Who is Ilham Aliyev?: Power, Propaganda and Pandora


Another recent leak of secret financial information about the world’s rich and powerful, dubbed the Pandora Papers, is the largest of its kind thus far. It is truly global, covering the corrupt practices from celebrities, to oligarchs, to royalty.

One area of scrutiny was the London property market, and the world leaders who are buying some of the most expensive houses in the city. Among others, including Abdullah II of Jordan, one name that appeared over and over again in the reports was that of Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan.

You may not have heard of Aliyev before, or maybe only know his name. However, Aliyev is one of the most powerful people on the planet - not in the fact that Azerbaijan is a major world power, it isn’t, but the degree of power he personally holds over Azerbaijan is, simply, staggering.

So who is Ilham Aliyev? How did he get to where he is? And what can his rule teach us about power and those who wield it?

The Kings of Azerbaijan

Ilham Aliyev is not the first Aliyev to be President of Azerbaijan. His father, Heydar Aliyev, held the post from 1993 until his death in 2003. The subsequent election, which Ilham won, is best described as a succession rather than an election. In the election itself, there was widespread fraud and rigging. In the campaign, opposition candidates faced violence and intimidation, journalists faced arrest and opposition rallies were disrupted.

Ilham has used his father’s image to his advantage, creating a personality cult for the former President. Heydar came to power during the first Nagorno-Karabakh War at a time of crisis - vast amounts of Azerbaijan had fallen to Armenia and the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (now known as Artsakh). Heydar built a dictatorial police state around himself, bringing a newfound stability to Azerbaijan - it is this stability, and his supposed status as the father of modern Azerbaijan, that Ilham uses to promote his own rule.

Azerbaijan is a very rich country - it has vast supplies of oil and natural gas, and as such is able to support various expensive endeavours. These range from hosting sporting events such as Formula 1, to a distinctive, modern skyline in the capital Baku. The Aliyevs have a hand in almost all of it, engaging in a scale of corruption almost unheard of. They own shares in Azeri banks, oil and gas companies, construction firms and more.

Corruption and Coercion

Last year, Azerbaijan invaded the Armenian-occupied parts of its country, as well as the Republic of Artsakh. It succeeded spectacularly, reclaiming vast amounts of land. Of course, some of this land was inhabited by Armenians, and had been for centuries.

A few days ago, Ilham Aliyev declared that the town of Hadrut - home to Armenians for centuries - had only in fact been Armenian land from the 19th Century. The Armenians of Hadrut have, thusly, been expelled. This is only part of a large-scale crisis for Armenians in Azeri-controlled lands. The 2020 War was a major coup for Aliyev - he has finally come close to realising his dream of expelling the Armenian occupiers from his country.

The Caucasus is home to many, many nationalities, with long-lasting disputes regarding the past and what lands belong to whom. This expulsion, and the mass flight of Armenians from their own historic lands - lands they lived in, alongside Azeris, peacefully for most of the Soviet period and earlier - shows what unchecked nationalism can do. The expulsion is for political ends; thousands of lives changed forever, all for the sake of publicity.

And what of the corruption of the Aliyevs? Well, the Pandora Papers showed that they own properties in London worth £400 million, and use a vast offshore network to hide and disguise their wealth - stolen from the very country they rule. Over a decade earlier, in 2010, Aliyev’s children were reported to own property in Dubai worth £75 million.

The money they steal through corruption isn’t just used to enrich themselves; Azerbaijan engages in a large-scale lobbying scheme, promoting their interests on a global scale.

In 2017, a scandal revealed that the Aliyev’s were paying European politicians millions in order to deflect criticism away from the Presidency, and to promote a good image of Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, critical journalists are still subjected to harassment, and election after election is stolen.

It is said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I prefer to think that absolute power reveals. The Aliyevs provide an example of why power must be checked, of why democracy must be defended and would-be despots challenged. In order to enrich himself and his family, and to ensure he stays in power indefinitely, Ilham Aliyev has stolen freedom and wealth from his country.

We must ensure our own leaders can never do the same.

Alex Yeo is a PhD Student at the University of Glasgow, studying tradition and politics in the North Caucasus for his thesis. His articles concern East and Central Europe, Eurasia, Democracy and Authoritarianism. He has also worked in a research capacity for DGN.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica Limited as a company.

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