Baku (AFP) – Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev on Tuesday appointed his glamorous wife as first vice president, the latest move seen as tightening the family’s iron grip on the oil-rich Caspian nation.
The elevation of Mehriban Aliyeva — a prominent socialite and lawmaker — sees her now become the country’s second most senior official after her husband.
“She is professional, educated, experienced, principled, and magnanimous,” Aliyev told a National Security Council meeting.
Known for her lavish lifestyle, Aliyeva, 52, has been an MP for the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party since 2005 and head of the influential Heydar Aliyev Foundation — named after her father-in-law and former president.
“I believe that I will justify this confidence,” she said at the security council meeting. “The interests of the country and people will always come above all else for me.”
Born into the powerful Pashayev family, Aliyeva has sometimes been seen as a possible successor to her husband, who took over in 2003 after the death of his father Heydar, a former KGB officer and Communist-era boss.
The appointment follows constitutional changes made after a tightly-managed referendum last year that introduced the powerful position of first vice president. Such steps were denounced by regime opponents as a ploy to cement the Aliyev family’s dynastic rule.
Azerbaijan’s embattled opposition angrily criticised Aliyeva’s elevation as undemocratic.
“The move throws Azerbaijan back to medieval, feudal times,” opposition leader Isa Gambar of Musavat party told AFP.
“Family rule has no place in the 21st century,” he added.
– First lady of fashion –
Known for her love of luxury, Aliyeva featured prominently in US diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks, one of which dubbed her “a first lady, too, in fashion”.
“First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva appears to have had substantial cosmetic surgery, presumably overseas, and wears dresses that would be considered provocative even in the Western world,” the leaked 2010 cable said.
An eye doctor by training, she has also authored a dissertation on the ethical aspects of mercy killing.
In 2004, she was appointed a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations culture agency, UNESCO.
The Aliyevs have two socialite daughters Leyla, 32, and Arzu, 27, a student son, Heydar, 19, and four grandchildren.
The president, 55, cruised to a third five-year term against limited opposition in 2013, extending his family’s rule into a third decade.
Supporters have praised the Aliyevs for turning a republic once considered a Soviet backwater into a flourishing energy supplier to Europe.
But critics argue they have crushed all opposition and used their power to amass a fortune that funds a lavish lifestyle for the president and his family.
Activists have raised concerns over Azerbaijan’s poor rights record, with Human Rights Watch in May blasting the country for a ruthless crackdown that has seen political activists and critical journalists jailed.
“President Ilham Aliyev is the person most responsible for Azerbaijan’s appalling human rights record of the last decade,” Freedom House, a pro-democracy watchdog, has said.