A career Communist official for most of his life, Aliyev was emblematic of a generation of Soviet leaders who underwent a chameleon-like change when the system collapsed -- managing to remain at the helm of politics by becoming an ardent defender of nationalist values.
Aliyev was born in 1923 in the exclave of Nakhichevan, an autonomous Azerbaijani republic that lies between Armenia and Iran. After graduating from university, he rose through the ranks of the KGB, becoming head of the feared Soviet Azerbaijani secret police in 1967. That appointment led to the job of first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan's Central Committee, which he assumed in 1969 and held for 13 years before being promoted to the Politburo in Moscow.
In 1982, Soviet leader Yuri Andropov brought Aliyev to Moscow to serve as first deputy chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers.
In 1987, Aliyev fell foul of then Communist Party of Soviet Union (CPSU) General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and was dismissed -- officially on health grounds -- from the Politburo. After living quietly for some years in Moscow, Aliyev demonstratively resigned from the Communist Party to protest the January 1990 Soviet military intervention ordered by Gorbachev in Baku.
In an interview he gave RFE/RL at the time, Aliyev commented on his decision to leave the CPSU: "I want everybody, including those who are staying with the [Communist] Party, to understand this difficult but determined and well thought-out political step I am taking -- leaving the party. I did it only for the present and future happiness of the Azerbaijani people. There is no personal gain in [my decision] and I want to address the Azerbaijani people [through RFE/RL] to say that the more people choose the path of democracy and independence, the path of political and economic freedom in Azerbaijan, the more people join in this struggle, the better the life of the Azerbaijani people will be."
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 caught Aliyev in semi-retirement and he did not assume the leadership of the newly independent state immediately. That role fell to Abulfez Elcibey, a former Soviet dissident who succeeded in getting almost all Russian troops to leave Azerbaijan and re-oriented his country toward Turkey and the West.
But Aliyev profited from an army coup which overthrew Elcibey and returned to power in 1993. Elected president shorlty after, Aliyev continued Elcibey's policy of cultivating ties with Turkey and the United States, using diplomacy and the promise of future oil riches to cement ties.
As he was being feted in Ankara and Washington, however, Aliyev consolidated his hold on power, fostering a cult of personality in the media. He appointed family members and close associates to key posts and imprisoned opponents. Newly formed democratic institutions atrophied.
Aliyev was re-elected in 1998 in a vote that was widely criticized by international monitors for failing to meet democratic standards. He was due to run for a third term in the presidential polls in October but pulled out of the race, citing health reasons.
His supporters immediately backed his son, Ilham Aliyev, who won a very controversial election that was criticized by international observers and led to violent riots in the capital.