Money, revenge, and even murder have converged in a scandal that goes all the way to the president's inner circle.
Azerbaijan's latest political scandal is equal parts Shakespeare and soap opera -- a tale of revenge, money, and possible murder that threatens to unsettle the ruling regime ahead of the presidential election this fall. It began in September, when Elshad Abdullayev, a former university rector, published what he says is a covert video of himself negotiating the purchase of a parliament seat ahead of elections in 2005.
The video appears to show Abdullayev seated across a table from Gular Ahmadova, a powerful lawmaker from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party. Ahmadova tells Abdullayev his seat in Azerbaijan's parliament, the Milli Majlis, is guaranteed -- but only if he doubles the 500,000 manats (roughly $637,000) that he's already paid. When Abdullayev protests, Ahmadova -- who refers to herself by her nickname of "mother-in-law" -- waves an angry finger, saying, "That's my price. It's up to you to decide."
Ahmadova and an assistant, Sevinj Babayeva, go on to assure Abdullayev that his money has been delivered to "master Ramiz" -- an alleged reference to Ramiz Mehdiyev, the presidential chief of staff and Azerbaijan's second-most powerful man after President Ilham Aliyev.
Avenging A Kidnapping
Since then, Abdullayev has published a total of seven videos that he says implicate the 74-year-old Mehdiyev as the head of a massive corruption ring that often resorts to brutal methods to achieve its ends. Abdullayev has also threatened to release more videos in the weeks and months ahead unless Mehdiyev is removed from power. In the most recent video released this week, Abdullayev offers a visual explanation for his vengeful campaign -- footage of his brother, Mahir, a major in the National Security Ministry, who was arrested and later disappeared in 2003.
Abdullayev says his brother is the victim of a kidnapping ring run by security services acting at Mehdiyev's behest, and claims to have paid millions of dollars in ransom in a fruitless attempt to secure his brother's release. Several of Abdullayev's videos document his efforts to save his brother. In one 2007 clip, he is shown speaking to a district court judge overseeing the case.
The judge, Agababa Babayev, says he has personally intervened, calling a private meeting with the interior minister to ask for Mahir Abdullayev's release. Babayev -- who is no relation to Babayeva -- went on to rise through Baku's judicial ranks but was fired last month after the release of Abdullayev's video. He has rejected the content of the video as fake.
Abdullayev, who fled Azerbaijan several years ago and has since settled in Strasbourg, France, now says he sought to buy a seat in the Melli Mejlis only in order to help rescue his brother, who is now presumed dead. In an interview, Abdullayev said he decided to go public with his videos because Azerbaijani officials refused to investigate his claims of Mehdiyev's ties to his brother's kidnapping and the vote-rigging ring.
"Law professors here, and my own lawyer, all say that if they had even 10 percent of the evidence that I have they could easily take this case to court. Even before the European Court of Human Rights," he said. "They ask me why I even bothered coming to France. But my life was in danger. I wasn't left with any other choice. I wanted to file a claim in court in Azerbaijan. But they began to terrorize my family."
A Mysterious Death
Abdullayev, a rare university rector who is able to proffer up million-dollar bribes, is far from an innocent whistle-blower. He is suspected of profiting substantially from corruption while serving as the head of Azerbaijan International University, which was shut down in 2010 amid accusations of illegal admissions procedures and bribery.
But his video campaign, which captures everything from cold-blooded ransom negotiations to eager bureaucrats using screwdrivers to pry open locked suitcases of cash, is having a growing impact in Baku. A suspicious death has also added to the stakes. Ahmadova's assistant, Babayeva -- who is caught on one of the tapes referring to Mehdiyev as a "greedy rat" for failing to deliver a $50,000 kickback -- died in a Turkish hospital on December 26, reportedly of heart failure.
Her son, Aykhan Mammadov, says he believes Babayeva was poisoned and has accused Ahmadova of slipping a slow-working toxin into his mother's food during a dinner in Baku last autumn, just days before the first video was released. Mammadov said Babayeva soon fell ill and was sent to Istanbul for treatment, at Ahmadova's insistence. Ahmadova, he believes, knew about the videos and wanted to remove Babayeva in order to appease Mehdiyev.
"She told my mother to go to Turkey for a while so things could cool down. Days passed, more days passed, and now my mother is dead," Mammadov said. "Gular Ahmadova called her every day and said that she had talked to Ramiz Mehdiyev and that everything was going to be fine. She was staying with Gular Ahmadova's friends. She couldn't go out by herself. They accompanied her everywhere."
Ahmadova rejected the allegations, describing Babayeva as "sick" and "frightened" and said she refused to comment on "silly things."
But with the impact growing in "Gulargate" -- as the video scandal has come to be known -- Ahmadova has become the latest figure to fall under suspicion. She has been stripped of her ruling-party membership, and this week was placed under house arrest in connection with her appearance in the Abdullayev video.
It remains uncertain whether Mehdiyev himself will fall under scrutiny. A longtime member of the Azerbaijani elite, Mehdiyev was a close ally of the country's first long-term post-Soviet president, Heydar Aliyev, and is credited with personally orchestrating the controversial handover to his son, Ilham, in 2003. As kingmaker, Mehdiyev -- who serves as the chair of the state anticorruption commission and wields near-absolute control over Azerbaijan's internal affairs -- has long been seen as politically untouchable.
But he is also viewed with contempt by the formidable Pashayev clan of Aliyev's wife, Mehriban, whose members are rumored to resent his old-school grip on Azerbaijan's domestic affairs. Abdullayev says he has personally appealed to Mehriban Aliyeva for support in his campaign against Mehdiyev. This, combined with the heavy coverage of Gulargate in pro-government media, has fueled rumors that the Pashayevs are actively seeking the chief of staff's ouster.
The scandal comes just months before Azerbaijan heads into an October presidential election in which Aliyev is widely expected to stand for -- and win -- a newly constitutional third term. The publication of politically damaging videos ahead of the vote is reminiscent of last year's parliamentary elections in Georgia, where the ruling party of Mikhail Saakashvili was rejected by voters angered by a series of shocking prison-abuse videos released by an opposition supporter. Azerbaijan's beleaguered opposition, sensing a rare opportunity to chip away at the Aliyev monolith, have already sought to capitalize on Gulargate. The Public Chamber, a gathering of the country's mainstream opposition groups, has publicly called on the government to investigate Abdullayev's claims.
Prosecutors have opened probes into both the vote-rigging allegations and Mahir Abdullayev's kidnapping. They are also examining the validity of Abdullayev's videos, which are seen as deeply compromising for the ruling regime. But political analyst Huseynbala Salimov says Abdullayev's videos are not likely to spark a Georgia-style electoral defeat in a country like Azerbaijan, whose votes are seen as highly rigged.
Salimov says even in the event of a Mehdiyev ouster, there is no strong opposition candidate to challenge Aliyev -- and may not be for years. "The government is represented by old people," he says. "They'll be leaving the political scene very soon, as a matter of course. But if the fundamental principles of the system don't change, substituting one official for another isn't going to change anything."
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.