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The Political Rise Of Azerbaijan's First Lady

Ilham Aliyev with Mehriban in 1983, shortly before their marriage
Ilham Aliyev with Mehriban in 1983, shortly before their marriage
Most presidential wives in the former Soviet Union are content to remain in the background. Think Halyna Lukashenka, Lyudmila Putin, and Azizimo Asadullaeva, the wife of Tajik leader Emomali Rahmon.

Not so Mehriban Aliyeva, the 48-year-old wife of Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev, who has avidly cultivated her own political career as a parliament deputy, charity enthusiast, and cultural ambassador, all in an increasingly expensive series of outfits.

Aliyeva's status rose even further on June 7, when she was elected deputy chair of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP).

In addition to making her the highest-ranking woman ever in Azerbaijani politics, the move has fueled speculation the first lady may be considering a presidential bid of her own -- possibly as early as this fall, when her husband is currently due to seek reelection.

Baku political observers say Aliyeva's sudden elevation to the upper ranks of YAP is a way of giving the entrenched Aliyev regime greater flexibility at a time when the president may be contemplating the wisdom of a controversial third term.

"There could be a sudden transfer of power via Mehriban Aliyeva," analyst Zafar Guliyev says. "There's also a theory that it's a step aimed not at some time in the future, but for this year's presidential election. Despite the fact that YAP has nominated Ilham Aliyev, the government is working out a backup alternative. If Ilham decides he doesn't want to run or is obliged to take back his candidacy, Mehriban can run."

'Guarantor Of Peace, Harmony, Love'

A controversial 2009 constitutional amendment abolishing term limits has technically cleared the way for the 51-year-old Aliyev to serve ad infinitum as president of the energy-rich state. He was nominated as YAP's presidential candidate on June 8 and is expected to easily secure a third term over any opposition candidate, including renowned filmmaker Rustam Ibragimbekov, widely considered to be the strongest potential challenger.

Do Ilham Aliyev (right) and his wife Mehriban Aliyeva really intend to change places?
Do Ilham Aliyev (right) and his wife Mehriban Aliyeva really intend to change places?

But rising anger about the regime's autocratic tendencies and ill-gotten fortune -- which in January prompted one NGO to crown Aliyev as corruption's "person of the year" -- has led some to speculate that he may even vacate the presidency early, albeit without abandoning his hold on power.

Erkin Qadirli, a member of the Republican Alternative (ReAL) opposition movement, says Aliyev, facing increasing scrutiny and public unrest, may be looking to consolidate power among an increasingly select group of allies.

"It may be that the number of people within the party that the president relies on has diminished to such a degree that he's had to elect his wife as his assistant," he says. "They're narrowing the circle. You can say that they're choosing the most natural circle -- the family format."

Others, meanwhile, suggest Aliyev may simply be eager to give his ambitious wife the ultimate gift by offering up his post. The president's admiration of his wife is well-documented, although his estimation of her political acumen is unclear. "A woman is a woman, even if she is the president's wife," he's been quoted as saying, going on to describe her as a "guarantor of peace, harmony, and love in the family."

Keeping It In The Family

Such chauvinist-tinged sentimentality, however, belies the fact that the Aliyevs' marriage is possibly the most formidable political union in the post-Soviet arena. Ilham Aliyev is the son of Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB chief who went on to rule Azerbaijan, both before and after independence, for more than two decades.

Mehriban Aliyeva, for her part, is a product of the prominent Pashayev clan, which has come to dominate Azerbaijan's political and cultural life under Ilham's presidency and has made millions through dubious deals in real estate and telecommunications.

Nearly every member of her family carries a title of distinction in academia or politics. Her paternal grandfather, Mir Jalal, was a noted writer. Her father, Arif, serves as rector of the National Aviation Academy in Baku; her older sister, Nargiz, heads the Azerbaijani branch of Moscow State University.

Hafiz Pashayev, her uncle, was once an ambassador to the United States and now serves as deputy foreign minister. He is described in leaked U.S. diplomatic cables as playing a domineering, sometimes disapproving role in his niece's political upbringing, and once cut her off in front of members of the U.S. Congress as her English began to falter.

A husband-to-wife transfer of power may be unsurprising in Azerbaijan, which has already witnessed one hereditary succession. Heydar, shortly before his death in 2003, arranged for the presidency to pass to his son who, Guliyev notes, had already been named deputy chairman of the YAP, the same post Mehriban was appointed to last week.

"During Heydar Aliyev's time, YAP was already becoming a tool for the ruling family. Ilham Aliyev was elected deputy chair at a party convention in 2001. People inside and outside the country immediately took that to mean that Heydar Aliyev was going to transfer power to his son," the analyst explains. "And actually, Ilham Aliyev came to power and became YAP chair two years later."

Suited For Office?

Together, the Aliyevs are believed to possess a personal fortune in the tens of millions of dollars. Their wealth, built on Azerbaijan's phenomenal energy reserves and the regime's absolute grip on power, has translated into extraordinary investments into the country's art and cultural scene, much of it led by Mehriban and the couple's two daughters, Leyla and Arzu.

But it has also financed a well-equipped police state, which has routinely used tear gas and rough treatment to squelch even small public demonstrations. Aliyeva, whose appetite for high-gloss publicity rivals that of another regional political aspirant, Uzbekistan's Gulnara Karimova -- daughter of that country's president, Islam Karimov -- is also seen as contributing to the regime's notorious crackdown on independent media.

PHOTO GALLERY: Mehriban Aliyeva's life in pictures

All the same, Aliyeva is seen by some as a welcome alternative to her husband. Her family's intellectual roots -- she herself graduated with a medical degree from Moscow's Sechenov Institute -- have kept her closer to the country's cultural elite.

Aliyev, whose own clan comprises gray-haired Soviet-style enforcers, is seen as having isolated that potential base of support, as evidenced by Ibragimbekov's presidential run.

Her dramatic fashion sense -- and reported encounters with plastic surgeons -- have also built Aliyeva's reputation as a model of the new, fashion-forward Muslim woman eager to push her traditional country into the 21st century.

The YAP, however, denies any suggestion that the first lady is being groomed to replace her husband. Lawmaker Yevda Abramov, a member of the party's political council, says the move is designed to enhance the role Aliyeva has always played for her husband -- a political guarantor, if you will, of peace, harmony, and love in an increasingly chilly political climate.

"All this talk is absurd," Abramov says. "What's the connection between Mehriban Aliyeva's new position and the presidential election? YAP is set to change significantly with her in her new position. The party's social base will expand. The president established this post in order to have someone who will support him in establishing a stronger Azerbaijan."

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report

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