Lobby money should not thwart US support for freedom in Azerbaijan

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A large US delegation visied Azerbaijan’s capital Baku last month to take part in the US-Azerbaijan Conference.

Different rights groups raised concerns with the high-profile American involvement in what they saw as a PR show by the corrupt and repressive government of Azerbaijan.

The unfortunate symbolism of it might be bad enough. Most troubling, however, is the potential undue influence of such engagements on the public discourse in the United States and, consequently, on the US foreign policy.

The list of attendees at the convention included the former Obama 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina, former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, and the former senior adviser to President Obama David Plouffe.

Current members of the US Congress, Rep. Sheila Lee Jackson (D-TX), Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), as well as former US Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz also participated in the event.

US Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Richard Morningstar, delivered remarks at the convention, while Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (D), Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) sent recorded video messages.

Other American participants included state level politicians and representatives of such influential think tanks as Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute.

By spending money on extravagant conventions, all-paid trips and other lobbying activities, Baku hopes to buy itself a favorable opinion in DC.

A good example of such viewpoint is the recent piece by George Friedman, “Why Azerbaijan should matter to America,” published online by Forbes Magazine.

Friedman heads a geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor and he also was one of the speakers at the US-Azerbaijan convention in Baku. In his article, posted shortly after his return from the convention, he defends the ruling regime in Azerbaijan, highlighting the country’s importance to the US energy and security interests to counter the criticism over the lack of democracy.

“I am not in a position to have seen repression or corruption,” he says. Perhaps, being oblivious results from government-organized trips filled with lavish conventions and dinners, with no time scheduled to meet opposition leaders, dissidents or independent journalists.

Even a quick Google search would have revealed Azerbaijan's appalling record on human rights and democracy. High-level corruption and persecution of dissent in that country is well documented by the world’s most reputable rights organizations, US State Department’s annual reports and the international media.

Azerbaijan is led by a president who has been recognized as the “most corrupt person” in the world for 2012 by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). More and more facts keep emerging about the enormous wealth hidden in secretive offshore holdings by President Ilham Aliyev’s family and his close circle of minister-oligarchs.

At the same time, dissidents and journalists are kidnapped, tortured, blackmailed, jailed and murdered. Not a single election held under the two decades of father- and-son Aliyev rule has met minimal standards for free and fair polls, according to international observers. Freedom House classifies Azerbaijan as a "Consolidated Authoritarian Regime" and "Not Free."

The tainted wealth of Azerbaijan's ruling elite has reached American shores and entered DC lobbying scene. The Azerbaijan American Alliance (AAA) was founded in 2010 by Anar Mammadov, a playboy son of the Azerbaijan's corrupt transport minister Ziya Mammadov.

Before founding AAA, Anar Mammadov was known for suing a newspaper that published a story about him paying $1 million dollars at a restaurant to grill a live bear from the venue's small zoo. His father, Ziya Mammadov, is mentioned in Wikileaks cables and OCCRP reports as one of the top corrupt Azeri oligarchs.

According to FARA records, AAA’s funding comes mainly from “ZQAN Holding” and "Bank of Azerbaijan" -- entities that form Mammadov family’s shadowy business empire.

Millions of dollars are paid by AAA to a DC-based firm Fabiani & Company to establish contacts with the US officials. Former congressman Dan Burton is hired as AAA's Chairman. House Speaker John Boehner, Senator John McCain and other members of Congress and the US government officials have attended extravagant receptions hosted by AAA.

While Speaker Boehner has not said much about Azerbaijan, it is quite disturbing to see high-ranking American officials attend events sponsored by lobbying groups with such questionable foreign funding.

There is a practical danger in Azerbaijan’s petro-dollars interfering with how US policy towards that country is shaped. Recent history shows how seemingly stable authoritarian governments may suddenly crumble under the pressure from popular uprisings.

That can happen regardless of whether the US supported them as allies or not. But by becoming too friendly with corrupt dictatorships, the United States damages its own credibility as the champion of human rights around the world.

It also alienates populations suffering under the oppressive rule and strengthens their anti-American sentiments. This, in turn, might lead to marginalization of moderate, pro-western forces among those who would succeed the current regime after its eventual collapse.

To avoid such undesirable scenarios, US policymakers should provide support to democratic forces in Azerbaijan and not turn a blind eye on human rights violations there; if not for the freedom of Azerbaijani people, then at least for the sake of those vital American interests in whose name democracy is too often sidelined.

Elmar Chakhtakhtinski is chair of the Azerbaijani-Americans for Democracy, a non-profit US organization promoting support for democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan.

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