After successfully launching an attack against Artsakh in 2020, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has taken every opportunity to take personal credit for their military successes, along with his family. During his visit to Shushi and Hadrut, Ilham Aliyev was accompanied by his wife, Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva, donning camouflage military uniforms. Neither Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov nor any other representative of the Azerbaijani military personnel can be seen next to Aliyev during his frequent visits, which are often accompanied by provocative rhetoric and anti-Armenian speeches. During a December 2020 military parade in Baku, only Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was standing next to Ilham Aliyev to share the laurels of the victory.
It is noteworthy that, although Aliyev described the operation as the “War of Salvation”, it did not lead to anyone receiving the ultimate distinction of “National Hero” in Azerbaijan. Instead, a list of “Heroes of the Patriotic War” was created, consisting of 83 people; none of them has ever appeared next to the Azerbaijani President. Why doesn’t Aliyev want to share the limelight and the credit? And who are the ones Aliyev should indeed be grateful to for Azerbaijan’s military success?
During the 44-day war, the Chief of the General Staff of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces and the First Deputy Minister of Defense of Azerbaijan Najmeddin Sadikov suddenly “disappeared”. Sadikov was one the rare members of the “old guard”, which refers to the group of senior leaders that were appointed by Heydar Aliyev, the father of the current President, before 2003. Sadikov was allegedly accused of treason and cooperation with Russian military intelligence. It stated that the general was opposed to “Turkish dominance in the leadership of the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan.” Only in January 2021 was official confirmation released that Sadikov had been removed from office. In July 2021, Azerbaijani Lieutenant General Karim Valiyev was appointed as the Chief of the General Staff of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces. The fact that the Azerbaijani Army had no “head” and “leader” during the 2020 Artsakh War, demonstrates that the operation was led by others, i.e. Turkish officers. While Azerbaijan’s top military post remained vacant, the Russian newspaper Vzglyad identified two Turkish generals, Lt. Gen. Seref Ongay, the 3rd Army Commander, and Maj. Gen. Bahtiyar Ersay of the Special Forces Command, as de facto replacements. Aliyev has openly admitted Turkish involvement during his speeches, expressing his immense gratitude for the significant assistance. In his most recent interview with CNN Turk, the President of Azerbaijan confessed: “Turkey has provided us with all-round support, not only attack UAVs. First of all, in the early hours of the second Karabakh war, the resolute statements by my dear brother Recep Tayyip Erdogan played a great positive role… Of course, modern weapons purchased from Turkey, including the UAVs, greatly facilitated our work and prevented many casualties. Because if we hadn’t had those weapons, our work would have been more difficult, and there would have been more martyrs, of course. However, we received not only attack UAVs from Turkey, but also other weapons – Hurricanes, military vehicles, Cobras. In other words, there are many weapons, and this process continues. Turkey’s defense industry is developing very fast and, of course, we also benefit and will benefit from it.”
Apparently, Turkish involvement was not limited to “moral and political” support and weapons provision. Recently, a group of Turkish pilots and servicemen was commended by the Republic of Azerbaijan “For Difference in Battle”. The Governor of the Turkish province Amasia, Mustafa Masatli, noted at the August 21 ceremony that Turkey, driven by the principle of “One nation, two states“, provided all kinds of support during the war. Interestingly, Azerbaijani sources openly mentioned that several F-16 fighters of the Turkish Air Force were in Azerbaijan throughout the war, while the Turkish side was constantly denying that fact. Turkey’s direct involvement in the recent war is officially espoused by Azerbaijan, and acknowledged with awards and words of gratitude to Turkey and representatives of its military personnel.
It is not contested that the military victory has entrenched Aliyev’s autocratic rule over Azerbaijan. Sharing credit would open the door for another public figure to rival his political power. Senior policy analyst at the Economic Research Center, Gubad Ibadoglu mentions in his research: “The supreme model of governance in Azerbaijan is composed of the components of monarchy, oligarchy, kleptocracy, and corporate state. The corporate state model has become more prominent in Azerbaijan, as the ruling family has superior rights and privileges in public administration. In this country, independent civil society, free press, and other democratic institutions have been ‘neutralized’ by various means, mainly by the ruling family and oligarch groups, regions have been distributed among oligarchs, arable lands among high-ranking officials and agro-parks belonging to their families…” Aliyev and his dynasty are not going to share the plunder of war with local oligarchs when they can keep it within the family. In a February 2021 interview with state broadcaster AzTV, Aliyev warned Azerbaijani oligarchs to stay away: “I have now created a temporary management structure. Because I see, I know, eyes are already there… Now it looks as if an attack is expected, an invasion. ‘That land is mine, that land is yours, that land is mine, this land is yours.’ But I will punish all of them, all of them, as it should be. Let everyone sit down and do their work in their place. All lands will be restored as planned.” He also strongly criticized Governor of the Central Bank Elman Rustamov, who promised to open a branch in Shushi. “It is completely unacceptable to make such statements in order to gain cheap popularity or to create a new office for oneself, and this should be stopped,” stated Aliyev. While in the past local oligarchs that were close to the ruling family were allowed their “share” and “areas”, they will be shut out from the territories that recently came under Azerbaijani control. As Ibadoglu appropriately noticed, “The ruling family has an exceptional position in making political decisions. At the same time, political decisions and appointments are based on personal and corporate interests within the family, not state and national interests.”
Another significant feature of the post-war Azerbaijani reality is the desire of Ilham Aliyev to be deemed by the public not only as a worthy successor to his father, but maybe even superior to Heydar Aliyev. For many decades, Ilham Aliyev’s presidency was seen in the shadow of his father’s legacy. Back in 1993, when Heydar Aliyev came to power, the state propaganda machine presented him as the leader who saved Azerbaijan, bringing a long-awaited stability after military failures and a lost war. The cult of personality of the senior Aliyev as “the father of the nation” was created in his lifetime and continued to be developed by his son. A foundation, an airport, a sports complex, museums, parks and more have been named after “Father Aliyev” for many decades. The cult of personality went beyond the borders of Azerbaijan, even reaching Mexico City and Kiev. In 2003, Ilham Aliyev inherited power from his father just before his death. In 2007, tackling the question about his father, Ilham Aliyev responded: “I have heard many times: ‘His father is leading him’ or ‘If Heydar Aliyev had not been president, Ilham would not have achieved this.’ What can I say? The succession of power in each country is very important. Therefore, it was natural for Heydar Aliyev to worry about his successor. In addition, he began to prepare a successor in advance. My father passed his political experience to me step-by-step, telling me how to act in different situations.” More recently, however, Junior Aliyev has been trying to get rid of the shadow of his father, particularly in replacing officials from the “old guard” left over from Heydar Aliyev’s reign. Concerning the possible solutions to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Heydar Aliyev was considered to be more open and ready for a peaceful settlement in comparison to his son. For instance, back in 2001, when the sides were quite close to finding a solution in Key West, Heydar Aliyev was ready to make territorial concessions. Recalling those developments, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia Vartan Oskanian wrote: “Aliyev Senior desired to relieve his son of the Karabakh problem and to hand over to him a country that would be free from the threat of a possible war…” At the last moment, Heydar Aliyev rejected the Key West proposal citing domestic challenges. Unlike his father, Ilham Aliyev was more inclined to a “war-based solution” and is currently busy publicly justifying the attack he unleashed. On August 30, 2021, while delivering a speech in Shushi, Aliyev said: “We have come here as a victorious people. We did not come through negotiations, not as a result of any concessions made by Armenia, but by shedding blood, by giving martyrs, by showing self-sacrifice on the battlefield, by restoring our territorial integrity and by restoring our national dignity.” Aliyev proudly speaks about rejecting the peace plan and preferring war. Though he constantly tries to suggest that “the conflict is solved”, statements coming from the international community, particularly the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, both separately and jointly affirm that a final status for Nagorno-Karabakh still needs to be negotiated.
By “personalizing” and establishing “ownership” of the 2020 Artsakh War Ilham Aliyev:
1. excludes the possibility that any figure from the Azerbaijani military personnel may be seen as embodying the military success, so as not to allow a person who could challenge him politically in the future to rise to prominence. Instead, Turkey’s direct involvement is publicly held up.
2. establishes that the spoils from the victory belong to the ruling family alone. Local oligarchs should not dare to have ambitions. This strengthens the power of Aliyev’s dynasty and also prevents potential future power struggles.
3. justifies the war and prepares the ground for his own cult of personality to be held up instead of, or maybe in parallel with, his father’s. If Heydar Aliyev brought stability, Ilham should be considered the one who brought “victory”. The Azerbaijani president carefully conceals the fact that he rejected a peaceful and comprehensive settlement that could have prevented war and human losses.
By opening the Military Trophy Park, hugging trees and delivering speeches that refer to Armenians as “dogs” and the “devil’s lair”, Aliyev further promotes anti-Armenian hatred and continued conflict. The process undoubtedly deepens the autocratic and dynastical governing structure in Azerbaijan. However, Ilham’s son, Heydar Jr., also has never publicly appeared next to his father during this period. It seems that he is not the one being prepared in the line of succession, unlike Ilham’s wife Mehriban Aliyeva. However, the transition scenarios of Azerbaijan’s dynasty is a whole other story in itself.