Out of the blue, I found myself invited to Baku. Azerbaijan has immense deposits of oil and natural gas, and in a blithe nouveau riche spirit chooses to put itself on the map by spending fortunes having anyone and everyone come on a visit. The World Amateur Boxing Championships had just been staged in Baku, and a conference on humanitarianism was to follow. On arrival I was taken in charge by a posse of minders, put up in a five-star hotel, and fed at a succession of banquets, meals, and receptions. The Soviet experience in old days had taught me that guests with a full stomach are expected to have an empty head. They’re then supposed to go home and to spin the illusion that everything they’ve seen on the trip is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Azerbaijan is one of half a dozen Muslim republics that were colonies of the Soviet Union until that empire’s collapse 20 short years ago. All of them have adjusted from the rule of Communist strongmen to the rule of Muslim strongmen. Independence has created laboratory conditions in which to observe how the historic legacy of Muslim absolutism is incompatible with today’s demands for government of the people by the people.
Nine million strong, the Azeris of Azerbaijan are mostly Shia Muslims who have never gone in for jihad or extremism (18 million more Azeris are a minority on the far side of the border with Iran). Baku, the capital, had the reputation in the 19th century of being the most progressive city anywhere in Islam. In the aftermath of the First World War, the Musavat party won elections and set up the very first Muslim democracy anywhere. Lenin and the Bolsheviks soon put a stop to that. The neighborhood has always been a roughhouse of Russians, Iranians, Turks, Georgians, and Armenians, all of them poised to start fisticuffs again at any opportunity. As a result of the long Soviet occupation, Azeris tend to speak Russian, and the bookshops have many more publications in Russian than in Azeri.
One Soviet crime inflicting long-term damage was the transfer of territory for divide-and-rule purposes from one ethnic group to another, creating claims and uncertainties bound to lead to violence. Geographically, Nagorno-Karabakh is a sizable enclave that falls entirely within Azerbaijan but whose sovereignty was allocated to Armenia. In the final years before the end of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev made such a botch of the issue that both sides resorted to massacre and ethnic cleansing. A million Azeris are still refugees, and since 1993 Armenia has been occupying a Nagorno-Karabakh inhabited only by Armenians. This national disaster preoccupies Azeris much as the French used to concentrate on recovering Alsace-Lorraine.
Handsome stone houses, even palaces, line the broad avenues in the center of Baku and testify to long-lost Russian imperial grandeur. Gigantically disproportionate towers, hulks of glass and concrete and all manner of postmodern architectural follies, are monuments to the new oil wealth. An attractive promenade with gardens and children’s playgrounds runs for a mile or two along the Caspian Sea front. Among the crowds on their evening stroll are young men holding hands with their girlfriends and even cuddling on a bench — a sight I have not seen in any other Arab or Muslim city. Few women are wearing headscarves. A recent study by Suha Bolukbasi, a Turkish professor in Ankara, has the information that under the Soviets the whole country had only 16 working mosques, hence the widespread indifference to Islam and even the atheism. On the boulevards — phonetically spelled “bulvar” in the Azeri language — are shops displaying the brand names of famous Western designers and providers of luxury goods. Mysteriously, they have no customers.
#page#Huge posters everywhere show a man trying to look youthful, smiling slightly, sometimes wearing a black-tie dinner jacket. The posters have no words or slogans on them. Though dead for almost ten years, Heydar Aliyev needs no identification. He’s the strongman who made the transition from Communism to personal rule. Although a creature of Stalinism, he was driven by ambition and greed rather than blood-lust. In 1945, aged 22, he joined both the Communist party and the KGB. In a career typical of the times, he knew exactly how to perform what was demanded of him, rising to be first secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist party, head of the Azerbaijani KGB with the rank of major general, and finally the first Muslim to be appointed to the Soviet Politburo, the body of about a dozen personalities who used to decide everything down to trivial details in the Soviet Union.
His self-enrichment by means of bribery and corruption was common knowledge. In a notorious example of sycophancy, he commissioned an expensive diamond ring and presented it to his master, Leonid Brezhnev. He timed his exit from the Soviet hierarchy perfectly. Far the most powerful man in an independent Azerbaijan, he mounted a successful coup and then rigged his election as president with a vote of 98.8 percent. After ten years in power, he fell seriously ill and in 2003 passed a decree appointing his son Ilham Aliyev to succeed him.
The Muslim order has a disposition towards forming dynasties; witness the schemes of Saddam Hussein, Moammar Qaddafi, and Hosni Mubarak to have their sons inherit their role as supreme leader. In Syria, the late president Hafez Assad successfully manipulated his son Bashar to succeed him. Two of a kind, Bashar Assad and Ilham Aliyev are obliged to maintain the central illusion that their fathers’ efforts to hand on the presidency are legitimacy enough. Hence the posters and personality cult in evidence in Baku and subjected to attack in Syrian towns.
Guidebooks describe an ecological disaster at Ramana, a site 40 minutes from Baku, where the Soviets abandoned the machinery of oil extraction on a scale so horrible that it becomes fascinating. Day after day, the minders said the road was closed. Such open supervision made me fear that my contacts with Azeris were being recorded. In the real Azerbaijan, people took no precautions to hide their names or their helpfulness to me. Ilham Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party, YAP in its Azeri acronym, I heard, is a clone of the old Communist party. Its ideologist, Ramiz Mehdiyev, was once head of the Communist-party school. Isa Gambar, head of Musavat, the party that initiated democracy a century ago, has been in prison.
The Writers’ Union is also exactly as it was under the Soviets. The first lady’s grandfather has been built up as a great writer. Freedom of speech is controlled. A few years ago Elmar Huseynov, a critical journalist, was murdered, and nobody has been arrested. On trumped-up charges of causing public disorder or evading military service, about 16 other journalists (some say more, some say fewer) have just received prison sentences between one and three years. Here’s someone who was warned that he would have to mend his ways or else his son would pay for it. “In Soviet times, at least they kept to the rules,” he says. “Now we have no rules. They’re a criminal gang. You have to protect yourself.”
The oil wealth is in the hands of the president, the first lady, his two daughters and one son, and five or six ministers who receive rewards for unquestioning loyalty to the family. One of them owns 250 companies. Everyone has stories of corruption involving construction, land, transport, licensing, communications, and much else. Bribery is the regular way of doing business. Those glittering bulvar shops are empty because their function is to launder money. The ruling elite may not want all the money for its own sake, but they have to make sure that it doesn’t get into the hands of anyone who might use it to topple them. Instead of liberating, then, oil wealth is serving to block reform and stabilize injustice and corruption. The few are eating up the many, and this can’t last. Sooner or later, the Arab Spring or its equivalent will reach the Caspian, so I hear. The mistakes, contradictions, and selfishness of Ilham Aliyev are quite enough to bring down the curtain on his dynasty and the antiquated rule of the strongman.