Flower Day, Aliyev Style

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On May 10 Heydar Aliyev, the former president and current billboard favorite in Azerbaijan, would have turned 88 years old. So naturally, the government pulled out all the stops. Like last year, thousands of flowers from 50 countries literally covered the park between the Heydar Aliyev Palace and the statue of Heydar Aliyev as two hot air balloons were inflated in front of the giant flower mosaic of Heydar Aliyev, ensuring that his unmistakable Kremlin-Mona-Lisa smile would soar above the city already covered by his portraits.

The websiteof President Ilham Aliyev, the son of the late Heydar, set the tone: “The magnificent monument of savior and founder of the contemporary Azerbaijan, genius son of the nation, Heydar Aliyev, and its pedestal were covered with flowers.”

Like most foreigners here, I’m a little tired of seeing the face of Heydar on countless posters, offices, flags, building walls, etc., etc. but he is a person held in great esteem by the vast majority of people in the country - even those I know don’t accept the official line on their country's history.

The sayings of Heydar and Ilham are written on posters and buildings everywhere in the country and usually are translated to me as a patronizing cliché or platitude. But one in Hachmas is a personal favorite – “In Azerbaijan there is no alternative to the politics of Heydar Aliyev.”

But before I trot out my world-weary foreign arrogance, lets put this into perspective. It was a beautiful day, the park looked great, the flowers were beautiful and people do need to rally around a leader. Celebrating with flowers seems pretty benign compared to some of the school children goose-stepping on Ataturk Day in Turkey.

And lets not forgot how half the country in the USA celebrated the civil war anniversary or take a moment to acknowledge that for all the criticism of Heydar Aliyev or the subsequent cult of personality built around him, we still celebrate Columbus Day in the USA and I’m sure Heydar was a far better man.

There is no shortage of material available online about the reasons people celebrate the man. I won't go into those here because so much of the actual history during his presidency is not verifiable or seriously studied yet.

Thomas Goltz spends the better part of 500 pages trying to pin down the man behind the mantle in his excellent account of the country’s most turbulent years. In his prologue ofAzerbaijan Diary, he said the book is “a sort of super-unauthorized biography by someone who got quite close to the Grand Old Man[…]," but he also admits the futility of answering that questions: "Who was, who is Heydar Aliyev? I don’t know[...] He is either (a) the chief agent of post-Soviet Russian irredentism in Azerbaijan, sent in as part of a deep, dark plot to destroy the country from within or (b) a true Azeri patriot all along, seeking the best for his shattered nation the only way he knows.”

90% of Azeris would agree with the latter view, with the bulk of the non-conformists being non-Azeris. Maybe I’m looking for something that isn’t there, but I do believe I hear some lingering doubts when I hear people say “he was the right man for the moment.” Considering the depth of the pit Azerbaijan found itself in, this isn’t the kindest thing you can say about a man – but it certainly makes a hero out of him.

Some of the most curious and engaged thinkers I’ve talked to here regard Heydar as a great man – even when his methods seemed counter-productive. One of my friends, who was involved in medical care for ministers during that period, said he saw today’s corruption begin with Heydar. According to him, Heydar centralized power by telling all of his ministers that they had a free hand to suck up as much money from their ministries as possible – whoever proved most adept at funneling cash would be rewarded with even more money. Sounds pretty bad, huh?

“But it was the only way to create a meaningful leadership that was capable of resisting all the foreign agents and fight the war we were about to lose completely,” he said. And getting money for the government was a very serious issue indeed - it's not taxes were being collected. Also, Armenia was making huge gains in the war, the streets were dangerous, there was zero oil money, diaspora money, and aid money. Plus Iran and Russia (and probably the West) were already licking their lips at this oily treat whose taste probably brought back nostalgic memories of their youthful empires. That's the harshest story I’ve heard. “He didn’t know democracy, it wasn’t what he was good at," my friend added, "He was good at consolidating power which was exactly what everyone saw was needed.”

So while a few people can articulate arguments that put him at the center of Azerbaijan’s problems today, they don’t really blame him. With the political arrests, lack of free speak, fixed elections and widespread corruption, a relatively recent transplant might find himself dubious of this near-deified nation father figure. But I have to assume part of the reason I don’t “get” why this cult of personality goes so deep is because I didn’t experience just how chaotic Azerbaijan was during those troubled years.

In a recent conversation I had with a local expert and journalist, she told me how odd it felt for her to watch recent government crackdowns on the protestors and actually feel some begrudging respect for how organized and professional the riot police acted. She is by no means a loyalist to the regime, but she does admit that her mind immediately shot back to the chaos on the streets of Baku during the early 1990s.

Heydar Aliyev is intimately linked with the greatest trauma the of the previous generation. Children grow up in a different country, but their parents tell them that this man stabilized Azerbaijan before it had fountains and jeans and wifi - so Heydar's legacy lives on. The next generation won’t have any firsthand account though, and who knows how they will react to this blotted hero-worship. Goltz wondered the same thing when he wrote “But some decades from now, when a new generation passes judgment on the sins of today’s heroes, will they then tear down the statues and rename the towns?”

A last little Heydar moment from my travels. “So why do people have a big poster of Heydar on their walls?” I asked a Russian man in a far off mountain village who was one of the very few who saw nothing worth liking in Heydar – or any politician so far as I could tell. “It's a kind of superstition,” he said, “Like a talisman – if it’s up, good things are more likely to happen, if not bad things may come into the home.”