This year, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev offered his wife a special anniversary present — he appointed her first vice president.
On Tuesday, Aliyev announced that Mehriban Aliyeva, 52, would step into a role created last fall by constitutional referendum. In that position, she will succeed her husband if he steps down. She will also likely oversee the country's cabinet. (The constitutional amendments approved in the referendum also stretched the presidential term from five to seven years, after a 2009 referendum abolished term-limits in the former Soviet republic. And they ditched the age requirement for president, paving the way for the Aliyevs' 19-year-old son to run.)
Aliyeva graduated from medical school, but she has always had an interest in politics. She serves in the country's parliament and chairs her husband's political party, Yeni Azerbaijan. She has run several big projects, including Azerbaijan's Olympic bid and the Heydar Aliyev charity. Aliyeva was born into one of the country's wealthiest families, the Pashayevs, who have donated generously to the arts. They can afford to — the clan controls several banks, insurance companies, construction, travel, and Azerbaijan's only Bentley dealership. Several relatives hold top government posts.
She is famous (or infamous) for her love of luxury, her meticulous appearance and her stylish dress. In leaked American diplomatic cables, diplomats suggested that Aliyeva had problems showing a "full range of facial expression" because of "substantial cosmetic surgery." They also wrote that she was poorly informed about political issues.
In a statement laying out her qualifications, President Aliyev wrote, "it is no coincidence that the organization of the Fourth Islamic Solidarity Games due to be held this year has also been entrusted to Mehriban Aliyeva."
Opposition leaders agree that it's no coincidence. But they don't think Aliyeva's talents got her the job. The Aliyevs, they say, run their country like a fiefdom, getting rich off Azerbaijan's energy reserves. Now they're trying to consolidate dynastic rule, critics say. "This appointment shows disrespect to the people," Ali Kerimli, leader of one of Azerbaijan's opposition parties, told Reuters. "It's the first step to the establishment of an absolute monarchy in the country."
Others took to social media to air their dissent:
Azerbaijan's leadership has long been all in the family. Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father, Heydar Aliyev, who ruled Azerbaijan as a Communist Party boss and then as a post-Soviet president for almost 30 years. The son took over in 2003. He has focused on turning the small country into a regional power player and ally of the West. He has also built up a personal fortune in the tens of millions of dollars, thanks largely to his family's ties to state-run businesses. The Aliyev family owns significant parts of at least eight major Azerbaijani banks. They also profit from partial ownership of the country's oil and gas industries, the major telecommunication groups and construction firms (important, because Baku has seen a building boom).
Much of their money is hidden in offshore accounts. In 2013, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project named Ilham Aliyev "corruption's person of the year." (Aliyev's family denies the charges.)
The country has also earned a reputation for repressive political tactics, curbing free expression and preventing fair elections. Just days before Aliyev announced the appointment of his wife, activists from the opposition party were detained and jailed. At least 10 political activists and journalists have been detained this month; 30 more have been put under administrative arrest. Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist, suggested that these moves were designed to thwart government opponents who might "dare to protest" Aliyeva's appointment.
And for those who note a parallel between the the behavior of Aliyev and that of President Trump — you're not alone:
Pro-Gov-t lawyer says if Trump appointed his son-in-law as advisor, why Aliyev couldn't appoint his wife as vice-president. Ughhhhh!
— Khadija Ismayilova (@Khadija_Ismayil) February 21, 2017