A bribery scandal casts a long shadow over the proceedings of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly this week. Members of the body are set to discuss two reports on Azerbaijan, a country that has imprisoned more than 120 dissidents, amidst an ongoing investigation into whether its members were paid to ignore the deteriorating human rights situation in the country.
Italian prosecutors are investigating a former chair of the centre-right group, Italian deputy Luca Volontè, for allegedly accepting €2.39 million in bribes from Azerbaijan in exchange for supporting its government in the Council of Europe. Volontè has been accused of convincing other assembly members to oppose a critical report on political prisoners in Azerbaijan by German social democrat Christoph Strässer. The report was ultimately voted down.
The Council of Europe has launched its own investigation into these charges which is due to be completed by the end of 2017. Investigators will be looking into reportedly more than €30 million that was spent to buy influence.
While the extent of Azerbaijan’s campaign to whitewash its human rights record in Europe is coming to light, the authoritarian country’s parallel campaign in the United States receives considerably less attention.
Two well-known lobbying firms serve Azerbaijan’s interests in the U.S. The first is the Podesta Group, founded by Tony Podesta, brother of former President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff John Podesta. According to filings with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the Podesta Group has been in Azerbaijan’s employ since 2013 and receives approximately $45,000 per month for its work, although at times it has been as high as $75,000 per month. The nature of its services according to its regular filings include research and analysis, provide counsel on U.S. policies of concern, activities in Congress and the executive branch, and developments on the U.S. political scene.
The second organization is the BGR Group, co-founded by the former Republican governor of Mississippi Haley Barbour. Azerbaijan hired BGR Group in March 2017 at a rate of $50,000 per month, to provide “strategic guidance and counsel with regard to government affairs and public relations activity within the U.S.” This new contract was likely to make in-roads with Republican president Donald Trump. To what extent BGR is able to achieve this is unclear. Between March and May 2017, BGR sent approximately 200 emails to various Congressional staff, White House staff, and reporters. The vast majority of these emails went to staff at the House of Representatives, only four emails were sent to individuals at the White House. Not a single email resulted in an in-person meeting.
The Podesta Group, in contrast, has carefully crafted a narrative that portrays Azerbaijan as a secular, progressive, forward-looking Western democracy, a crucial U.S. partner in areas of countering religious extremism, energy, and regional security.
One of Azerbaijan’s strategies to cultivate U.S. favor is to position itself as an indispensable partner of Israel. The Podesta Group is in regular contact with Congressional offices and members of the media to promote these ties, and present Azerbaijan as the “Land of Tolerance.” Last year during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Baku, Podesta staff members made certain that Congressional offices were aware of this partnership by circulating positive media clippings
Azerbaijan’s paid-for US lobbyists paint a picture of a peaceful, secular Muslim state that is a friend of Israel in a hostile region. However, this belies the sinister truth that Azerbaijan is no more tolerant of religious groups than it is of political dissidents. Indeed, out of the 120 political prisoners documented by civil society groups in Azerbaijan, more than half are in prison on religious grounds. Moreover, there are startling claims of torture and mistreatment by prominent members of these religious groups.
Azerbaijan’s tremendous oil and natural gas reserves are another topic that its lobbyists tirelessly promote. Representatives of the Azerbaijani government recently co-organized and participated in the Trans-Caspian Forum, along with representatives from Afghanistan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan. Officially, the purpose of the forum was to present a platform for public and private sectors from these countries to discuss how to improve infrastructure, business, investment, and trade opportunities. In reality, it provides Azerbaijan with an opportunity to tout its role in providing energy security for Europe. With forums such as these, Azerbaijan seeks to promote itself as the savior of Europe – freeing them from Russian-sourced oil and gas.
Notwithstanding this narrative, Azerbaijan’s once booming oil sector is no more. The country is in dire economic straits. A combination of plummeting oil prices and lavish spending on gaudy international events, such as the European Olympic Games and the Baku Grand Prix, has taken a serious hit to the Azerbaijani economy. Earlier this year, the government-owned International Bank of Azerbaijan filed for bankruptcy protection in the U.S. and the U.K. Its creditors recently approved a plan to restructure $3.5 billion in debt. Meanwhile, the gap between the rich and poor grows even wider. The Azerbaijani banking sector lost $960 million in 2016 as President Ilham Aliyev’s three children made $82 million in profits from their own financial holdings. The Guardian and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project recently revealed the existence of a $3 billion secret slush fund that Azerbaijan’s ruling elite used to pay off European politicians, buy luxury goods, launder money, and otherwise benefit themselves.
In the area of regional security, Azerbaijan and its neighbor Armenia have been locked in a protracted conflict for decades over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Recently, the conflict has escalated, resulting in some of the worst fighting in the region in the past 20 years. The US is one of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, a group of countries dedicated to finding a negotiated peaceful solution to the conflict. The Azerbaijani government has often complained about the US government’s role in the process, claiming it is not a fair arbiter.
In November 2016, several members of Congress were invited to attend an event about bringing peace to Nagorno-Karabakh hosted by the Armenian National Committee of America. The Podesta Group circulated a message by Azerbaijan’s ambassador in Washington to all invited offices warning them not to attend, that indeed to do so would be to jeopardize the peace process between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The letter cited a June 2015 decision by the European Court of Human Rights to make the argument that Armenia is illegally occupying the territory. Despite this reliance on the European Court, the government systematically flouts judgments from the European Court, such as in the case of a 2014 decision finding the imprisonment of opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov illegal. Three years after the decision, Mammadov remains in prison and Azerbaijan may face expulsion from the Council of Europe for defying the decision.
The full litany of Azerbaijan’s human rights problems extends to arrests of journalists, the closure of legitimate civil society organizations, and the denial of fair elections. The corruption and abusive nature of this government has been documented by local and international human rights organizations, cited by the US government, and uncovered by journalists – most recently, the Guardian and Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. The role of Washington lobbyists appears to be simply as a tool of the Azerbaijani government to help it cover its abuses, allowing an authoritarian government to hide its crimes from the international community. The Podesta Group and the BGR Group are giving Azerbaijani officials a voice in Washington while the government continues to silence its citizens and imprison those who dare to criticize it.