Discovering Azerbaijan with Heydar Aliyev

Before I went to Azerbaijan, I was like you: I didn’t know Heydar Aliyev.

But then, I had already gotten sick and tired of him by the second day.

Let me share this experience with you, so that you will be prepared. That’s important because – whether you want it or not – Heydar Aliyev will be your guide and constant companion in Azerbaijan.

When you fly to Baku, you arrive at Heydar Aliyev Airport. When you arrive by train, you travel on the Heydar Aliyev Express, get off at Heydar Aliyev Station and walk along the wide Heydar Aliyev Boulevard to Heydar Aliyev Square, past Heydar Aliyev Foundations, Heydar Aliyev Schools and Heydar Aliyev Institutes.

If you want to take a break from Heydar Aliyev and thus prefer to travel across Azerbaijan by car, you will still see a photo of the ex-president at every intersection, every turnoff and every roundabout.

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“Your ad here”, such unused billboard space would advertise in the rest of the world, but in Azerbaijan nobody dares to commission advertisement that large because it would require pasting over the photo of Heydar Aliyev. An unthinkable sacrilege.

On 6 July I happened to be in Ganja. It was my birthday, but I didn’t know anyone in the city. So I made my way to the park to read a book, eat ice cream and to strike up conversations with strangers. This had worked well in the past.

But Azerbaijan is different.

The park is of course named after Heydar Aliyev. It isn’t fenced in, because who would dare to vandalize, urinate or camp in a park named after HA (for reasons of laziness readability, I shall henceforth abbreviate the name of the great leader)? Or maybe there simply wasn’t enough fence for a park which is larger than some independent states.

It’s not yet 8 a.m., but a few joggers and some old but fit walkers are already circling the (artificial) lake. Later, it will be too hot. Or maybe they come so early to escape the surveillance, because at 8 o’clock sharp the staff shows up: security guards, cleaning ladies and men, gardeners. They sweep the floor, water the green beds, twitch at the flowers.

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The only thing that’s missing are visitors. Maybe it’s simply too far. First, you need to cross a 12-lane street. Don’t worry about the traffic, because all of Ganja doesn’t have enough cars to fill this street. But most school runs are shorter.

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When you have crossed the widest street in the world after a march of ten minutes, you have reached the parking area. A car park like the one in front of the Olympic stadium. It was planned big enough that all cars in Azerbaijan could park here simultaneously. But it is empty. The public squares in the city were already overdimensioned, but this here is megalomania at a North Korean level.

Parkplatz 1Parkplatz 2

Once you have walked through the triumphal arch (as big as in Paris and, for the avoidance of any doubt, adorned with the name of HA), which is the actual entrance, you have to traipse for another mile to reach the HA Museum. Just like people had to walk through a long hall in the royal palace before meeting the king.

Triumph0Triumph1Triumph2Triumph3Triumph4Triumph5Triumph6

All the people whom you see in the photos are staff. Constantly sweeping staff. When I sit down on a bench (you do get tired when having to walk one and a half hours from the car park to the museum), they come closer and sweep the area around me. When I get up and continue the long march, they sweep the place where I just sat with utmost intensity. From time to time, a man walks up to the cleaning ladies and instructs them to sweep more, sweep faster, sweep better, sweep more patriotically.

As everyone is giving orders to everyone else, it becomes obvious that even the non-uniformed passersby are employees. I almost feel as if the whole park is only being operated for me. But I don’t want to pass judgment prematurely; I am certain there will be more visitors at night.

But now in the morning, the amphitheater is as empty and oversized as anything bearing the name of HA.

Amphitheater.JPG

Men are wading in a water fountain that has been switched off and frantically rubbing the floor and the water taps. A worker breaks out tiles from the walkway to clean them from below and puts them back. This is a mega-project for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. I want to wish them a proper storm, so that they really have something to clean up for once.

A cleaning lady fills a bucket with water from the fountain, pours it over the path and begins to clean what wasn’t dirty. A cleaner hoses down a column-like lamppost which is then wiped dry by another cleaner.

Walking past hundreds of cleaning maniacs, I finally reach the museum. In case one has forgotten to whom this park is dedicated since the sign at the entrance or the triumphal arch, a mere few hours ago, golden letters and a statue of HA remind you. To make sure, the statue is inscribed with HA’s name.

Museum1Museum2Museum3

Finally, I will learn everything about the man who thrusts himself into every step of my journey. But first, I look back at the long-distance hiking path that I have already walked this morning. And I am only halfway through the park. One could still walk (and clean and sweep) for days.

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The museum is three floors high, with a glass dome, much marble, much gold and white leather armchairs. Typical dictator kitsch. If you have ever visited the Gaddafis, the Husseins or the Trumps, you are familiar with it.

innen1innen2

I am the only visitor, which startles the man behind the desk so much that he turns off his YouTube video, jumps up and henceforth follows my every step, always four to five meters to my side and always looking at his phone when I look at him. We are the only two people in the whole building (incomprehensible why there are no cleaners here), making his constant proximity and observation quite obtrusive.

And there wouldn’t even be anything of value to steal because the “museum” only has dozens of display boards about the life of HA with hundreds of photos of him. Protected by glass, there are a few books about and by him. Two-meter wide TV screens are ready to show biopics, but I couldn’t really run off with such a large TV on my own. Nor could I steal the white grand piano (a Blüthner).

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Maybe the guard simply doesn’t like my camera and my notepad. Journalists and reporters are not particularly liked in Azerbaijan. When I walk towards the exit, the museum guy has come as close as one meter and almost pushes me out of the door. Apparently, he is keen on being alone with HA again.

Despite all the glorification of HA, two points were interesting about the exhibition: First, his past as a leading member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is not glossed over.

In 1990, Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote from Baku:

On the central boulevard, there are a few light, luxurious and massive apartment complexes, these are the houses which the ruler of Azerbaijan, HA, had built for his camarilla. He is a famous figure. At first, HA was head of the KGB in Azerbaijan, then, in the seventies, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the republic. He was a disciple of Brezhnev, who appointed him Deputy Prime Minister of the USSR. He was fired from that post by Gorbachev in 1987.

HA was part of Breznehv’s circle – a group standing out for deep corruption, preference for any kind of luxury and overall debauchery. They displayed that corruption with provoking openness, not ashamed in the least.

Of course one doesn’t find this quote in the shrine of homage to HA, but the last paragraph could be the motto for the museum, actually the whole park or indeed for the whole country. For someone who was already famous for open corruption under communism, an independent Azerbaijan with gushing oil wells must have been the mother of all dreams. Thus, it comes as no surprise to meet the whole Aliyev family in the Panama Papers.

The second point that I found interesting about the exhibited photos was the extent of self-staging already during Soviet times, when HA did not actually depend on the benevolence of those governed by him. But he looks as ardent a campaigner as Bill Clinton in his best days: HA in a field with farmers, HA with soldiers, HA with children, HA as an archaeologist, HA with a water melon, HA at a busy market. As if he already sensed in the 1960s that he would need photos for election campaigns after 1990.

 

Behind the museum, the park continues, as far and as straight-lined as over the miles already covered.

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A mosaic shows a king whose subjects submissively take notes of the ruler’s remarks. We know this from North Korea, too.

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A cleaning lady uses her broom to wipe off a perfectly shaped bush. I’ve had some petit-bourgeois neighbors over the years, but I ain’t never seen nobody clean bushes in the garden with a broom.

After a few hours, I finally spot the first other visitors: a young couple who are having their immediate surroundings cleaned by a cleaning lady with little regard for privacy. Well, at least I know now that the cleansing wasn’t directed against me personally.

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For the non-present children, the part with rides and attractions (bigger than Disneyland) is getting cleaned and swept. They won’t appreciate it (unless their parents got a job this way).

Kinder1Kinder2Kinder3

Even Mr Shrek has to help.

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The café has the size of a university dining hall, but as soon as I enter, two guys run towards me, take me between them and express in no uncertain manner that I should sit outside in the glaring sun. Maybe the interior hasn’t been cleaned in the last hour.

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The only thing that adds a friendly touch are the birdhouses (despite a sticker indicating to the birds that their home was sponsored by Kapital Bank).

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Nice that someone thought of the animals. It’s bad enough that the humans in the nearby housing estate or the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh are not getting their share of the oil money.

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At the entrance/exit, there is a surprisingly modest column (only of menhir size) pointing to the inauguration of the park in January 2012 – in the presence of President Ilham Aliyev. Yes, that’s the son of the overly worshiped HA. That too reminds one of North Korea. The son of the present president is conveniently named Heydar Aliyev again. The young boy will doubtlessly enjoy a dynamic and dynastic career.

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On the way home, I remember where I have seen an Azerbaijanian park before: in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. There are also Heydar Aliyev Parks in Tbilisi, in Istanbul, in Ankara, in Bucharest, in Kiev and maybe soon in your hometown. You simply have to talk to your city council about it. Azerbaijan will pay for everything.

When I return to the house, the landlady asks me what I thought of the park. I am thinking how to express my thoughts about megalomania and personality cult diplomatically, when I – just in time – spot a photo of HA and the presidential successor son on top of the cabinet in the living room.

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It is larger and more prominently placed than the photos of nephews, children and parents.

A strange country. But at least I don’t have to visit North Korea anymore.

(Hier gibt es diesen Artikel auf Deutsch.)

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About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a journalist, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Azerbaijan, Photography, Politics, Travel and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Discovering Azerbaijan with Heydar Aliyev

  1. Pingback: Aserbaidschan erkunden mit Heydar Aliyev | Der reisende Reporter

  2. brokenradius says:

    I love these 80s style shoulder pads that Heydar Aliyev wears on the sculptures. One can see that in his youth he was perhaps a big fan of George Michael , Bee Gees and Michael Jacksons Thriller.

  3. Andreas.I very liked your article about Azerbajan…Thank you for such a sincere and right points👍👍👍
    When can we see anything about Armenia???

    • Thank you!
      Hopefully soon, definitely in the coming weeks. If I forget about it, please remind me! ;-)
      And I’d really love to come back to Armenia for longer, to go hiking in the whole country. I had the feeling like traveling through Armenia on a bus is a waste of Armenia. Although I did go hiking for two days around Dilijan.

  4. HA :-)) Nice parking area: I could have parked there. Now we know how you spent your birthday, but someone should have played HB on that white piano.

  5. David says:

    That was amazing. I never knew that.

    I also note that HA had some dubious friends.

    • Thank you!
      Yes, I noticed the lunch/dinner with Yassir Arafat. I don’t know if Azerbaijan still has these kind of contacts, but I don’t think so. It struck me more as a country exclusively interested in selling oil, running it as a family fiefdom and building ever bigger structures named after HA.

  6. I hope this article won’t get my blog banned in Azerbaijan.

  7. amcmulin914 says:

    Fascinating article, as always. Lumping Trump in with Hussein was a low blow though. Ardent non-voter here, so not a Trump supporter by any stretch, but it’s pretty intellectually lame to put his name in that company. He was elected democratically, and has stayed within the bound of the law so far. Also just recently stopped a covert CIA operation to arm rebels (terrorists) in Syria. A program continued under Obama, who I never recall you demonizng in a similar fashion, even tho many of his initiatives, were down through Exectuive Order (democracies dictatorship). It’s a disservice to people under these brutal regimes to make a joke out of their suffering, and such a poor comparison. Just my two cents. Love the blog!

    • Thank you!
      The lumping together of Gaddafi, Hussein and Trump was purely done on grounds of interior design. They share a love for gold, marble, kitsch and columns.
      And after Mr Trump himself praised Mr Hussein and Mr Gaddafi, I thought that it was not completely unfair to connect them.

      • amcmulin914 says:

        Fair enough!

      • Yan says:

        ….haha!! Wonderful!! It’s called “Despot Chic”….and yes! there’s a gloriously obscene “beat my gold bits” collective taste… Im glad you are still low profile enough to get through the nets of blokes like that, without ending in subterranean solitary confinement, but do be careful. Have you done the Saudi mob, Trump’s bestest pals, yet?

      • Thank you!
        I’ve already been wondering if I will get a visa for Azerbaijan again.
        No, I haven’t been to Saudi Arabia yet.

    • I would also take issue with “Trump has stayed within the bounds of the law so far”.
      He has defrauded customers, clients, contractors and business partners.
      He defrauded people who gave to his charity and then, quite in line with the subject of the article, used the money to have oversized paintings of himself made.
      He violated tax laws and possibly campaign finance laws.
      He violated the trade embargo against Cuba.
      He has advocated torture, extrajudicial killing and police violence.
      He has admitted to sexual assault.
      He has been using the presidency to enrich himself and his family.
      And if we wait a week, there will be more.

      • David says:

        As an accountant, i’m curious: which tax laws did he violate? I know he paid little taxes, but that was within the law, it seems. The law may be an ass, but that’s a different issue.

        I assumed that the comparison was not meant to suggest that they’re all identical, rather it was to point out that they are all megalomaniacs. On that point, you’re right.

      • Yes, it’s mostly the megalomania and the dynastic thinking that conjured up the connection.

        As to Mr Trump’s taxes, I have read reports about him under-reporting his income, a criminal investigation for tax fraud in Mexico and that dubious deduction of a $916 million loss. Using donations for non-charity purposes should also be relevant under tax law, I think.

      • amcmulin914 says:

        That’s a lot of accusations. In the US we’re claim to be innocent until proven guilty, so I would need not a lot more evidence for some of those claims. I’ll address a couple though for sport. “Admitted to sexual assault”? Please tell me you’re not referencing “grab her by the kitty cat”? That’s obviously not an admission of any sort of sexual assault, but rather a low-brow comment about licentious women. Also it’s was an edited clip of two assholes bullshitting. That sort of thinking is what raised my original critique. A dumb comment does not rise to the level sexual assault, if it does there’s a number of rappers and comedians we need to lock up as well. You’ll also recall the very sketchy “pee-gate” dossier which was proven fictional , along with a number of accusers brought forth by the spook Gloria Aldred.
        They all seemed to vanish after November 2. There’s also so poignant irony in mentioning charity fraud, considering the outrage and robbery which was conducted by the Clinton charity in Haiti. A much more egregious crime then some painting. This logic applies to a number of these accusations, our alternative candidate Clinton, has been accused of all these things and some, and frankly from my research there’s a lot more evidence for her culpability in these regards.

      • The “innocent until proven guilty” applies in a legal proceeding, not in journalism.

      • amcmulin914 says:

        Sure, but the spirit of the law definitely applies here. If someone hasn’t been convicted then it is ultimately speculative, as in the case of my accusations against Clinton as well. So we can build our arguments, opinions, however we want, but to be fair we must acknowledge their unstable foundations.

      • amcmulin914 says:

        Can we at least agree stopping the CIA arming of terrorists in Syria was a positive action by Trump?

      • I am not sure about that.
        It seems like the program was not very effective, which I guess is always the case when you send tons of money without competent (i.e. local or at least Arabic- and Kurdish-speaking) people on the ground.
        If at all, my criticism was more how half-heartedly the opposition against Bashar Assad has been supported.

      • amcmulin914 says:

        Dang, that surprises me. So you support the US billion dollars weapon deal to Saudi Arabia as well? I don’t, for the record. Or perhaps believe that the US role in the Iran-Contra scandal, and overthrow of the Iranian government was a good move too? What about the overthrow of Saddam In Iraq? Even bigger question, should the EU arm “rebels” in the US (not that we need it) to overthrow Trump? Seeing as his such a criminal as well.

      • I am less supportive of Saudi Arabia.

        Regarding Iran, it depends which overthrow you mean (1953 or 1979), but I would say that both of them had mainly an internal Iranian dynamic. In 1953 there was some help from the UK and the USA, but it was the Iranian Shah who wanted to get rid of the Iranian Prime Minister.

        I was happy when Saddam Hussein was overthrown, but I quickly had to discover that the whole thing hadn’t been planned very well (again, lack of local experts and people who knew the region).
        I am generally a bit more pro regime change than most people because I grew up in a democratic, free and prosperous Germany thanks to the sacrifice of Canadian, US-American, British, Australian and many other (not to forget Soviet) soldiers. But it seems that this had been far better prepared and planned for than Iraq.

        Regarding the USA, I would think that there are more than enough weapons floating around already. ;-) But I hope that they at least will be kept out of any political discourse.

      • amcmulin914 says:

        Final point, and I’ll stop harassing your blog. You keep blaming a lack of planning and intelligence, but to me that’s sort of an cop-out idealism, that says if people were smart enough then they could handle the coup, but that misses the whole point, that coups and rebellions are by nature messy, ignorant, endeavors. I can’t think of a single example in history where outside arming and influence has ever turned out in a utopian fashion that you suggest. Even your example of Germany suggests this, it was international intervention after WW1 that laid the stage for Hitler/WW2. After WW2 it was international play which led to East/West split, Cold War, Arms race, etc. It’s a result of dialectical materialism, an outside influence will always prompt a nationalistic response down the road. It’s all good and fine in a consequent less discussion on a blog, but say in Iraq war where conservatively 1/2 a million innocent women and children were killed, intervention looks pretty morally reprehensible.

      • You are right, no such thing ever goes according to plan. As soldiers say: “No plan survives the first contact with the enemy.”
        But after and indeed already during WW2, the Allied powers, in particular the USA, used German experts, many of them refugees from Germany, to understand how Germany worked and to prepare for a new government, for re-education, for economic management and so on. In Iraq, it seemed like none of that was done. I think many in the US government were even surprised that there were Sunni and Shia and Kurds.
        I would not blame the Nazis on the international intervention after WW1 and see them more as a continuation of the Reich under Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Germans didn’t need outside intervention to become racist, militaristic, anti-Semitic and authoritarian. Some historians don’t see the Third Reich as a break with historic German tradition, but see the democracy of the Weimar Republic as the short break. But even that had not been put upon Germany by the victors of WW1, but was the result of an internal German revolution, something that happened in many countries around the world at that time (with the Russian Revolution being the most known example, but by no means the only one).
        When there finally was international intervention after WW2, it worked quite well (obviously better in West than in East Germany). In post-WW2 Europe, I don’t see the “nationalistic response” that you mention. Quite the contrary, it set the stage for European unification.

      • Yan says:

        And he is now, and always has been.. best pals with some of the world’s biggest rotters..
        From The Mob..who supplied his concrete and illegal workforce for Trump Tower, to the Human Right abusers, in the UAE.

      • Yan says:

        Amcmulin914. Your comment ref. “licentious women”… puts you, pronto, on the same dirt track as the trump. There was never any suggestion that the women whom he abused, or attempted to abuse were “licentious”. Your perception..that ‘beautiful women’ are licentious, might serve you well, if you hope to emulate him… Trump.direct quote… .”I did try and fuck her, she was married,” and says that when he meets beautiful women he feels able to “grab them by the pussy”.

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