There is something about Steven Seagal that really appeals to authoritarian leaders across the former Soviet Union. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev now has become the latest regional strongman to host the Hollywood b-list action hero and BFF of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Stevan Seagal noted that he was pleased to visit Azerbaijan, saying that he was deeply impressed by what he saw in the county,” announced the presenter of an English-language, government video that showed Seagal chatting away with Aliyev on September 21. The actor, the announcer assured viewers, was impressed by the high-level conduct of the European Games, a continental sports contest hosted by Azerbaijan in June. Aliyev thanked his aikido black-belt master visitor for the kind words and could not help but agree that the Games were, indeed, fabulous.
On a mission to bring the world together through aikido, the actor then took the opportunity to share some tricks with Azerbaijan’s aspiring young fighters. Taking off his shoes and getting on the mat with an aikido class in Baku, he told them that “I was lucky enough to meet with your president… and look forward to working with you as my family.” And then sent one of his new pupils flying with a single move.
Seagal, who said he will be coming back to Azerbaijan to teach his trade, has been giving martial arts workshops in many a post-Soviet place, from Kazakhstan to Russia, and cavorting with local leaders like Chechnya’s redoubtable Ramzan Kadyrov. In 2013 in the Chechen capital, Grozny, he even broke into a frantic dance, with arms wind-milling wildly as a traditional female dancer gracefully glided around him.
Seagal might be past his prime as an action star, but he is big in the ex-USSR. His bond with Russia’s Putin, another martial arts enthusiast, is legendary and even earned him a reputation as the Kremlin’s informal chargé d’affaires in Washington. In 2013, he led a US congressional delegation on a mission to Russia to gather information about the Boston Marathon bombers. Seagal “was able to use that influence to make sure that we got to talk to the very top people,” Dana Rohrabacher, the California Republican leading the mission, told CNN.
In the ex-Soviet world, fascination with this 63-year-old actor/producer/musician/martial-arts expert is seen to stem from leaders’ desire to hang out with the action hero of their younger days, but they are also given to parade other Western celebrities as a testimony of their achievements. Azerbaijan, for instance, previously has hosted French film actor Gérard Depardieu, another Putin-Kadyrov pal, to similar acclaim.
Stars have faced criticism for making such appearances (for a fee) in Russia, but Azerbaijan largely has escaped notice.
In any case, criticism does not look likely to stop Seagal.
In his 1980s and 1990s movies, he was kicking the bad guys and saving their hostages. International human-rights groups have been calling on Azerbaijan to release estimated scores of political prisoners, but, so far, helping free these prisoners does not look like a job cut out for Seagal.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.