy collapsed and the country lost a disastrous war with Armenia. Aliyev's steady hand put the country on a path to prosperity; the country enjoyed double-digit GDP growth for more than a decade. But he was also a ruthless dictator, true to his roots as a former head of Soviet Azerbaijan's KGB.

Azerbaijan is now led by Aliyev's son, Ilham, who has aggressively built up a cult of personality to his father. Heydar Aliyev's presence is ubiquitous in Azerbaijan. Posters and billboards of the ex-president look down at citizens everywhere, every city has a major street named after him, and there are more than 60 museums and cultural centers across the country that bear his name. In 2008, Baku State University created a “Department of Aliyev Studies.”

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The Heydar Aliyev sculpture

Photo by Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

But the internationalization of his cult of personality is a newer development. Over the last several years, Azerbaijan has arranged for at least 14 statues of Aliyev to be erected around the world, mainly in the Middle East and the former communist world. Mexico City's was the one farthest away from Azerbaijan and the first in the Western hemisphere.

Along with the Aliyev cult of personality, Azerbaijan also has been trying to advance its own interpretation of disputed recent history. In particular, it has sought international recognition of the 1992 massacre of hundreds of Azeri civilians in the village of Khojaly as a genocide. While certainly a war crime, the massacre—by official Azerbaijani accounts, 485 were killed—falls several orders of magnitude short of what is conventionally considered an attempt to wipe out an entire people. The massacre took place during the war over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Azerbaijan ultimately lost and the recapture of which is now the country’s top priority. So the real aim of the Khojaly campaign appears to be a weakening of Armenia's greatest claim to moral authority: its own genocide, when between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman forces in 1915.

Until recently, Azerbaijan had been making good progress in advancing its agenda in Mexico. Mexico's Senate in 2011 passed a resolution calling Khojaly a “genocide,” one of only a handful of governments in the world to do so. (Mexico has never formally recognized the events of 1915 as such.) The same year, Mexico City's Museum of Memory and Tolerance hosted an event commemorating Khojaly.

But Azerbaijan seems to have overreached with the Aliyev statue. The monument initially drew little notice—as early as April, four months before it was erected, the Azerbaijani Embassy said it wanted a monument to Aliyev in the park. But the controversy only began in early September, a couple of weeks after the statue’s inauguration.