The Heydar Aliyev Foundation, guardian of the legacy of Azerbaijan's late President Heydar Aliyev, has recently expanded its charitable activities to include restoration projects at France's Versailles Palace and the Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Strasbourg, one of Europe's best known examples of late Gothic architecture.
To date, most public attention within Azerbaijan has focused on the project in Strasbourg. Located in northeastern France at the border with Germany, the city is home to three key European institutions that feature frequently in Azerbaijani foreign policy: the Council of Europe, the European Court for Human Rights and the European Parliament.
A 40,000 euro (about $57,253) donation from the Heydar Aliyev Foundation has provided for restoration of two 14th century stained-glass windows that portray the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ in Strasbourg's 13th-14th century cathedral, which at one point ranked as the world's highest building.
"The Heydar Aliyev Foundation's support for the Cathedral is Azerbaijan's endowment to the European cultural heritage," declared Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries at a June 22 cathedral ceremony, attended by local and national government officials, as well as the city's archbishop, to mark the donation. "It is a generous gesture," he added.
That generosity has also extended to restoration of two unspecified "monuments" at Versailles, according to foundation spokesperson Hanira Pashayeva, who represented the foundation at the Strasbourg ceremony. Pashayeva could not be reached to elaborate about the foundation's Versailles donation.
Versailles, the French monarchy's sumptuous residence from 1682 until 1789, currently offers donors restoration projects ranging from the 6.5 million euro (roughly $9.3 million) overhaul of the palace park's Latone Basin to the 3,500 euro (about $5,000) sponsorship of park benches.
The payments are not the first foreign charitable donations made by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation. According to media reports, the foundation has built a school in Pakistan for victims of the 2005 earthquake. It also has sent humanitarian aid to Kyrgyz earthquake victims and disbursed large-scale assistance to Azerbaijani Diasporas in Georgia and Russia.
Set up in 2004, the foundation, headed by President Ilham Aliyev's wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, has evolved into a super-sized donor organization that often supplements the work of government institutions responsible for humanitarian policies. The HAF builds more schools than Azerbaijan's Ministry of Education, more hospitals than the Ministry of Health, and conducts more cultural events than the Ministry of Culture.
Its sources of financing are not clear -- a cause for occasional criticism. The government and governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party have previously dismissed such criticism as "slander."
The foundation describes its purpose as to "show respect and honor to the memory of [the] national leader, Heydar Aliyev" and "to reflect [the] eternal character of [the] political activity of Heydar Aliyev."
Foundation spokesperson Pashayeva, a member of parliament for the governing Yeni Azerbaijan Party, affirms that the projects in Versailles and Strasbourg can help strengthen French-Azerbaijani relations, thereby meeting the foundation's goal of improving Azerbaijan's global image. "The Foundation is attentive not only to the restoration of Muslim historical monuments, but also those from other religions and cultures," Pashayeva told the Trend news agency in June. "It is visible proof of the Azerbaijani nation's tradition of a high level of tolerance."
The deputy executive secretary of the Yeni Azerbaijan Party, Mubariz Gurbanly, and the deputy chairman of the parliament's Committee on Culture, Rafael Huseynov, both declined to discuss the Versailles and Strasbourg initiatives with EurasiaNet.
Opinions among analysts were mixed concerning the merits of the two French projects. "It helps to improve the country's image," opined political analyst Rasim Musabekov. "We [Azerbaijan] are an oil-rich country. Therefore, why should we not endow the preservation of the world's cultural heritage?"
The interest in Strasbourg's cathedral, Musabekov continued, reflects Azerbaijan's membership in the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, and recurring visits to the French city by "various Azerbaijani delegations."
Some analysts expressed concern about what they describe as a blurred line between the government and the foundation, but they were reluctant to express criticism publicly. One outspoken opposition figure and political analyst, Ilgar Mammadov, said the city of Strasbourg should return the money it received from the foundation, reasoning that Azerbaijan's human rights practices have been a target of criticism by European multilateral organizations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
[Editor's Note: Both Rasim Musabekov and Ilgar Mammadov are board members for the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute in New York].
Many ordinary Azerbaijanis welcome the foundation's French projects. The foundation itself is largely associated with the popular image of First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, a member of parliament who holds numerous cultural posts.
Emin Aliyev [no relation to the president's family -- ed], a 27-year-old suburban Baku commercial goods distributor, commented that "the important thing" is that the foundation has repaired apartment building roofs, built new schools, and made improvements to roads and electricity supplies. The work at Versailles and Strasbourg's Cathédrale de Notre Dame is a natural extension of those missions, he said.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.