Is the US diplomacy on sale?

Or how did Azeri government manage to involve top American policymakers in its “oil-smocking” event?

Azerbaijan maintains an active effort to fly top US officials, policy and lawmakers to visit the country, even though the White House and Congress have banned top officials’ foreign-funded travel years ago…

Recent Baku event with participation of former Barack Obama aids and dozens of high-level Congress members, organized by the Azeri government, highlights concerns that such trips could be used to buy favor…

Three top Obama advisers David Plouffe, Jim Messina, and Robert Gibbs spoke at the oil-industry sponsored Azerbaijani-American convention, according to the program online. along with dozens of participants, including former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitzformer Republican Sen. Dick Lugar, on May 29, just days before the country’s ruling party officially nominated its leader Ilham Aliyev as a candidate for the upcoming election, third time running for presidency…

 “If you want to know what price these great men will sell their legacy for – it's usually dozens of thousands of dollars… That's how much it costs for Azerbaijani people to host such high-profile former government officials speak for an hour at a conference in Baku, with a luxury travel,” emphasized a veteran Senate member, speaking on condition of anonymity, in an interview with TURAN’s Washington correspondent.
 
A Senator, who rejected to join Azerbaijani-American Convention, highlighted the country’s poor human-rights records and authoritarian government.
 
“There are many other ways to earn money beyond direct lobbying to the dictators…” he said.. “Baku event attended by top policymakers, all of whom were well-compensated for their time and travel, is something that shames our diplomacy and we should avoid in future”.
 
Speaking to TURAN several Congress members who participated in Baku event, denied the fact that their trip was free, while a few insisted the sponsors of their invitation didn’t have “any link to the Azeri government.”
 
In the meantime, the website LegiStorm, which collects congressional data, proves that the trip of at least four Congress members, such as Congressmen Danny Davis, Jim Bridenstine, Ruben Hinojosa, Henry Cuellar along with several members of staff, were sponsored byHouston-based Azeri lobby group Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians, and Turkish American Federation of Midwest -- known as sister company of Turkish-American Chamber
 
In his recent interview to TURAN, Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who also was among the moderators of Baku event, nailed it, saying that the real sponsor of Baku event was SOCAR, -- the country’s state-run oil company -- while several Azerbaijani and American companies contributed to a lesser extent.
 
“The Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians did not contribute any funding to the conference. They were hired by the sponsors to organize the conference, however, and take care of the work of inviting those the conference wanted to invite, organizing their travel and hotels, and doing other logistics. The sponsors’ decision to hire the Turquoise Council rather than, for example, the American Chamber of Commerce in Azerbaijan raises some questions,” - Rubin mentioned.
 
Both Turkish-American Chamber and Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians’ officials refused to talk to TURAN’s Washington DC correspondent about their connections with Azeri government as well as participation in the Baku event.
 
Local media, however, has reported that the Turkish-American Chamber is financed by the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians and that both groups have ties to Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Turkish Muslim imam.
 
TURAN’s correspondent asked Bayram Balci, a visiting scholar in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has been conducting research on Gulenists since 1990s, about the possible links between the Azeri government and a Turkish imam who has founded a network of charter schools in the US as well as Caucasus and Central Asia.
 
This cooperation “is very classic and usual in the Azeri government’s attitude and in F.Gulen movement’s strategy,” Balci said arguing that by organizing US officials’ tours to Azerbaijan – same as to Turkey – the Gulen inspired associations or companies are aimed at “developing cooperation with both countries on business, education, and even lobbying…”
 
From Gulenists’ point of view, he said, “they have a double interest [from such cooperation]: they like Azerbaijan and Turkish fraternity and at the same time, they have business and educational interests in Azerbaijan.”
 
As for Azeris he added, Aliyev government “knows that in the US Turkish lobby group are well organize and the would like to use the Turkish Azeri brotherhood in the service of this cooperation.”
 
“Azerbaijani government tries to utilize Turkish lobby groups, Gulen and others, to reinforce the relations between US and Azerbaijan,” Balci emphasized.
 
But the question is, of course, whether the well-paid participation of current and former members of the political class at these conferences actually does anything to bolster relations between the US and Azerbaijan.
 
Baku event took place weeks after the Azerbaijani authorities had accused local chapter of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) of illegal financial operations, while many in the country believe that the real problem was in public expressions of government criticism by the group.
 
In his twit on Baku convention a senior US Senator and former presidential nominee John McCain mentioned that Radio Free Europe barred from Baku even, “but not the old Obama gang.”
“Doing well by doing good!” he twitted.
 
For Mr. Rubin, the organizers of Baku event “were smart to invite not only Democrats but also Republicans, because Azerbaijan’s interests should not be a partisan issue in Washington.” 
 
“Cultivating friends can impact American diplomacy... Remember: the State Department carries out policy, but it is Congress which often creates it,” he told TURAN.
 
In his latest remarks on Azerbaijan early this month, Secretary John Kerry while hosting Azeri FM Elmar Mammadyarov, only briefly mentioned the issue of human rights and democracy in the country.
 
TURAN’s correspondent asked analyst Karl Rahder, who was until recently the South Caucasus correspondent for ISN (in Zurich) and has taught international relations at universities in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the US, whether the Secretary’s statement and top policymakers’ Baku trip mean that the US has less interest/or concerns on what is happening in Azerbaijan, despite the fact that country is a few months ahead of the election?
 
“It’s still rather early in his tenure, but John Kerry certainly has the potential to be an outstanding Secretary of State... I wouldn’t read too much into what he may have said in his prepared statement in Washington except that the US sincerely wants a just resolution to the Karabakh issue. Nothing really surprising in that...” he said.
 
“I personally would not take seriously any suggestion regarding the supposed connection between the Mammadyarov-Kerry meeting and the nomination of Ilham Aliyev for a third term as president… The unstated premise is that the US has some sort of veto power over internal political decisions in Baku – a notion that I have always found to be fanciful,” he added.
However, according to analysts, Washington appears to be taking notice of the recent unrest in Azerbaijan.
 
“For example, I have been told that regional specialists in the State Department in particular were keenly interested in the views of Fuad Qehremanli, [deputy leader of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan Party], who came to Washington in April for a brief visit on behalf of [PFAP leader] Ali Kerimli… And my understanding is that Rustam Ibragimbekov [chairman of Azerbaijan's opposition coalition, the National Council for Democratic Forces] is in Washington this week, talking to members of Congress and the State Department,” he argues.
“None of this means that Washington is taking sides or has reached any conclusions, but it’s fair to say that the situation in Azerbaijan is a matter of concern and that the Americans are weighing their options in case the unimaginable happens and an opposition candidate wins October’s election – or a revolution takes place, which in my opinion is even more implausible,” he said.
 
Meanwhile, Rahder added, “we shouldn’t expect any heightened human rights advocacy out of Washington with respect to Azerbaijan.”
 
“The tension may ratchet up once Rustam Ibragimbekov establishes a campaign infrastructure and reaches out to voters in the months prior to the election in October, but I would expect the White House, and Ambassador Morningstar, to maintain a discreet distance and let the OSCE do the talking on the election process – provided they are allowed to observe, of course,” he concluded.
 
Alakbar Raufoglu
Washington, DC

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