WikiLeaks: Aliyev is Michael (Corleone) on Outside, Sonny on Inside

The most recent confidential cables released from the U.S. Embassy of Baku describe Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev as a cross between fictional mafia bosses Michael Corleone and Sonny Corleone, from the quintessential mob film “The GodFather.”

U.S. Embassy of Baku Charge Donal Lu, in a December 2009 cable to Deputy Assistant Secretary Tina Kaidenow, describes Aliyev as a “pragmatist” when it comes to foreign policy but “increasingly authoritarian” on domestic policy. “This Michael/Sonny dichotomy complicates our approach to Baku and has the unfortunate effect of framing what should be a strategically valuable relationship as a choice between U.S. interests and U.S. values.”

The complete cable is provided below.


Date 2009-09-18 11:17:00

Source Embassy Baku

Classification SECRET//NOFORN

S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 04 BAKU 000749



E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/18/2034

B. BAKU 534
C. 08 BAKU 1136
F. BAKU 287

Classified By: Charge Donald Lu, Reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (S/NF) Summary: Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev
utilizes distinctly different approaches to foreign and
domestic policies. He typically devises the former with
pragmatism, restraint and a helpful bias toward integration
with the West, yet at home his policies have become
increasingly authoritarian and hostile to diversity of
political views. This divergence of approaches, combined
with his father’s continuing omnipresence, has led some
observers to compare the Aliyevs with the fictional
“Corleones” of Godfather fame, with the current president
described alternately as a mix of “Michael” and “Sonny.”
Either way, this Michael/Sonny dichotomy complicates our
approach to Baku and has the unfortunate effect of framing
what should be a strategically valuable relationship as a
choice between U.S. interests and U.S. values. End Summary.

2. (S/NF) This striking aspect of President Ilham Aliyev’s
governing style was very neatly summed up recently by the
witty, but somewhat past-his-prime –––– ––––
–––– –––– –––– –––– –––– (protect). Commenting
on the GOAJ’s harsh reaction to the YouTube “donkey video”
(Reftel A), –––– quipped to the Charge that what one must
understand about Aliyev, “He’s not Michael Corleone, he’s
Sonny.” To some in Baku, ––––’–––– Godfather analogy seems
apt – capturing essential truths not only about Ilham Aliyev,
but his father Heydar, who becomes by implication the “Vito
Corleone” of Azerbaijan. With that in mind, this cable
attempts to explain who Ilham Aliyev is and why he does what
h does. Aside from ––––’–––– analogy, it also owe much to
the appraisals of Michael and Sonny from “The Godfather
Doctrine (2008),” by John Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell.

“That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.”

3. (C) Ilham Aliyev inherited a newly independent,
resource-rich state, brought to order in the post-Soviet era
by this father, Heydar Aliyev, scarred by a catastrophic war
with Armenia that resulted in occupation of the
Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and seven surrounding Azerbaijani
regions. He assumed the presidency in 2003, concurrent with
his father’s death, in an election marked by a lack of
competition and debate, at a time when Azerbaijan’s
re-developed oil and gas resources were being brought on line
for export. Dogged by widespread doubts about his
suitability for leadership based on his age (then 41), lack
of achievements and a “playboy” image, he oversaw the launch
of a one million-barrels-per-day oil pipeline, which has
flooded official and unofficial coffers in Baku and serves as
the financial backbone of the country.

4. (C) The President and his cohorts, who largely were
carried over from his father’s administration, now seek
predictability, stability and continuity to preserve and
protect public and private fortunes. Ilham Aliyev’s
landslide 2008 re-election was followed by a hastily-called
March 2009 referendum, which among other things removed term
limits for the President. Aliyev’s cabinet has changed very
little over the years, with few “reformers” brought in or
remaining in power. The Prime Minister position is largely
ceremonial and weak. 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.

“Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.”

BAKU 00000749 002 OF 004

——————————————— ——–

5. (C) In their short study “The Godfather Doctrine,”
Hulsman and Mitchell present brothers Sonny and Michael
Corleone from “The Godfather” as exemplars of two out of
three schools of U.S. foreign policy thought (with
consigliere Tom Hagen representing the third.) However,
there are important points they raise about the two that
apply well to Aliyev and his policies abroad and at home.
Michael, they write, is a talented balancer of alliances,
aware of limitations on his own power who, importantly, knows
when something isn’t personal, but only business. Sonny, by
contrast, is brash, impulsive, and puts blind faith in force
to address affronts to the Corleone family. For him,
business is personal. Finally, Sonny refuses to contemplate
a present or a future in which the Corleone family does not
dominate New York, despite obvious and growing portents to
the contrary.

“This is business, not personal” – Balanced Foreign Policy
——————————————— ————-

6. (S) President Aliyev inherited from his father a clever,
realistic foreign policy that he has largely maintained.
With the overarching goal of maintaining and increasing
Azerbaijan’s independence and sovereignty, he encourages
involvement with NATO and Euro-Atlantic security and
political structures and supports a policy of westward
transit of Azerbaijani oil and gas through non-Russian
channels. Otherwise, though, he alternates between
assertiveness and appeasement where his powerful neighbors
Russia and Iran are concerned. For example, Azerbaijan
routinely accuses Russia of supplying Armenia with weapons
and pointedly absents itself from the Collective Security
Treaty Organization (CSTO), while participating in GUAM. At
the same time, Aliyev constantly plays up his relations with
President Medvedev with frequent visits and has kept open the
channels of negotiation on energy issues, concluding a small
but symbolically important agreement with Gazprom to supply
gas to Dagestan (Reftel B). He is assertive enough to defend
Azerbaijan’s prerogative for an independent policy, but
discreet enough that he is in no danger of joining
Saakashvili on Moscow’s hit list.

7. (S) In foreign policy, Aliyev has also been able to
maintain generally the distinction between “business and
personal.” For all his bluster about Azerbaijan’s legal
right to liberate the Armenian-occupied territories by force,
Aliyev has worked constructively on the Minsk Group-proposed
Basic Principles and developed a reportedly good rapport with
Armenian President Sargsian – in contrast to the much more
confrontational relationship between the countries’ foreign
ministers. Similarly, even as Aliyev regards with horror the
prospect of Turkey-Armenia rapprochement ahead of
Nagorno-Karabakh resolution, the President has instructed
SOCAR to continue gas transit and supply talks with Turkey,
and no one in Baku has dared to consider a cut in oil exports
through the BTC pipeline. The gas transit talks are a
hardball affair to be sure, but Aliyev surely recognizes that
Azerbaijan cannot really afford a total rupture with Turkey
and certainly is not going to go so far as to foreclose on
options out of pique while the Turkey-Armenia question
remains open.

“You touch my sister again and I’ll kill you.” – The Hardliner
——————————————— —————–

8. (S) For all of the cool-headed calculation that generally
influences Aliyev’s foreign policy, his domestic policies are
another matter. 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. The example of the crude
retaliation against the young bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan
Hajizade is the most recent and public example (Reftel A).
Earlier, defending his decision to rescind licenses for
foreign broadcasters, Aliyev expressed his anger that Radio

BAKU 00000749 003 OF 004

Liberty had mocked his plan to build the world’s tallest
flagpole in the Baku port area, demonstrating exceedingly
thin skin (Reftel C).

9. (S/NF) It is examples like these that inspired ––––’––––
quip to the Charge about Sonny and Michael. ––––
elaborated on the point in that conversation, recalling times
when he was an –––– –––– –––– –––– and similar
situations arose. Heydar would never have allowed himself to
be goaded into ridiculous reactions, he said. (Note:
––––’–––– memory on this might be a little selective, but he
has a point that the space for opinion was wider under the
last President, a view often echoed by journalists who look
back to the 1990s nostalgically. End Note.) Ilham Aliyev,
in ––––’–––– view, is not inclined to subtlety or
deliberation in his response to these kinds of issues.

“I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out. Just my enemies.”

Q———————————– ————————–

10. (S) Aliyev takes the actions he does in order to
eliminate even the semblance of risk to his political
prominence. His goal appears to be a political environment
in which the Aliyev dynasty is unchallenged, which was
demonstrated by the hastily organized March 2009
constitutional referendum removing presidential term limits.
This strangled the hopes of any and all pretenders to
succession, including his wife (who in Azeri politics is
thought of as a rival Pashayev, not an Aliyev).

11. (S) The dissonance between Aliyev’s sensible approach to
foreign affairs, manifested by the cosmopolitan image he
presents to Western visitors, with his tailored suits and
flawless English, and the unpleasant reality of his approach
to domestic issues raises the obvious question of how these
two realities coexist. One explanation is that Aliyev is
insecure in domestic politics and relies heavily on the
advice of old-line Soviet-style political figures carried
forward from his father’s administration, such as
Presidential Chief of Staff Ramiz Mehdiyev. Alternatively,
Aliyev’s domestic actions are free choices made in accordance
with his instincts, with Mehdiyev and others playing the

12. (S) Occasionally, Aliyev’s confident tough-guy image
gives way to an impression that he is yielding on domestic
issues. Outside pressure does not always fail. A recent
positive example was the outcome of the parliament’s
initiative to ram through a Russian-style law on NGOs. In
the face of a domestic outcry – including from
government-supported NGOs, the Presidential Administration
intervened to prevent the law as drafted from passing (Reftel
D). Likewise, the President recently rejected a bill from
parliament that would have required foreign-based entities to
hire vetted Azerbaijanis citizens as deputy directors. The
business community strongly opposed this bill (Reftel E).
Also, the government earlier this year released one of the
prominent journalists whose imprisonment was widely believed
to have been politically motivated (Reftel F).

“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
——————————————— —–

13. (S) Comment: It is clear that Azerbaijan’s future
development would better suit United States policy goals if
Aliyev pursued his domestic policies in a manner that
resembled his foreign policy methods, however imperfect they
may be. A full-scale democratic conversion, however, is an
unlikely outcome, and the record of presidents in this region
leaving office voluntarily is rather thin. What is desirable
and perhaps achievable, however, is that Aliyev would govern
as a manager of alliances, viewing the political space
occupied by dissents as a source of ideas and a warning
system for when policies are hurting the national interest;
and ceasing to feel that he should strike hard at every
criticism that arises, or that he can do so without
consequences. At least this type of evolution would better
prepare Azerbaijan for the post-Ilham Aliyev era, whenever

BAKU 00000749 004 OF 004

that begins.

14. (S) Comment Continued: Here is where the Godfather
analogy begins to break down. In Azerbaijan the role of
loyal consigliere to the father and the son is played by the
long-time head of Presidential Administration Ramiz Mehdiyev.
Mehdiyev is no calm, conciliating Tom Hagen. We do not know
if President Aliyev personally ordered the many iron-fisted
domestic initiatives, although he almost certainly approved
them, even if after-the-fact. We do see Mehdiyev’s
fingerprints all over the arrests of journalists, the
stifling of opposition leaders, the closure of mosques, the
restrictions on the media and the general law-and-order
approach to governance. Is he 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.

15. (U) “Don Corleone, I need a man with powerful friends .
. . I need all of those policians you carry around in your
pocket, like so many nickels and dimes.”


DE RUEHKB #0749/01 2611117
P 181117Z SEP 09


  1. About 10 ago, before the current Aliyev became president, I attended an afternoon seminar at the Caspian Studies program at Harvard’s JFK School. It was open to the public.  About  25 people attended. The guest was US Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Ross Wilson.  I remember quite well that he insulted the younger Aliyev (whose father was still president of Azerbaijan at that time.)  I recall that the word that Wilson used to describe Aliyev was “stupid” or something very close to that.  I was surprised.

    At some point, the host (a well-know youngish woman prominent in the Caspian Studies Program) announced that the seminar was “off the record”.  Oops.

    However, an RFE/RL reporter was in attendance.  He did write a story about it but omitted any mention of the controversies (such as the “stupid” comment) that had occurred.   This gives you an idea of what sort of “reporters” RFE/RL employs.

    I had also asked Ross Wilson about the fact that it was well-documented that Azerbaijan had on its territory violent extremist groups.  Wilson denied it, angrily.  Funny that Wilson would have been so frank when it came to the younger Aliyev and yet so disengenuous on the issue of Azeri extremism. 

    Well, when you have to defend a fake, Soviet-created country like Azerbaijan, which until the last century no one had ever heard of, I suppoed you must walk a tightrope.  Wilson, of course, went on to become US Ambassador to Turkey. Wilson has apparently had quite a career representing the US in lousy, violent-prone countries.

  2. I always believe Artsakh is the main topic for mobster Aliyev, in order to tight his “rusty screws” over his stupid people, to pump more oil money into his pocket.. Aliev who has more Kurdish blood that Turk, knows his uncultured people won’t exist if there was no ancient country like Armenia and Iran beside them, where world recognize their respective ancient civilizations of the past.

    Aliyev’s uncultured, tribal and Turkified nation is created, and taken away from Iran and Ottomans’ territorial control by British Empire, during first world war in order to have an upper hand over Baku’s oil fields, just like the way they created in the Middle Eastern countries such as Arab Emirate, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and many more…

    We have a brilliant analysis in “Aliyev is Michael (Corleone) on Outside, Sonny on Inside.”  Particularly it analyzes, “For all his bluster about Azerbaijan’s legal right to liberate the Armenian-occupied territories by force, Aliyev has worked constructively on the Minsk Group-proposed Basic Principles and developed a reportedly good rapport with Armenian President Sarksian – in contrast to the much more confrontational relationship between the countries’ foreign ministers.” The analysts have revealed the fact that Mr. Sarksyan and Mr. Aliyev inter-actions have secret aspects, in sense that Mr. Sarksyan and Mr. Aliyev have the intention to behave the way that each of them could support the other in Presidential and any other political elections. After this revelation, it is understandable why both Presidents have POLITICAL PRISONERS and why they are confident they can survive the next “political elections” both in Azerbaijan and Armenia. On the one hand, the population of these two tortured countries can perceive the situation in the South Caucasus as if Armenia has occupied Nagorno Karabakh and territories around it, that is, part of Azerbaijani territory; on the other hand, these two deceived peoples in the South Caucasus can realize that the Azeri-Karabakhi powers have occupied the political power and the vital economy of Republic of Armenia. Such socio-political situation is against any U.S., Turkish, Russian, and/or EU interests. The super-powers who want to solve the problem of Nagorno Karabakh find themselves in a socio-psychological condition that they are not able to solve the Karabakhi problem in the South Caucasus to address their own nations’ interests. Meanwhile, Mr. Aliyev, i.e., Corleone and Mr. Sarksyan, i.e., Mefistofel are going to rig elections any time — at the support of each other, kill people on the streets of Baku and Yerevan, and send honest citizens to prisons in their jail-like countries. Responsible and wise persons in the Kremlin, US Congress, and European Council have to know this.

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