The Oil and the Glory

Central Asian quasi-royalty behaving badly

There is no graduate-level course in princeling etiquette that I know of, but the latest WikiLeaks cables suggest that diplomatic schools should perhaps offer one. Consider Azerbaijan’s first lady, Mehriban Aliyeva (above), and her family, who according to a cable written in January control a bank, insurance, construction, media, telecommunications, real-estate and cosmetics companies, in ...

Francois Durand/Getty Images
Francois Durand/Getty Images

There is no graduate-level course in princeling etiquette that I know of, but the latest WikiLeaks cables suggest that diplomatic schools should perhaps offer one. Consider Azerbaijan’s first lady, Mehriban Aliyeva (above), and her family, who according to a cable written in January control a bank, insurance, construction, media, telecommunications, real-estate and cosmetics companies, in addition to Baku’s only Bentley dealership.

The cable, sent January 27 by Charge Donald Lu, is an impressive profile of Aliyeva. One section relates a story regarding her “substantial cosmetic surgery.” During a 2008 visit to Baku by Lynne Cheney, the wife of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, the youthful-looking Aliyeva and her two daughters mingled with White House, U.S. embassy and security staff while they awaited the arrival of the Cheney vehicle. “Which one of those is the mother?” a puzzled U.S. Secret Service agent asked of his colleagues, referring to the three Aliyeva women. No one could figure it out on sight, before one finally decided, “Well, logically the mother would probably stand in the middle.” On the other hand, Lu found a downside to the facelift: “On television, in photos, and in person, she appears unable to show a full range of facial expression.”

Of course, the bluebloods include not only the Aliyev family, but extend to old pals of late President Heydar Aliyev, the father of current president Ilham Aliyev. Such people are the equivalent of dukes. Topping the list is Kamaladdin Heydarov, the minister of emergency situations, whose father, Fattah, was a close associate of the late president, according to a followup cable that Lu sent to Washington on February 25. Heydarov, Lu writes, is Azerbaijan’s second most-powerful titan next to Aliyeva.

What is there left after Aliyeva? Plenty, it seems. Heydarov controls interests in food canning, caviar, construction materials, chemicals, textiles, CD and DVD production, milk processing, tourism, leather, agriculture, pianos, alcohol, juices, banking and insurance, the cable says.

The main thing is not to cross Heydarov. When I was still keeping an apartment in Baku, one often heard of a powerful fellow named  Farhad Aliyev, who though no relation to the president was said to represent Aliyev family oil interests as head of a company called AzPetrol, and was later minister of economic development. In 2005, he was mysteriously arrested, and has since been imprisoned somewhere on highly strange charges. Lu’s cable suggests what really happened: Changes in government regulations pushed by Farhad Aliyev “stood to hurt Heydarov’s interests,” and “Heydarov allegedly put his foot down.”

We have discussed the world’s new royal-like families in the past. These cables put meat on the bone in another place of interest: Uzbekistan, a key transit point for U.S. military cargo entering Afghanistan through the so-called Northern Distribution Network. Before we get to the family of President Islam Karimov, one must realize that the United States has always been on thin ice in this country, because Karimov tactically favors great powers in two-to-four-year cycles. The United States is up for a few years, then Russia.

Right now, it’s Washington’s turn again. But just two years ago, matters didn’t look so good, according to a cable written Oct. 23, 2008. U.S. Ambassador Richard Norland related how Karimov conveyed an “implicit threat to suspend transit of cargo for American forces in Afghanistan via the northern distribution network.” The source of his ire? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had awarded a human rights certificate to an Uzbek activist.

Back to the royalty. In Uzbekistan, Karimov’s most powerful offspring is his eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova. (Ambassador Jon Purnell is definitely not likely to be invited back to the palace after a snarky cable in September 2005 calling Karimova “the single most hated person in Uzbekistan.”)  

Karimova went to graduate school at Harvard, was married to a New Jersey businessman named Mansur Maqsudi, and even got the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to publish her views on geopolitics this summer. At the time of Purnell’s cable, she was also on a campaign to gussy up her local image in Tashkent with a barrage of planted articles speaking of her charity and community work. But Purnell was unimpressed. As he wrote:

In an interview published on September 8, Karimova told an Uzbek paper, Darakchi, that she is a highly principled person who listens to her conscience. She stressed that she can’t stand treachery or lies. She sees herself as open and even-handed, and demands the same from those around her. She even went so far as to say that people treat you the way you treat them, and if you don’t treat others well, you will “find yourself in a blind alley.” (Comment: The many people crushed by Karimova would likely relish the chance to catch her blind in an alley. End comment.)

Is that a diplomatic thing to say? Now, listen to this one:

Most Uzbeks see Karimova as a greedy, power hungry individual who uses her father to crush business people or anyone else who stands in her way. Even with the press campaign to improve her image, Gulnora is continuing to do business, pressuring and shutting down competitors. This charm offensive will not likely make her more popular; she remains the single most hated person in the country. (Comment: We have no polling data to support that statement, but we stand by it. End comment.)

At the Telegraph in London, Richard Orange writes that the latest cables are likely to embarrass some British companies that were in Tashkent last week seeking business from Karimov.

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