Aliyev is “not Michael Corleone, he’s Sonny”

When two bloggers in Azerbaijan were thrown in jail last year for a satirical video making fun of the government of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, a (unnamed) source told the U.S. embassy in Baku that if you wanted to understand the mercurial ruler, you had to think of The Godfather: “He’s not Michael Corleone,” the ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

When two bloggers in Azerbaijan were thrown in jail last year for a satirical video making fun of the government of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, a (unnamed) source told the U.S. embassy in Baku that if you wanted to understand the mercurial ruler, you had to think of The Godfather: "He's not Michael Corleone," the source said of Aliyev; "he's Sonny."

The reference to Vito Corleone's sons in the famous Francis Ford Coppola film -- the first, Michael, pragmatic and calculating in his efforts to hang onto his family's organized crime empire after an attack on Vito; the second, Sonny, hot-tempered and preoccupied with vengeance -- sets a Baku embassy official off on an extended, and inspired, riff on the subject of which Corleone, exactly, the Caucasian strongman resembles most. The cable, filed by Charge d'Affaires Donald Lu, works off of the premise of John Hulsman's and A. Wess Mitchell's notion of the "Godfather Doctrine," but the author suggests that the comparison may be particularly apt in the Azeri case:

When two bloggers in Azerbaijan were thrown in jail last year for a satirical video making fun of the government of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, a (unnamed) source told the U.S. embassy in Baku that if you wanted to understand the mercurial ruler, you had to think of The Godfather: “He’s not Michael Corleone,” the source said of Aliyev; “he’s Sonny.”

The reference to Vito Corleone’s sons in the famous Francis Ford Coppola film — the first, Michael, pragmatic and calculating in his efforts to hang onto his family’s organized crime empire after an attack on Vito; the second, Sonny, hot-tempered and preoccupied with vengeance — sets a Baku embassy official off on an extended, and inspired, riff on the subject of which Corleone, exactly, the Caucasian strongman resembles most. The cable, filed by Charge d’Affaires Donald Lu, works off of the premise of John Hulsman’s and A. Wess Mitchell’s notion of the “Godfather Doctrine,” but the author suggests that the comparison may be particularly apt in the Azeri case:

Because of family connections, dynastic succession, the strong arming of the opposition and the creation of an elaborate patronage/protection network, the Aliyev Administration has developed an “organized crime” image in some quarters, leading some analysts to see Ilham Aliyev at times in a mafia-like role.

The diplomat-essayist concludes that, in fact, Aliyev is a Michael abroad and a Sonny at home, crediting the president with maintaining the “clever, realistic foreign policy” of his father, President Heydar Aliyev, while savagely punishing his domestic enemies:

As Aliyev perceives a challenge to his authority or affronts to his family dignity, even minor ones, he and his inner circle are apt to react (or overreact), much to the detriment of the country’s democratic development and movement toward Western alliances.

But the cable suggests that Aliyev’s repressive domestic tendencies may be in part the work of his longtime presidential administrator, Ramiz Mehdiyev, and wonders,

Is [Mehdiyev] the puppet or the puppet-master? At age 71 and often seen in frail health, this is an increasingly important question. While the rule of 47-year-old Ilham Aliyev could continue for decades, it would be most likely without the benefit of his consigliere. Without Mehdiyev, it is not clear whom Aliyev will turn to for help in maintaining the same firm grip on the instruments of power.

(Thanks to FP contributor Haley Edwards for the tip.)

Charles Homans is a special correspondent for the New Republic and the former features editor of Foreign Policy.

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