Rarely a day goes by that I don’t see this gentleman’s image hung on a wall, perched on a table, or gracing the side of a building or billboard:
Friends and family back home, if you don’t know who this is, get ready for a little lesson in Azerbaijani political history. This is Heydər Əliyev, the first stable president of independent Azerbaijan. (His name is commonly spelled like this in our alphabet: Heydar Aliyev.) I knew about Mr. Əliyev before I arrived in Azerbaijan, thanks to the book Azerbaijan Diary by American reporter and academic Thomas Goltz. The book chronicles Goltz’s time in Azerbaijan as the USSR crumbled (early 1990s), and explains in great detail the power struggle amongst Baku’s political elite. It’s actually really confusing, not because Goltz is a bad writer (definitely not), but because he’s writing about messy history: the process a former USSR republic faced as it learned how to become an independent country in the modern age. Yikes.
Now, I must say, I would NOT have wanted to be a major power player in that situation. Can you imagine starting an independent country…sorting the logitics of borders, an army, your resources, laws, the safety of millions of people, all while watching your own back as factions develop and alliances constantly shift?
Hell no. No, thank you.
Anyway, one man came up repeatedly in Goltz’s narrative, the guy I mentioned earlier…
Mr. Əliyev was actually born in Naxçıvan (or, Nakhchivan), an autonomous republic of Azerbaijan sandwiched firmly between Armenia and Iran. Naxçıvan also shares a teeny tiny border with Turkey, something like 4 miles in length:
Əliyev was a household name prior to independence, being a key leader within the Soviet system. This meant that when the Soviet Union ceased to be, he had powerful friends but also plenty of enemies in Baku. He whisked himself away between Moscow and Naxçıvan in self-imposed exhile and layed low for a few years. It proved to be a smart move, as he smoothly transitioned into the role of president in 1993 at the behest of the populace, and maintained the office until his death in 2003. He actually died in Cleveland, OH while undergoing care for heart issues.
Upon arriving in Baku, I’ve been struck by how prevalent his image is throughout the city. It reminds me of Atatürk in Turkey, whose face I saw in paintings hung in offices and recital halls, and banners draped over the sides of buildings:
And as I’ve traveled, I’ve noted Əliyev’s face and name on a regular basis, even in the most remote mountain towns and villages deep in the hinterlands. Below are just a handful of examples:
It’s hard to equate this with anything in American culture…but think of a famous political and military figure who served a pivotal role in American history, someone who set many standards for not only presidential behavior, but for citizen behavior. George Washington is an easy example. Now imagine if portraits of George Washington were displayed everywhere, and if a few major streets in every city were called “George Washington Street,” and if a significant number of public theaters, halls, cultural centers, parks, universities, and charitable organizations were named after the founding father.
Yes, it’s a lot. It’s impossible to go through a day without hearing, reading, or seeing his name or face in some form or another.
I mentioned earlier that Heydər passed away in 2003; so who is president of Azerbaijan now?
Mr. Ilham Əliyev, his son, became president immediately after and it looks as though he’ll remain for a while longer. Political “royalty” (so to speak) isn’t unknown in American political culture; the Bush’s and Clinton’s are prime examples, the Kennedy’s and Adams’ even earlier.
Yet it’s an awkward prospect, especially in a young country practicing democracy for the first time. But, maybe it’s good to have a singular leader/family for a sense of consistency, especially in as volatile a region as the Caucasus. On the other hand, there are also benefits of bringing in new blood to diversify the political scene. I argue that it is too soon to speculate which is better for the situation; this will have to be the work of historians and political scientists down the road.
In the meantime, I’m still getting used to running into Mr. Əliyev on a daily basis. Coming from an entirely different cultural background, I’ll admit that it’s a little strange. But I gotta hand it to him, he was a man who lived through tumultuous times and got Azerbaijan on its feet. Anyone who serves his or her country like that deserves to be “the man of the hour” for many hours.
Until next time… (: