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.
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.