Heydar Alirza oglu Aliyev (Heydər Əlirza oğlu Əliyev in Azerbaijani) (sometimes transliterated as Geidar Aliev from the Russian Гейдар Алиев) (May 10, 1923 - December 12, 2003) was president of Azerbaijan for the New Azerbaijan Party from June 1993 to October 2003, when his son Ilham Aliyev was elected to succeed him. Aliyev dominated the political life of Azerbaijan for over 30 years, but left his oil-rich country with a problematic legacy of gross corruption. (See also Politics of Azerbaijan.) He was married to Zarifa Aziz kizy Aliyeva, who died in 1985, and was survived by his son and daughter.
Aliyev was born into a working-class family in the Azerbaijani province of Nakhçhivan. Educated in the Azerbaijan State University in Baku, he graduated with a degree in history and joined the Azerbaijani Committee of State Security (the KGB) in 1944. He worked his way up through the ranks, becoming its deputy chairman in 1964 and chairman in 1967. Two years later, in 1969, Leonid Breznev's administration appointed Aliyev to the post of First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Azerbaijani Communist Party. He also became a candidate (non-voting) member of the Soviet Politburo in 1976. He occupied this position until December 1982 when Yuri Andropov promoted him to the post of first Deputy Prime Minister of the Soviet Union. Aliyev thus became the first Muslim full member of the Politburo and was given responsibility for transport and social services.
His star waned following the appointment in 1985 of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet leader. His political views became a liability in the era of perestroika. His fall from grace became public when the state newspaper Pravda attacked him for corruption, with critics labeling him "one of the great Communist dinosaurs." In October 1987, Gorbachev mounted a clear-out of the Breznevite old guard and forced Aliyev to resign from the Politburo and as head of the Azerbaijan Communist Party "for reasons of health."
Aliyev returned to his native Nakhçhivan in 1990. He reinvented himself as a moderate nationalist, resigning from the Communist Party in ostensible protest against the violent Soviet suppression of demonstrations in Baku in January 1990. He was subsequently elected a deputy in the Azerbaijani legislature and in 1991 was appointed Chairman of the Supreme Majlis [Council] of the Nakhçhivan Autonomous Republic. The Azerbaijani president, Abulfaz Echibey, turned in 1992 to Aliyev to bolster a weak and ineffective government, appointing him to the post of Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Council of Azerbaijan.
By 1993, Azerbaijan was in chaos and on the verge of a civil war, following disastrous military defeats in the conflict with Armenia. Echibey was forced to flee the capital in June following an attempted coup d'etat. Aliyev became acting president and, as part of a deal with the coup leaders, was appointed the Chairman of the Supreme Council of Azerbaijan on June 15. The National Assembly elected him as President nine days later.
Over the course of the subsequent decade, Aliyev ruled his country with a firm hand, encouraging foreign investment while discouraging political dissent. He was twice elected president in national elections held in October 1993 and October 1998, but neither election was regarded by international observers as being free or fair.
Aliyev was very successful at attracting multinational companies to invest heavily in Azerbaijan's oil industry, which controlled large oil and gas reserves under the Caspian Sea but had been poorly managed in Soviet times. In 1997 he signed a huge contract with the international oil consortium AIOC. He was also one of the driving forces behind the controversial multi-billion dollar project to build an oil pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan in Turkey, via Georgia (thus bypassing Russia and Iran, much to those countries' displeasure).
However, corruption flourished under his rule and Azerbaijan gained an unenviable reputation as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Aliyev and his son were both accused of personally skimming off huge sums of oil revenue, leading to some describing the country as a kleptocracy.
He also tried but failed to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis, attempting a military solution in December 1993 that eventually resulted in an estimated 30,000 deaths and the displacement of a further 750,000 Azeris. The issue remains unresolved, with Armenian rule continuing in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan still hosting several hundred thousand refugees.
Aliyev's health began to fail in 1999, when he had a major heart bypass operation in the United States. He later had prostate surgery and a hernia operation. He suffered a collapse while giving a speech on live television in April 2003. On August 6, Aliyev returned to the United States for treatment for congestive heart failure and kidney problems. He stood down from the presidency at the start of October 2003, but in an extremely controversial move appointed his son Ilham as his party's sole presidential candidate.
Ilham Aliyev duly won the presidential election of October 15, 2003 but the contest was again criticised by international observers as falling well below expected standards. His assumption of power was the first dynastic succession in the former Soviet Union. Only two months into his presidency, his father's death on December 12 marked the end of an era in Azerbaijani politics and may presage a more unsettled period for the country.