Azerbaijan strongman Aliyev holding firmly on to power

Baku (AFP) –


Likened in leaked US diplomatic cables to the fictional mob boss Michael Corleone, Azerbaijan's strongman Ilham Aliyev is expected to secure his fourth term as president in snap polls on Wednesday.

The 56-year-old took over in 2003 after the death of his father Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB officer and Communist-era boss.

Extending into a third decade his family's firm grip over the oil-rich Caspian state, Ilham Aliyev was re-elected in 2008 and 2013 in polls that were denounced by opposition parties as fraudulent.

Supporters have praised the Aliyevs for turning a republic once thought of as a Soviet backwater into a flourishing energy supplier to Europe.

But critics argue they have crushed the opposition and used their power to amass a fortune that funds a lavish lifestyle for the president and his family.

"For decades, the Aliyevs have been appropriating Azerbaijan's national riches, they have amassed an immense hidden wealth," Khadija Ismayilova, an anti-corruption crusader, told AFP.

"They cling to power to continue looting the country's resources," said the award-wining journalist who spent 17 months in jail in 2014-2016 after she exposed official graft.

In 2009, Aliyev amended the country's constitution so he could run for an unlimited number of presidential terms, in a move criticised by rights advocates who say he could become a president for life.

In 2016, Azerbaijan adopted controversial constitutional amendments, extending 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.

"Ilham Aliyev redrew Azerbaijan's constitution so that he could concentrate in his hands unlimited power for an indefinite time," independent political analyst, Alesgar Mammadli, told AFP.

- Caucasian Corleone -

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

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

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

In 2010, The Washington Post reported property worth $75 million (55 million euros) in Dubai in the names of the president's young son Heydar and his daughters Arzu and Leyla.

Often spotted at lavish red carpet events abroad, Leyla, 32, and Arzu, 28, are thought to control substantial businesses interests of their own.

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

That calculating approach saw him likened in one US diplomatic cable to the coldblooded fictional character of Michael Corleone from "The Godfather" movies.

At the same time, Aliyev's heavy-handed treatment of dissent at home inspired comparison to another character from the Corleone clan -- Michael's hotheaded brother Sonny.

"His goal appears to be a political environment in which the Aliyev dynasty is unchallenged," said the cable, released by whistleblowing organisation WikiLeaks.