Valley Voices

Randy Baloian: ‘The Godfather,’ a ‘president’ of Azerbaijan and Armenians

“The Godfather” saga characters are so popular they are in our everyday lexison. From left, Al Pacino as Michael, Marlon Brando as father Don Vito Corleone, James Caan as Sonny and John Cazale as Fredo.
“The Godfather” saga characters are so popular they are in our everyday lexison. From left, Al Pacino as Michael, Marlon Brando as father Don Vito Corleone, James Caan as Sonny and John Cazale as Fredo.

“The Godfather” trilogy has so touched the human psyche that parallels with the well-known saga are routinely found in everyday life.

Back in 2009, foreign policy analysists John Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell even wrote a book, “The Godfather Doctrine: A Foreign Policy Parable,” in which they use the story and its main characters to illustrate the constantly changing landscape of global geopolitics.

About the same time, U.S. senior diplomat Donald Lu in Azerbaijan compiled a communique to various intelligence agencies on the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev. In it, Aliyev, who arrived in Washington, D.C, for the Nuclear Security Summit, is compared to the hot-headed Santino “Sonny” Corleone and (to a lesser extent) his “just business/not personal” brother, Michael.

Aliyev’s looks aren’t going to remind anyone of James Caan or Al Pacino, but there are some good reasons for Lu’s analogy. Much like Sonny and Michael, he rose to his position at a young age, 41, and as the successor of his father, Heydar Aliyev, who also served as the country’s boss during Soviet times.

Elections are held in Azerbaijan, but the outcomes are as rigged as a craps game with loaded dice. And much like the Corleones, the Aliyev family, which has run Azerbaijan since 1993, doesn’t appear ready to give up its reign anytime soon.

In 2009 it consolidated its rule through a “popular” referendum abolishing term limits for the presidency. The title of “president” is thus very misleading, considering that the younger Aliyev’s princely upbringing and his firm grip on the levers of power make him the epitome of a modern-day monarch.

Lu’s correspondence can be found on Wikileaks. Not only is this rogue site a treasure trove of classified government information, but the candid reporting by seasoned agents is a refreshing change from the mind-numbing spiel heard from the presidential campaign trail lately.

Lu writes that Aliyev’s uncertain status as an authoritarian leader complicates an otherwise strategically valuable relationship with Azerbaijan, presenting our nation with a choice between “U.S. interests and U.S. values.”

Aliyev’s likeness to the business-minded Michael typically surfaces in international affairs, says Lu. Azerbaijan is an oil-rich nation and, to maintain the wealth of the county’s elite, its president is compelled to work out deals with other countries to keep crude exports flowing.

When in Washington, Aliyev may even meet with President Barack Obama to smooth over damages caused by Azerbaijan’s administrative head Ramiz Mehdiyev, who, last year, blamed U.S. foreign policy and intrigue for the world’s current international crises.

At home, however, Aliyev reacts (or overacts), as Lu puts it, with the same swift and strong-armed force as Sonny. Whatever social dissent exists in Azerbaijan is quickly quashed by Mehdiyev –the Aliyev version of Luca Brasi – with the president’s tacit or explicit approval.

Even political lampooning is not tolerated by the thin-skinned dictator, who was angered when Radio Liberty poked fun at his plans to build the world’s tallest flagpole in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. Authorities sealed the doors of the station’s Baku office in 2014.

The neighboring republics of Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh also know all too well the Santino side of Aliyev. Beginning in late 1988, the Armenian-populated region of Karabagh rose up against its Azeri overlords and by the early 1990s had successfully created its own de facto nation.

Since 1994, an uneasy truce has existed between Karabagh and Azerbaijan, although Azerbaijani attacks against both Karabagh and Armenia have escalated in the past couple years.

On the occasion of Aliyev’s visit to the U.S., Reps. Ed Royce and Brad Sherman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee called upon Obama to press the Azeri leader to accept several concrete steps that would avert a return to war and put all involved parties on the path of peace.

At the onset of the conflict, Soviet dissidentAndrei Sakharov remarked that “for Azerbaijan the issue of Karabagh is a matter of ambition, for the Armenians of Karabagh it is a matter of life and death.” Along with pride, such small but intractable wars have brought down their share of leaders, most far more prominent than Aliyev.

In the mostly disappointing finale of the trilogy, Michael offers some sound leadership advice when he warns, “Don’t hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.”

Aliyev would do well do listen to his inner Michael.

Randy Baloian works as a historian for a local cultural resources management firm. He has written on various Armenian-related topics since the mid-1980s, when he attended Fresno State.