- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
Azerbaijan, home to at least 14 prisoners of conscience at the end of last year, is currently ruled by a husband-wife president-vice president team. You see, Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, named his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, his deputy last month. The position was created by referendum last year. She will now succeed him if he ever steps down, just as he succeeded his father. It’s a family affair.
When this appointment was made, Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist who spent time in prison, said on Twitter, “I hope no one will bs about women empowerment. It is a wife empowerment, corruption empowerment, nepotism. And this is just disgusting.”
But of course some did. In fact, on Monday, apparently in honor of Women’s History Month, the Washington Times ran an opinion piece, the top of which reads, “The ‘kind lady’ of Azerbaijan: Mehriban Aliyeva brings a heart of charity to the vice presidency.” The article makes the argument that Azerbaijan took “a historic leap forward” as a Muslim country with a woman in a position of power.
“Why does the appointment of a reform-minded, intelligent and worldly stateswoman halfway across the world matter for United States,” asks the article, shortly thereafter answering, “If we are to successfully tackle the challenge of Islamic extremism, then we must find and support positive and uplifting alternatives…. Thankfully, this wise woman of the East has the ingredients for success.”
Those ingredients, based on the article, seems to be that her name literally means “kind lady”; that she is (according to the author) known for her religious tolerance; that she’s been involved in philanthropic organizations; and that she is “an advocate of tree planting,” all of which may well be true, but none of which changes her appointment by her husband to possibly succeed him into a feminist act.
The article was written by S. Rob Sobhani, CEO of Caspian Group Holdings, “a multidisciplinary group of companies with broad international business interests.” According to a 2013 article from the Baku-based Trend news agency, Sobhani “in the early ’90s, played an important role in the process of negotiations on oil projects in Azerbaijan.” (This article details how wonderfully the president’s predecessor, who was also his father, raised the country’s profile.)
Azerbaijan, in short, is home to a vice president who is married to the president, a Trump hotel that never opened to the public but could open the U.S. president to allegations of impropriety, and a successfully executed plan to buy influence at the Council of Europe. And the United States is home to publications that will run pieces that sing its first lady/vice president’s praises.
Photo credit: Dan Mullan/Getty Images for BEGOC