In Sergio Leone’s famous spaghetti western, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, [1966] the three parts are played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach respectively; thus far in his role as President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev has played all these roles himself. He has been pro-west (Good), a ruthless dictator (Bad), and arguably the most corrupt politician of his generation (Ugly).

In 1961 he was born ‘with a golden spoon in his mouth’; his father, Heydar Aliev, was a rising star in the Azerbaijan KGB (the forerunner of today’s FSB). In 1967, when Ilham was six years old, Heydar had become the head of the KGB in Baku. But this was just the beginning. In 1969 Heydar was elected First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Azerbaijan Communist Party in 1969. His solid leadership gave Azerbaijan an uplift on its previous reputation as the poor relation of the Soviet republics.

Spotted in Moscow as a rising star, Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, Leonid Brezhnev’s successor, made Heydar Aliyev a full member of the Soviet Politburo. His father’s career success opened doors for Ilham. In 1977 he gained a place at the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

However, although Ilham could be described as a spoilt Soviet ‘princeling’, he did not behave like one. A contemporary, Aleksandr Gurnov, a Russia Today journalist recalled, ‘Ilham really studied hard and could never be accused of taking it easy.’ His biographer, Graeme Wilson, in Ilham: Portrait of a President [2011] is similarly laudatory; he describes him as a ‘serious young man, a child who read a lot and one given to spending time in adult company rather than among his peers.’

Given his background it is difficult to understand why he started to rebel against the communist system. Perhaps in Moscow he began to recognize the evil flaws at the heart of all autocratic socialist countries. Was this what propelled him to become an anglophile? As well as his native Azerbaijani language, Russian, French, and Turkish, Ilham learnt to speak English fluently as he studied British history and political philosophy. Even more remarkably, he wrote his doctoral thesis on the British anti-war movement in the 1970s. Quite how this fits with his ruthless crushing of the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan last week, is anybody’s guess.

After completing his PhD, Ilham continued as a lecturer. But his idyllic academic life was about to end. His father fell out with new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. When Heydar was sacked so was his son. Ilham Aliyev recalled,

I applied for many jobs in Moscow, and indeed elsewhere, but it became clear that I was on a blacklist somewhere. Several people even told me, ‘I would like to hire you, but I’m not allowed.’ It was very depressing.’

A brief career in the textile business career followed during the early years of the Soviet collapse. But then his father, having won a political battle in Azerbaijan to become President, brought Ilham back to Baku in 1994 to take charge of SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state oil company. SOCAR would become the cash cow for Azerbaijan and the Aliyev family.

Ilham soon proved his worth at SOCAR by helping his father broker a deal to bring a US$30m investment for a Caspian Sea oil project. Heydar worked on President Bill Clinton while Ilham did the hard yards of negotiation with the US energy secretary. Foreign investors, wary of investing in a Caspian Sea project, where national boundaries were not yet agreed, were ‘persuaded’ by the Clinton administration to participate in the deal. Aramco and Pennzoil came on board alongside Russia’s Lukoil and British Petroleum. An executive who has worked with Ilham recalls,

if you tell President Ilham Aliyev something once, he retains it and, weeks later, he brings up any deviation if the same thing is explained again. He is a nuts-and-bolts man.”

When Heydar succumbed to cancer in 2003, Ilham won the ‘election’ to succeed him. After a brief honeymoon with his father’s Soviet era apparatchiks, Ilham ruthlessly removed them. They were replaced by younger, largely English-speaking western educated technocrats. The last of the old guard, Ramiz Mehdiyev, Heydar’s powerful second in command, was stripped of power when he flaunted Covid restrictions to attend a wedding.

Covid was used as cover to round up political enemies including members of the opposition Popular Front. They joined activists and journalists who already filled Baku’s jails. As of July, Azerbaijan had 204 political prisoners – 34 of them added since April. Azerbaijan has the world’s highest ratio of political prisoners.

If his record on human rights is bad, Ilham’s corruption is downright ugly. The overseas holdings of his family, particular his wife, who he appointed as Vice-President of Azerbaijan six years ago, are extraordinary. The Aliyevs prominently in the leaked Panama papers. Aliyev’s three children are registered as shareholders in 44 companies in the British Virgin Islands. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index places Azerbaijan at 128 out of 180 countries, only a few places about the pariah state of Myanmar. As far back as 2012 Ilham had the dubious honour of being recognized as Organized Crime and Corruption Person of the Year.

Apart from massive property assets in places such as London and Dubai, between them his children own seven of Azerbaijan’s ten banks. Despite a presidential salary of just US$248,000 Aliyev and his family, have amassed a collective fortune estimated at about US$900m – quite possibly a massive understatement of the real figure.

Although there is clearly significant popular discontent with the nepotism and corruption of a ruling family that has its fingers in every pie, the Aliyevs look politically quite secure. Oil wealth has trickled down from the top, though possibly not as much as one might have expected. Nevertheless, Aliyev can point to the fact that Azerbaijan’s 10m people have prospered with per capita GDP that has risen from US$655 in 2000 to US$14,700 today.

Aliyev’s reputation as a corrupt tyrant does not seem to have affected his relationship with an EU that is usually only too happy to moralize about countries it does not like… such as the UK. One wonders why? Last year, the EU gleefully announced that by 2027 the Azerbaijan government had agreed to increase its gas supply from its Caspian Sea fields to Europe from 8 bcm (billion cubic metres) to 20 bcm per annum. Although this would still only represent 12 percent of Europe’s gas imports last year, President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, nevertheless described Azerbaijan as ‘a key partner in our efforts to move away from Russian fossil fuels’. The EU has shown, when needs must, moral objections to a rotten totalitarian regime fly out of the window.

With Aliyev now having finally conquered the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh after failed attempts in 1994 and 2020, western commentators’ attention has turned to the humanitarian crisis of hundreds of thousands Armenian war refugees. Typically, on the 19 September, German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, urged Aliyev to ‘Immediately stop shelling and return to the negotiating table.’ When the fighting was over, she accused Baku of,

Breaking its repeated assurances to refrain from the use of force, causing tremendous suffering to a population already in dire straits.

However, the west’s crocodile tears will not last long. Gas or morality? I think we all know which one the EU will choose.