Azerbaijan’s victory in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh has transformed President Ilham Aliyev’s political stature — boosting his popularity to levels he never experienced during his 17 years of authoritarian rule.
The return of parts of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan’s control, along with all seven occupied districts around the breakaway region, has changed the way many in the country view Aliyev’s leadership.
Experts say Aliyev’s historical legacy has been transformed.
They also say Baku’s battlefield victories have forced Azerbaijan’s opposition to search for a new narrative to mobilize their support.
That’s because resolution now appears possible on the main social issue embraced for decades by Azerbaijan’s political opposition — the plight of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis displaced by Armenian forces during the early 1990s from their homes in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan’s victory was greeted in Baku by scenes of euphoria and rapturous patriotic pride as citizens draped themselves in the national flag and danced in the streets — including many who carried portraits of Aliyev.
Postwar media reports in the country now refer to Aliyev by the title “Victorious Supreme Commander in Chief.”
Even the political opposition in Baku — decimated by years of repression that culminated in a brutal police crackdown in July — has offered praise of Aliyev since a Russian-brokered cease-fire agreement was signed on November 9.
Amid the wave of national pride, Aliyev has been hailed as a national hero. Few in Baku appear willing to openly criticize him — at least at this time.
Ilgar Mammadov, leader of the opposition REAL party, recently told RFE/RL that historians could find merit in Aliyev’s claim that he has continued the policy of his father, Heydar Aliyev, who was president from 1993 until his death in 2003, when Ilham took over.
“There is a need for big research by historians here,” Mammadov said. “But from a political point of view I can say that in 1994 — a period when Azerbaijan was truly weak in military, political, and most importantly, economic terms — Heydar Aliyev stopped the war without surrendering the country. He began to gain strength for the country — that’s what Ilham Aliyev is saying now — and managed to do so.”
Mammadov also suggested there is a new national unity in the aftermath of the war.
“If you look at the pressure that is now being exerted on Azerbaijan — which we all, the whole nation, the opposition and the authorities, are trying to resist — then imagine the pressure on Azerbaijan in those times,” Mammadov said.
Aliyev also has spoken about a new unity in Azerbaijan as a result of the war.
“This unity will allow us the opportunity to revive the liberated lands and return our internally displaced people to those lands as soon as possible,” Aliyev said in a victory speech he gave in Baku on December 10 alongside visiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“The Karabakh region, our beautiful historical land, will be reborn, revived, and revitalized,” Aliyev told the cheering crowd in Baku.
“What just happened was probably the greatest military and diplomatic victory in Azerbaijan’s history,” said Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan who cochaired negotiations over the conflict as Washington’s envoy in the OSCE’s Minsk Group.
“Clearly the presidency wants to highlight that. And, of course, that’s popular. This is his legacy now,” Bryza told RFE/RL.
“Until this war, Ilham Aliyev’s legacy was jeopardized because he had been unable to recover any significant amounts of Azerbaijan’s own territory,” Bryza explained. “Most likely, he realized that he would then have gone down in history as having not been able to regain the territories.”
“Now that goal, that legacy, has changed and is positive for Ilham Aliyev,” Bryza said. “And it’s precisely the fact that he was the commander in chief when this victory happened that cements a positive legacy for him.”
But Azerbaijan’s territorial gains aren’t the only factor that has bolstered Aliyev’s popularity since full-scale war reignited over Nagorno-Karabakh on September 27.
Political observers say Aliyev’s public persona also has received a makeover during the 44-day war.
Bahruz Samadov, a doctoral student at Charles University in Prague, is researching the logic and motivations of Aliyev’s regime.
“Aliyev’s popularity reached its peak during the war; the opposition leaders stopped their criticism, while Aliyev’s actions were perceived as a just and victorious war,” Samadov wrote in a paper published recently by the Berlin-based Heinrich Boell Stiftung.
“The active support of Turkey during the conflict inevitably led to the rearticulation and dynamic perception of Turkey as the ‘big brother,’” Samadov said.
The War As Seen From Azerbaijan
Journalist Seymur Kazimov gives an Azerbaijani perspective on working near the front lines in the worst violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in more than a quarter of a century.
Samadov told RFE/RL that Aliyev also began to present himself in a new way during the war — as someone who is closer to ordinary Azerbaijani citizens.
“It’s a new shift to where we’ve never been,” Samadov said. “Before the war, he’d been criticized as being distant from the people.”
“But if we look at Aliyev’s speeches during the war, we see he extensively used metaphors and expressions in the way ordinary people speak and think in Azerbaijan,” Samadov said. “Now he speaks like the people — and people enjoy his speeches.”
Samadov concludes that Aliyev’s domestic political goal before Baku’s battlefield victories had been to maintain “the hegemony of the ruling party” — cracking down on his political opponents while sustaining “passive acceptance” of his rule from ordinary Azerbaijanis.
“Now he actually enjoys popular support,” Samadov says. “If you look at the victory parade in Azerbaijan on December 10 and how he behaved, it shows a turn from hegemonical totalitarianism — with its apathy and passive acceptance by the people, to authoritarian populism, where he actually enjoys mass support.”
The next question for Aliyev is how long can he ride the current wave of patriotism and national pride that has swept Azerbaijan.
“I don’t know what the ramifications are for domestic politics in the longer run,” Bryza said. “It’s still so soon since the cease-fire agreement was signed. But I think the agreement is seen as increasingly popular now in Azerbaijan. So that would make President Aliyev stronger politically.”
Alex Raufoglu, a Washington-based Azerbaijan specialist for Amnesty International and a correspondent for the independent Turan news agency, agrees it is too early to determine how long Aliyev’s current level of popularity will last.
Raufoglu says issues that dogged Aliyev’s presidency before September could return to haunt him — including economic mismanagement, systemic corruption, and the government’s poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two main opposition groups that supported the war — Musavat and the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AXCP) — also have signaled remaining concerns over the Russian-brokered cease-fire agreement.
Both parties supported the war but have criticized the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Baku-based political analyst Sahin Haciyev tells RFE/RL that Aliyev’s popularity could suffer in the long term without a resolution to the issue of disputed territory in Nagorno-Karabakh that is still under Armenian control.
Haciyev says Aliyev also needs to foster political reforms and economic change in Azerbaijan.
But for now, the focus is on how soon Azerbaijan’s internally displaced population can return to what is left of their homes in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.
“Whether or not his popularity will still be there five months from now, we’ll have to see,” Raufoglu told RFE/RL. “Even as we speak today, we keep hearing about cease-fire violations. So for many people it’s still the same old, same old.”
“Many people hope they can return back to their homes,” Raufoglu continued. “But it’s too early to see yet whether people will be able to return this time and what the future of the land will look like.”
Reconstruction And Resettlement
Bryza says that before any full-scale return of displaced Azerbaijanis can happen, the recently recovered territories must be cleared of unexploded ordnance.
He notes that Azerbaijan’s demining agency already has said it will take three years to sufficiently remove all explosives so that displaced people can safely return.
And removing unexploded ordnance is just one of Aliyev’s new challenges.
“The full range of tasks to rebuild the seven recovered territories and Nagorno-Karabakh is daunting,” Bryza told RFE/RL. “The Azerbaijani government estimates it will cost somewhere around $100 billion.”
“When I last visited the district of Agdam, no structure was intact,” Bryza explained. “Everything was taken, completely, by the Armenian side. The bricks above the surface of the ground, all the wiring, all the windows, all the doors in many cases. Everything has to be rebuilt.”
“There needs to be, in the short term, shelter and then more permanent housing. And then all of the normal infrastructure for energy, gas pipelines, electricity, water, schools — everything has to be rebuilt. It’s a daunting challenge, a huge task,” says Bryza.
“Azerbaijan doesn’t have the money to do that,” he adds. “It’s going to need international support.”
To receive international support, Bryza says Baku must “obtain the moral high ground” — allowing Armenians to remain in their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh and making them feel safe there.
“A full victory for Azerbaijan requires Azerbaijan to demonstrate to the international community that they’ve never had intentions to commit, as the Armenian Prime Minister Pashinian has accused, genocide or ethnic cleansing.”
“That’s a tall order. That’s why there is a Russian peacekeeping contingent,” he says. “The Russian peacekeepers on the ground are a geopolitical setback for NATO, for the United States, and first and foremost, for Azerbaijan. But without them, I don’t think there is any way ethnic Armenians would remain in Nagorno-Karabakh.”
RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report
This post was originally published on Radio Free.