All Emin Agalarov ever wanted was fame. Like most pop stars, he sought the largest limelight he could find—in Moscow and St. Petersburg, at the Miss Universe pageant, as a participant in the gaudy spectacle of EuroVision. A sort of Russian Robin Thicke, he surrounded himself with swimsuit models, established a faux-Rat Pack, and even put together a hirsute alter ego. All of it, all of his costumes and crooning, in pursuit of an international audience.
Now, following the release of Donald Trump Jr.’s staggering emails—which show the Trump campaign seeking to contact a “Russian government attorney” for dirt on Hillary Clinton—America has discovered Agalarov. As the emails illustrate, he served as the catalyst for the 2016 get-together between Trump’s team and the Russian lawyer, who according to NBC News was accompanied by a former Soviet intelligence officer. Per the messages, Agalarov encouraged his PR man, Rob Goldstone, to “contact [Trump Jr.] with something very interesting.”
The fallout from Agalarov’s efforts to hook the Trump campaign up with Natalia Veselnitskaya—and, in so doing, spark the first instance of a presidential campaign accepting aid from Moscow—continues to spread, demolishing prior attempts by the Trump campaign to deny that there was any “collusion” with the Kremlin.
But it’s not only that the Trump campaign took the bait from a hostile power. Lost in the controversy surrounding the emails’ release is the fact that the Trump team’s attempted collusion was not instigated by a mere “Russian pop star,” as Agalarov is often described. Rather, Agalarov is also a former member of the first family of Azerbaijan, a man who was once entrenched in one of the most kleptocratic regimes in the world, dominated by a family that shares discomfiting similarities with the current first family in Washington.
The regime in Azerbaijan—headed by President Ilham Aliyev and, swiping a move from House of Cards, his wife Mehriban Aliyeva as vice president—is one of the most corrupt, nepotistic governments within the post-Soviet space, and perhaps the most overt kleptocracy in the region. Not only has the government in Baku never overseen a free or fair election, but it even released presidential election results before the actual vote took place—a feat few, if any, autocracies elsewhere have attempted.
Meanwhile, the ruling Aliyev family, buoyed by massed oil wealth off its Caspian shore, has gutted the country’s internal finances, constructing, as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists wrote last year, “an empire of hidden wealth,” new tentacles of which investigators are continually discovering. And the government has been only too happy to allocate certain of its kleptocratic funds toward whitewashing its image and operations abroad, from corrupting European institutions, to threatening to bring down the Maltese prime minister, to helping spark the largest U.S. congressional ethics scandal since the days of Jack Abramoff.
Unsurprisingly, as with many post-Soviet regimes in places like Uzbekistan, Russia, and Kazakhstan, the notion of the first family as mafiosi has gained increasing cachet over the past few years. Baku has been described as a “mafia state.” Foreign Policy has referred to the Aliyevs as the “Corleones of the Caspian.” An American diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks described Azerbaijan’s president as an admixture of the Corleone family.
This, then, is the family into which Agalarov married in the mid-2000s, wedding Leyla Aliyeva in 2006. Leyla herself is involved directly in the alleged shell company scheme currently rocking Malta, having already been linked to shell companies elsewhere, some of which were unearthed in last year’s Panama Papers revelations. There’s no indication, as of yet, that Agalarov was directly involved in any of the offshore schemes swamping the Aliyevs; indeed, given his business dealings with his billionaire father—who has received an “Order of Honor” from Vladimir Putin, no less—Agalarov wasn’t exactly hurting for cash, even after divorcing Leyla in 2015.
Still, Trump’s relationship with Agalarov, which appears to have continued through earlier this year, is but one more wrinkle in the story of Trump’s murky post-Soviet dealings. The notorious Steele Dossier, for example, noted that Agalarov’s father, Aras Agalarov, “will know the details” of the allegations that Trump “paid bribes and engaged in sexual activities” in Russia. And all allegations of collusion aside, the Washington Post recently pointed out that we “still don’t know exactly how much Russian money was invested in Trump’s real estate empire,” while the New Republic reported this week that these investments were crucial in buoying Trump during his financial difficulties in the 1990s. Further revelations this week showed that Trump’s most recent Moscow real estate project apparently fell through due in no small part to post-Crimea sanctions against Russia. All of this comes in addition to allegations that Kazakhstani oligarchs used Trump properties to launder money.
But it’s in Azerbaijan that we may get the most vivid glimpse of Trump’s post-Soviet modus operandi—of the kind of people and business practices he cultivated, and which haunt him yet. Baku is, as The New Yorker said, the site of Trump’s “worst deal”: a luxury hotel in a city already saturated with luxury hotels, placed in a part of the city most accustomed to discount stores and small-stall shops. The Azerbaijan deal involved “developers [who] were believed to be partners, at the same time, with a company that appears to be a front for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which is known as one of the world’s leading practitioners of money laundering.” One expert on the U.S.’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act called the entire venture “a giant red flag.” Or as Richard Kauzlarich, a former American ambassador to Azerbaijan, told the New Republic, “Why would Trump find building yet another luxury hotel in Baku, which is already over-saturated with such things, of interest?”
Trump’s numerous ties to Azerbaijan would, in more typical times, have sparked their own rounds of consternation, possibly even investigations. And yet they’ve barely caused a ripple in the morass of Russia-related controversy that has engulfed Trump’s team. But the kleptocratic model Baku has brought to bear—the sheen and the shell companies, the nepotism and hostility toward basic democratic norms—serves as an archetype to which all budding autocrats aspire. As Sarah Chayers recently wrote, “The Trump administration, its personnel and early practices, resembles nothing so much as a kleptocratic network of the type seen in many developing countries and post-Soviet states.”
Emin Agalarov, who has remained conspicuously quiet since the revelations, has finally achieved his fame. Unfortunately, it’s come as a player in an unfurling saga of kleptocracies realized and aspirational, tying the White House that much closer, both materially and spiritually, to a pair of regimes in Moscow and Baku whose autocratic refinements continue to threaten American democracy.