AZERBAIJAN: WikiLeaks depicts lifestyles of Baku’s rich and powerful

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Documents released by WikiLeaks about the Azerbaijani political and business elite read less like diplomatic cables and more like the latest episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”

Two cables, which originated from the U.S. Embassy in Baku in January and February of this year, range from the catty – comments on the Azerbaijan first lady’s plastic surgery – to the downright gossipy – the private jet preferences of a minister’s sons.


They are the first in a series titled “Who Owns What,” profiling the “small handful of players” who control both the political and business fields in Azerbaijan – and who collude, conspire and amass fantastic wealth at the expense of reform, market competition and real democracy in their country, according to the cables. The remaining cables in that series have not yet been released.

According to the cables, perhaps the most powerful and the most decadently wealthy of that “handful of players” are the Pashayeva and Heydarov families, who together control most of the Azerbaijan’s government and many of the nation’s large businesses.

The Pashayeva family, which claims first lady Mehriban Aliyeva as a prominent member, controls three of the biggest banks in the country, a TV station, a cosmetics line and a mobile phone company, among other large companies, according to the January cable.

The patriarch of the Heydarov family, Kemaladdin Heydarov, who is depicted as a business tycoon in the cables, is said to control a series of Azeri monopolies over everything from fruit juice to pirated CDs, from asphalt to caviar, according to the February cable. He is also the head of the most powerful ministry in Baku.

The January cable, which shares a tone with the series “True Hollywood Stories” on E! Entertainment Television, focuses on the Pashayeva family and particularly on first lady Mehriban Aliyeva (nee Pashayeva), who is also a member of parliament and a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO. She is widely rumored among Azerbaijanis to be in line to succeed her husband as president.

The cables depict first lady Aliyeva, who looks a bit like Paula Abdul and has been photographed extensively, in less than flattering light. Like all the Pashayeva women, Aliyeva’s style is “fashion-conscious and daring,” the cables say, and she “wears dresses that would be considered provocative even in the Western world.” But “when she received Members of Congress in 2008, she appeared poorly informed about political issues,” one cable said.

In its cattiest moment, the cable spends two paragraphs describing Aliyeva’s “substantial cosmetic surgery”: “On television, in photos, and in person, she appears unable to show a full range of facial expression.” The cables say go on to describe an event that occurred during U.S. Second Lady Lynne Cheney’s visit to Aliyeva and her two daughters in 2008. “Prior to the Second Lady’s arrival, while the three [Azerbaijani] ladies were waiting for Mrs. Cheney’s car, one Secret Service agent asked ‘which one of those is the mother?’ Emboffs and White House staff studied the three for several moments, and then Emboff said, ‘Well, logically the mother would probably stand in the middle,’” according to the January cable.

The Heydarov family, which controls more businesses than any other Azerbaijani family and is second in power to the Pashayevas, appear to be no less eccentric.

The patriarch, Kamaladdin Heydarov – a “Koreaphile,” tae kwon do enthusiast and composer, who has written a song about former President Heydar Aliyev – controls what one of the cables describes as a vast network of kickbacks, intimidation and monopolization in Azerbaijan. He has managed climb to “the top of this mountain of non-competition” in the business world of Azerbaijan and he uses a similar strategy when it comes to politics, one cable says.

After hand-picking his successor at what the cables suggest was a highly lucrative post as chairman of the State Customs Committee, Heydarov is now head of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the most powerful ministry in Baku, complete with its own paramilitary unit. In this position, Heydarov controls “just about everything under the sun,” from construction licensing to state grain reserves, and the cables suggest that he does so with a Mafioso’s attention to loyalty.

Those who have crossed him “have always fared poorly,” the cable says. Two former ministers of economic development, both of whom had reputations as “reformers” and were political rising stars, were driven out “in part after falling on Heydarov’s bad side.” Heydarov is also rumored to “have even been behind the assassination of Air Force Chief and Deputy Defense Minister General Rail Rzayev” in 2009, the cable says.

The heirs to the Heydarov family political and business fiefdom are Kamaladdin Heydarov’s London-educated sons: Nijat and Tale Heydarov. According to the cables, the young men have recently “expressed a desire” to buy two Gulfstream jets, presumably one for each of them, at $20 million apiece. The family already owns an Airbus A319 corporate jet.

In what the cables muse is “a small-scale effort to replicate the Chelsea antics of Russia’s Roman Abramovich,” the two young men also own the Qabala Football Club in Azerbaijan. Drawing players from all over the world, they have built the “best team money can buy,” the cables say, and in one last artful slight, they add, “at least for central Azerbaijan.”

-- Haley Sweetland Edwards in Tblisi, Georgia