Rufat Ahmadzada
Observing the Caucasus, Iran and Middle East

Similarities between Aliyev and Al-Assad regimes

Baku, July 8, 2009. Bashar al-Assad 's visit to Azerbaijan

Are there any similarities between the Al-Assad regime in Syria and the Aliyev regime in Azerbaijan? First of all, it should be noted that the political systems of democratic states are built upon universal values such as democracy and the rule of law, though they differ in their political systems and approach to governance. Almost all dictatorships, on the other hand, differ more widely from one another, despite sharing some features of governance and methods of exclusionary politics. It is rare, however, for two non-democratic political systems to have as much in common as the Aliyev and Assad regimes. Their shared features include:


Both Heydar Aliyev and Hafez al-Assad came from security backgrounds with a socialist mindset, which was popular during the cold war. In 1970, Hafez al-Assad was a military officer and socialist who came to power via a coup d’etat. Perhaps their training within the security systems enabled both leaders to use force in order to get power. Heydar Aliyev, founder of the Aliyev regime, began his career as a local agent of the NKVD, the famous Stalinist repressive apparatus, in 1941. He rose up through the security agency to become head of the Azerbaijani SSR KGB. Then in 1969, Moscow appointed him first secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party, making him the de facto ruler of Azerbaijan. Still a KGB general, in 1982, Aliyev was made a full member of the Politburo and first deputy chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers by the then first secretary of the CPSU, former KGB head Andropov. As an official Soviet curator for the Middle East, especially Syria, he built close relations with Hafez al-Assad during the 1980s.


As soon as they came to power, both Aliyev and Assad started creating minority controlled political systems where a specific group of people from a specific region were put in key positions with the intention of securing power. Hafez al-Assad was Alawite, a minority religious group in Syria. When he became president he started to appoint Alawites to government positions. Heydar Aliyev was originally from an Azerbaijani village in Armenia and his birth connection to the neighbouring Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan helped him to unite around himself all the Azerbaijanis from Armenia and parts of the Nakhchivan clan. After becoming president he started using tribalism and clan loyalty as tools to advance his political agenda. He appointed people from these clans to major government positions and to the security apparatus. Regional affiliation helped people to land jobs in security, intelligence, government and business in Azerbaijan. In other words, Heydar Aliyev used exclusionary tribalist politics to help him secure power and eventually achieve his long-standing objective of supreme power without checks and balances. State wealth was distributed among these loyal clans, while the rest of the nation was abandoned to its fate.

The creation of strong institutionalised intelligence and spy services to monitor political activists in particular and neutralise them can also be considered a hallmark of the Aliyev system. The state apparatus maintains surveillance over individuals’ lives. This creates fear among the people. Add to this the state controlled media, which is specialised in brainwashing, then the overall picture is of overarching state control over everything.


The founders of both systems chose their sons as their successors, thereby creating dynastic eras in both countries. In 2000, Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father as president. Ilham Aliyev did the same in 2003 through rigged elections. Excessive force was used to suppress demonstrators against electoral fraud. At the beginning both of these young leaders were hailed as reformists by the Western world. They seemed to ignore the fact that these so-called reformists did not have any ideas, let alone a program to transform their systems into democracies. They were surrounded by people known as the untouchables, the same people who had surrounded their fathers. In fact, after Ilham Aliyev was appointed president by his father’s inner circle, his policies aimed to gradually destroy all opposition in Azerbaijan, in which unfortunately he succeeded. There is no freedom of speech, expression, assembly or political pluralism under these dictators.

Both Bashar al-Assad and Ilham Aliyev made their lives in the shadows behind the throne. It has long been speculated among the people in Azerbaijan that Ilham Aliyev’s wife and her family have significant influence on political decision making. When he appointed her his vice president, this ceased to be just speculation. His wife’s family by and large control the economy and business in Azerbaijan. Mr Aliyev like his father has already started to prepare his son as his successor.

Azerbaijan’s future is unpredictable and worsening political and economic conditions cannot be halted or managed under Ilham Aliyev’s rule. The recent political changes in Armenia have once more exposed the Azerbaijani president’s authoritarian style of rule. It is evident that he is not going to give up his position though democratic means. Growing Russian influence in Azerbaijan should be a warning to the Western nations that the political regime in Azerbaijan needs to be pressurised to stop its crackdown on peaceful, pro-Western opposition groups and individuals.

Azerbaijan as a state cannot survive if it continues in the same direction with Aliyev. Therefore, the people of Azerbaijan should make their choice. To prevent a repeat of what happened in Syria, the people of Azerbaijan should take matters into their hands and restore true republicanism, rule of law, limited governance and democratic principles in Azerbaijan. This is a historic mission and the current generation of Azerbaijanis will be held responsible before history.

About the Author
A native of Azerbaijan, I write extensively on political developments in the Caucasus, Iran and the Middle East. City, University of London graduate.