The Power of a Presidential Personality
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Text by Lala Aliyeva


Heydar Aliyev’s face and name are seen throughout Azerbaijan -- from billboards and offices to a mosque and even an oil pipeline. But these are more than just images of a genial, elderly man or recollections of an Azerbaijani patriot. They are meant to show citizens how Azerbaijan defines itself.

In Soviet times, portraits and monuments of political leaders, and books and poems about their lives, were the norm. But after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, this practice persisted in Azerbaijan and was reduced to two leaders -- the late President Heydar Aliyev and his son, the current Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev.

Officially billed as “the father of the Azerbaijani nation,” Heydar Aliyev, the country’s former Communist Party and KGB boss, became president of post-Soviet Azerbaijan in 1993 and served until his death, at the age of 80, in 2003.

While Azerbaijanis displayed posters and photos of Aliyev during his presidency, the only monument in his honor existed in his native region of Nakhchivan.

That all changed in 2003, when his son, Azerbaijan’s current leader, 55-year-old Ilham Aliyev, was first elected president. Baku-born sociologist Sergey Rumyantsev, a specialist in memory politics, believes that the younger Aliyev, a comparative political novice, created a personality cult around his father to help reinforce his own power.

“Ilham does not have the biography his father had, nor does he have the same charisma. He is just the son of his father,” he said.

But the tributes to Heydar Aliyev are not just the work of the government. Azerbaijanis’ own attitude toward their late president plays a role, too.

Supporters flooded the streets of Baku in 1993 when Aliyev supplanted the tottering government of Azerbaijan’s first post-Soviet leader, Abulfaz Elchibey. Though under his rule, Azerbaijan lost control of the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh, it also gained significant wealth -- and economic stability -- from the 1999 Contract of the Century for the development of offshore oil fields.  

Ordinary Azerbaijanis may display Heydar Aliyev’s photo to show their loyalty to the government or, in the case of a personal photo with the former president, to solve problems with officials, commented Rumantsyev. But they also do so as a genuine sign of respect.

“There is no special law for disseminating posters or building monuments,” he noted. “There is a need to commemorate Heydar Aliyev. People choose [to do so] this way and they cannot think of any other ways.”

For all the criticism of alleged rights abuses under both the Aliyevs, the fact that “there are real people who voted both for the father and his son” cannot be discounted, he added.

Some even use a recording of one of Heydar Aliyev’s best known quotes -- “I am proud to be an Azerbaijani” -- as the ringtone for their cell phones.

What the late President Aliyev would think of such commemorations is open to debate. But one remark provides a hint.

“The people love me. I can’t do anything about that,” he told a group of visiting reporters from former Soviet republics in 2001, the BBC’s Russian service reported.

He went on to claim that he had urged the head of government in the regional city of Ganja not to erect a statue in his honor. “I called him and said that it’s unnecessary. He resisted, but I told him ‘When I die, then put up a statue . . . ‘“

It looks like Azerbaijan has more than respected that wish.

Sumgayit’s Nariman Narimanov Cultural Center features a monument to the famed Bolshevik revolutionary and writer whose name the building bears, but, inside, posters of the late President Heydar Aliyev dominate.
A portrait of Heydar Aliyev holds pride of place in a craftsman’s shop in the city of Sumgayit.
At the slaughter of sheep for the Muslim celebration of Qurban Bayram, a man wears a t-shirt that declares “Forward with Ilham,” a motto of President Ilham Aliyev’s administration and the name of a pro-government youth organization. Many Azerbaijanis often wear the shirts, distributed for free during Aliyev’s 2008 presidential campaign.
In Sadarak bazaar , a portrait of the late President Heydar Aliyev appears alongside the Azerbaijani flag and that of Azerbaijan’s closest ally, Turkey. Such displays are common, and often also feature Aliyev alongside portraits of Shi’a religious figures
In a new Baku building, a portrait of 55-year-old President Ilham Aliyev serves as a backdrop for one of his late father, President Heydar Aliyev.
Debating the right choice? A supermarket in Sumgayit placed a selection of table covers before a portrait of Presidents Ilham and Heydar Aliyev deep in discussion.
Inspiration for the young: A Sumgayit kindergarten features photos from the late President Heydar Aliyev’s career. The photos’ title declares that “Sumgayit is the beautiful embodiment of Azerbaijan.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, photos of President Heydar Aliyev appeared alongside Azerbaijan’s flag and map on Soviet-era monuments.
Heydar Aliyev acknowledges passers-by in a central square in the northern Azerbaijani town of Qakh.
In a decrepit train station in the northern town of Qakh, a gigantic photo of a smiling Heydar Aliyev easily outsizes passengers.
A shop in Sumgayit’s bazaar offers a carpet of President Ilham Aliyev alongside that of a butterfly and a depiction of the revered Shi’a figures Imam Hussein and his martyred baby son, Ali Asghar.
Heydar and Ilham Aliyev, father and son, depicted in a carpet on sale in Sumgayit’s bazaar.
A bus station’s billboard of President Heydar Aliyev becomes one of the sights on a bus ride in the western town of Shamkir.
On state holidays, some schoolchildren wear badges that promote the late President Heydar Aliyev as “the father of the Azerbaijani nation.”
The so-called “leader of the new century,” President Ilham Aliyev, on display among books from earlier times at an antique bookshop in Baku, 2015.
On national holidays and during significant public events like elections, state TV channels always display a corner photo of the late President Heydar Aliyev.
An image of the late President Heydar Aliyev flags a broadcast related to the short-lived (1918-1920) Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, eventually supplanted by the Soviet Union which Aliyev served.


This material may contain terms, which are not favored by all the parties of the dispute/conflict. Terms used in the material belong to the author and not Chai-Khana.

Chai Khana
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