From Nepotism to Monarchy: Mapping Azerbaijan’s Dynastic Descent

Another brick in the dynasty of the Aliyev-Pashayev families has been laid.

President of Azerbaijan llham Aliyev appointed his wife Mehriban Aliyeva the first Vice President of Azerbaijan last week on February 21.

Leading world media outlets reacted to this news, including

the Washington Post

, and social networks exploded with commentary on this surprising event.

But what’s so surprising? It’s worth noting this is nothing new – the dynasty of Aliyev rule in Azerbaijan was established back in 2003, and continues to flourish and gain strength.

‘Dynasty’, in translation from the Greek δῠναστεία, means ‘reign’. Historically, dynasties have been families of czars and emperors – members of the family replaced one another on the throne by right of inheritance. But in the post-Soviet space, this phenomenon has thus far only taken place in Azerbaijan.

Back in September of last year, an article was published with an analysis of constitutional reform in Azerbaijan. The article mentioned that in 2003 Ilham Aliyev received power from his father, and this was the first, and to this day the only, transfer of power by inheritance in the post-Soviet space.

Over the years of the Aliyevs’ rule in Azerbaijan, almost all civic institutions have been destroyed and the free press has been suppressed. The government of Azerbaijan is viewed by international institutions as corrupt and authoritarian.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) named Ilham Aliyev its ‘Person of the Year’ in terms of corruption back in 2012. In the 2016 ‘Corruption Perceptions Index’ report, published by the international organization Transparency International, Azerbaijan took 123rd place out of 176 countries. Two of the people of interest in the so-called Panama Papers are the president of Azerbaijan and his spouse, Mehriban Aliyeva, who have constructed a whole ‘offshore empire’.

But this isn’t such a simple story as might seem to be the case at first glance. In fact, it began in now-distant 1969, with the appointment of KGB General Heydar Aliyev as First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan. Having once more come to power after the country attained independence and riding on the wave of the Karabakh war, Heydar Aliyev effectively began building dynastic power in Azerbaijan in 1993.

The first move, in 1994, was appointing his own son, Ilham Aliyev, vice president of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan and later president of the National Olympic Committee of Azerbaijan in 1997.

Since that time, this has been an unbroken chain, passing through three constitutional referendums (in 2002, 2009, and 2016), and gradually power has been passed to members of the Aliyev family. The logical next link in this tendency was the appointment of the current president’s wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as Vice President of Azerbaijan.

In addition to being vice president, Mehriban Aliyeva currently heads the  Culture Foundation of Azerbaijan. She is the president of the Azerbaijan Gymnastics Federation, president of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, a deputy of the National Assembly, the deputy chair of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, and is also a volunteer ambassador to UNESCO and the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO). She has been awarded the highest honor of the Azerbaijan Republic, the Heydar Aliyev Order.

In the opinion of political analyst

Leyla Aliyeva

, “The appointment of one’s wife as Vice President says quite a lot. Although this was not a surprise for the majority of analysts and even the public, some had nevertheless hoped for a negative reaction from Europe, the USA and European institutions.

Let’s remember, however, that at the end of the 90s, there were very few people in the country who hoped that the country might transform into a dynastic monarchy, and that power would be handed over from father to son without repercussions.

But this happened, and even with the approval and support of some Western actors.

This so-called monarchy is a combination of Soviet heritage, oil money, and a society bled dry, and does not have any sort of social legitimacy. The country has, in essence, been transformed into a family business. Legislation is drafted according to the interests of a narrow political elite, but often politics outstrips legislation: in this instance, the appointment is in contradiction to not only international law but also national legislation.

From a historical point of view this is a complete departure from the foundations of the modern national government and a return to a medieval form of government. And this is despite almost a century and a half of modernization of the Azerbaijani people and despite the fact that the constitution still asserts that Azerbaijan’s system of government is that of a republic”.

The political expert also notes here several ‘hidden reefs’, emphasizing the struggle of the family clans that effectively own the country: “The new appointment also reflects an acknowledgement of the strength of the Pashayev Clan, and this is also a signal for other interest groups”.

Ильхам Алиев награждает Мехрибан Алиеву орденом ”Гейдар Алиев”, 2015 г.
President Ilham Aliyev awards First Lady Mehriban Ailyeva with Azerbaijan’s highest medal of honor: ‘Heyadr Aliyev’ in 2015

It’s interesting that already 13 years ago the legendary journalist

Elmar Huseynov

(killed in 2005 in the entryway to his home) wrote about precisely this topic in the magazine


(No. 44, 17.01.2004) in the article “When will an end to oppression arrive?” [“Когда наступит конец ига?”]:

“… Ilham Aliyev has been wound up in iron clamps. Control over him (total, at that) has passed to his spouse. She straight away removed all friends with a bad influence on him from his surroundings. And since practically all the president’s friends had a bad influence on him, now there is nobody near him other than his spouse and her relatives.

From now on, access to the president will be only via Mehriban Aliyeva. This has led to an unprecedented strengthening of not only her personal position. People have begun speaking of a repeat in Azerbaijan of the ‘Raisa Maksimova Syndrome’, and of a strengthening of the positions of the entire Pashayev Clan, of which the first lady is a part. […] Mehriban Aliyeva has become the primary visionary of change. She is demanding that her husband break from Heydar’s weighty legacy and replace it with other individuals.”

Isa Gambar, chairman of the Center for National Strategic Research and former presidential candidate from the Musavat Party, believes that “this is simply hideous and a disgrace, this is, simply put, disrespect for society”.

Assessments of this appointment by the public are incredibly varied. For example, in his commentary  for Radio Liberty, the head of the Institute for Democratic Initiatives, lawyer

Akif Qurbanov

, noted that the appointment the president’s wife contradicts Article 7 (Prohibiting collaborative work between close relatives) of the Law of the Azerbaijan Republic on Combating Corruption.

Law of the Azerbaijan Republic on Combating Corruption.

Article 7. Prohibiting collaborative work between close relatives.

7.1. Close relatives of officials cannot take up a post directly subordinate to them, with the exclusion of elected positions and other cases provided for in legislation.

7.2. In the case that an individual who has violated the requirements of Article 7.1. of this Law does not voluntarily rectify this violation within 30 days of the violation being detected, that individual must be transferred to a different post wherein the aforementioned subordination is terminated; if this is not possible, one of the individuals shall be removed from their post.

Qurbanov believes that in this case, either the law in question (signed by Ilham Aliyev on January 13, 2004) needs to be annulled, or the Aliyevs should get a divorce. Otherwise, according to the law, one of them must resign.

A political cartoon on this topic by the artist

Gunduz Aghayev

was published in an article by the publication

The Huffington Post


”Президент должен быть таким!” Художник Гюндуз Агаев

Acting director of the Carl Becker Center

Movsun Hajiyev

believes that “there is one, essential detail of the recent appointment in Baku: it in no way serves the interests of the existing power elite. Quite the opposite, they are taking losses, and the best case scenario (for them)? They will be nothing but figureheads.

It is easily understood that this is simply the next move to further concentrate power in the hands of The Family.

Some speculate that the second vice-president will also be one of The Family: the permanent chair of the Supreme Assembly of Nakhchivan and husband to Ilham Aliyev’s cousin, Vasif Talybov.

The final result will be the complete assurance that power continues to be inherited. For precisely this reason the government made changes to the Constitution and removed age limits: now, to become president of Azerbaijan, it’s not necessary that the candidate even be 35 years of age. A higher education is now enough, something that Heydar Aliyev Jr. will soon complete. In this case, the ‘crown prince and queen regent’ setup looks fairly convincing.

But the ruling clan already has experience transferring power by inheritance. Let’s think back to 2003. At that time, the post of Prime Minister was used in this same setup. And indeed, it would have been enough now to appoint Her Majesty prime minister and she would have acted as interim during the transition period to ensure the inheritance of power.

But there’s one detail. The Prime Minister is a technical position which also has administrative functions: for example, representing the country in international negotiations. Ilham Aliyev is not yet an old man, the state of his health means that he’ll be able to continue guiding the clan for a long time. The post of first vice president, which is not answerable for anything but which has the power to take the wheel in force-majeure circumstances, is the most advantageous version for her.

By the way, this doesn’t rule out another version: that the First Lady is already discontent with the role of the country’s sole philanthropist and has decided she wants to seriously get involved in running the government. But neither version resolves the main problem. In 2003, the elite was united in the opinion that power should be transferred to Ilham Aliyev.

At the present moment, the Deep State is controlled by a group that is clearly not thrilled about a strengthened role for the Pashayev Clan. In such a situation, the name of the officeholder’s post has little effect on the positive outcome for the clan. On the contrary, there is one thing more: Mehriban Aliyeva’s name was previously only mixed up in financial machinations, but she wasn’t in any way directly answerable for government activities. Now the situation has changed”.


Khadija Ismayilova

’s investigation showed that the family of the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, holds a sum total of three billion USD of assets in the foremost Azerbaijani banks, and this is just the tip of the Aliyev Clan’s financial iceberg.

It is characteristic of the autocracy that has been established in Azerbaijan that not one highly-placed official and not one functionary of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, wherein Mehriban Aliyeva is deputy chair to her husband, dared to comment on the appointment of the president’s wife as first vice president. Clearly it would be unbecoming of civil servants to comment on this or that action of those bearing the crown.

However, new wave of arrests became a hallmark of the past week. Primarily young people from opposition parties were arrested on various charges.

Cable television operators announced that, on February 22, the Turkish TV channel FOX will be removed from broadcast within Azerbaijan. A day before this, the TV channel aired a critical segment on the appointment of Mehriban Aliyeva as first vice president of Azerbaijan, and the anchor, Fatih Portakal provided humorous commentary on Azerbaijan’s political system.

It is extremely interesting that just two weeks before the appointment, on February 2, a statement from the head of the religious society Tövbə (Penitence) and mosque akhoond ‘Imam Hussein’

Hadji Abdul

was published in the press, in which he stated that “he sees Mehriban Aliyeva, at first in the position of first vice president, and later on as president.”

According to him, “Mehriban Aliyeva has major ties abroad, is in favor with world political centers, is beloved by Azerbaijani society, and has a good grasp of the political-economic situation in the country, and because of this there are no alternatives to her, she must become president”.

At the time, this unambiguous statement was not paid particular attention, but now it turns out that this was either information released to Hadji Abdula from the top, to feel out the public, or the head of the religious society is moonlighting as a Nostradamus. It is interesting that this spiritual figure also said the following in that statement: “Mehriban Aliyeva will also facilitate the resolution of the Karabakh conflict via negotiations”.

Strange as it might be, military activities did, indeed, resume in Nagorno-Karabakh three days after the appointment. They have already on multiple occasions been fired up in perfect sync with key political events in the region. Such was the case, for example, after the presidential elections in Armenia in 2008. Then the military actions in the Karabakh theater began immediately after the police herded demonstrators onto Freedom Square with clubs and tasers.

One way or another, in both countries – in Armenia, just as in Azerbaijan – clashes on the front have become a unique indicator of important events in internal politics. This was stated live on Meydan.TV by the director of the CDSI (Caspian Defense Studies Institute), by military expert

Jasur Sumerinli


Such was the case this time as well.

And how many more cases will there be?

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