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Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: Who is Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev?

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev moved closer to asserting rule over the separatist region of Karabakh this week, in what would mark a major victory for the autocratic leader of almost two decades.

Issued on: 21/09/2023 – 14:54

3 min

A file photo of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev reviewing the honour guard with the Hungarian President (unseen) during a welcoming ceremony for him in front of the parliament building at Kossuth square in Budapest on January 30, 2023.
A file photo of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev reviewing the honour guard with the Hungarian President (unseen) during a welcoming ceremony for him in front of the parliament building at Kossuth square in Budapest on January 30, 2023. © Attila Kisbenedek, AFP

Wresting control over Nagorno-Karabakh had been a longtime goal of Aliyev, who took over in 2003 after the death of his father Heydar Aliyev, a former Soviet KGB officer and Communist-era boss.

The 61-year-old has won every election since, maintaining his family’s tight grip over the oil-rich Caspian Sea state in polls denounced by the opposition as fixed.

Supporters have praised the Aliyevs for turning the republic – once thought of as a Soviet Union backwater – into a flourishing energy supplier to Europe, hosting Formula 1 races, UEFA football matches and the Eurovision Song Contest.

But critics argue they have crushed dissent and used their power to amass a fortune that funds a lavish lifestyle for the president and his family, while whitewashing human rights abuses.

Aliyev has always denied all accusations of corruption and human rights violations.

The Aliyev Dynasty

Likened in leaked US diplomatic cables to the fictional mob boss Michael Corleone, Aliyev amended the country’s constitution in 2009 so he could run for an unlimited number of presidential terms.

Then in 2016, Azerbaijan adopted constitutional amendments that controversially extended the president’s term in office to seven years from five.

The changes drew criticism from Council of Europe constitutional law experts as “severely upsetting the balance of powers” and giving the president “unprecedented” authority.

In 2017, the president appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyeva as first vice president.

Born into the powerful Pashayev family, she is sometimes seen as a possible successor or even rival to her husband.

The next generation of the Aliyev dynasty looks set to continue the family’s leading role in Azerbaijani politics.

In 2010, The Washington Post reported property worth $75 million in Dubai in the names of the president’s son Heydar and his daughters Arzu and Leyla.

Often spotted at lavish red carpet events abroad, Leyla, 39, and Arzu, 34, are thought to control substantial businesses interests of their own.

‘New problems’

Bolstered by billions in oil money, Aliyev has overseen years of steady economic growth and followed a pragmatic foreign policy agenda, treading carefully between Russia and the West.

He has maintained strong ties with historic ally Turkey and its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been a vocal proponent of Baku throughout unrest around Nagorno-Karabakh.

And Western leaders have also turned to Aliyev, who has marketed Azerbaijan as a crucial supplier of gas to European nations seeking to wean themselves off Russian supplies following the war in Ukraine.

But Aliyev’s foreign politics have largely been eclipsed by Baku’s decades long war with Armenian forces, upon which hinges much of his popularity.

The end of Azerbaijan’s latest operation in the separatist region will undoubtedly boost Aliyev’s ratings, independent political analyst Shahin Hajiyev told AFP.

“But he will be facing new problems now in fulfilling his promise to ensure the rights of Karabakh’s Armenians,” he said.

War in Karabakh

Aliyev has repeatedly blasted Armenia for “illegally occupying” Karabakh – recognised internationally as part of Azerbaijan – and peace talks with Yerevan have yielded little results.

Six weeks of fighting in autumn 2020 ended with a Russian-brokered ceasefire that saw Armenia cede swathes of land it had gained during fighting in the 1990s.

And after heavy bombardment from Azerbaijani forces and dozens of deaths, Armenian separatists in the conflict-ridden region grudgingly agreed Wednesday to lay down their arms and hold reintegration talks.

This process may be more difficult than the military operation itself, Hajiyev said.

If Azerbaijan fails to ensure Armenian rights in line with international standards, this, Hajiyev warned, “will be a negative factor affecting the image of both Aliyev and the country on the international arena.”


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