How Azerbaijan and Its Lobbyists Spin Congress

The Aliyev regime is selling itself in Washington as friendly and progressive. Is your Congressman buying it?

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“However life turns out — the hardest part is I can’t see you. And this is our 37th year together.” So ends a letter from Azerbaijani political prisoner Leyla Yunus to her husband Arif, also imprisoned by his country’s increasingly thin-skinned authoritarian government. The Yunuses were arrested nearly a year ago and have not been allowed to see each other since. The charges leveled against them — high treason, espionage, fraud — are patently absurd. Leyla Yunus is one of the country’s best-known human rights activists and a relentless critic of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his corrupt regime. She is also a tireless advocate for the country’s other political prisoners, who add up to twice as many — according to a detailed open letter signed by a plethora of human rights organizations, academics, and regional experts — as Belarus and Russia combined.

For years, Azerbaijan has papered over its dismal human rights record by presenting itself to the United States as a loyal partner in the “war on terror,” a stalwart friend to Israel, and an important energy supplier. In addition to traditional diplomacy, it has advanced these messages through aggressive lobbying in the think-tank world, in state legislatures, and in the halls of Congress. Mandatory filings by the Azerbaijan government and its U.S. lobbyists reveal that, in total, it and its proxies spent at least $4 million to this end in 2014 alone. (In 2013, when Azerbaijan spent only $2.3 million, it was still among the top 10 foreign governments buying influence in Washington, according to the Sunlight Foundation.) This February, the Azerbaijani embassy increased the monthly retainer of its main lobbyist, the Podesta Group, from $50,000 to $75,000. The Podesta Group’s filings reveal hundreds of contacts with congressional offices, executive branch agencies, members of the media, and think tanks.

None of the disclosed spending is illegal, and many foreign governments — including liberal democracies — buy influence in Washington. But what the Azerbaijanis and their lobbyists have been able to achieve in the halls of Congress is striking — especially considering the true nature of the regime.

On January 21, Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) praised Azerbaijan for its “close and important relationship” with the United States, and described it as a “beacon of democracy.” In February, Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) said that Azerbaijan and the United States “share the same commitment to freedom and liberty,” Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) lauded Azerbaijan’s “commitment to the ideals of democracy,” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said the country was a “reliable friend and valuable ally,” and Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) called it a close ally of Israel and a “reliable partner.” Needless to say, no mention was made, in any of these statements, of the Aliyev regime’s well-documented abuses of its own citizens.

These are public statements made on the floor of Congress — but a large fraction of this kind of rhetoric takes place at private functions. A congressional staffer who wished to remain anonymous described receptions organized by pro-regime groups, such as the Azerbaijan America Alliance, where up to 20 members of Congress at a time would “line up at the podium” waiting for their turn to praise Azerbaijan for its economic successes, its partnership with the United States, and its friendship with Israel. The events were remarkable, the staffer said, for how many members attended and for the uniformity of their comments, suggesting that they were being fed their lines by lobbyists or pro-regime organizations. Though there are no publicly available transcripts of what is said at such affairs, regime-affiliated groups like to boast of the glowing testimonials the regime receives from U.S. officials — and it makes for nauseating read.

The Azerbaijan America Alliance is run by Anar Mammadov, the son of the country’s transportation minister, notorious for his corrupt dealings and outrageous exploits. His reputation, however, hasn’t prevented Dan Burton, a former House member from Indiana, from working for him as the Alliance’s chairman, praising the Azeri government in print, and giving remarks at celebrations of the former President’s birthday (thinly disguised as a faux “national holiday”). The Alliance is also closely involved with the House’s Azerbaijan Caucus, a group of over 60 legislators it considers friendly. In May, the Washington Post published a damning exposé of an all-expenses-paid trip ten members of Congress took to Azerbaijan in 2013. The trip was secretly funded by SOCAR, the country’s state-run oil company. Of the ten members who went on the trip, eight are members of the Azerbaijan Caucus. Neither of the caucus’s co-chairs — Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) — responded to requests for comment.

Emin Milli, an Azerbaijani activist who spent 17 months in prison on trumped-up charges, recently visited the United States to accept a prestigious press freedom award on behalf of his friend Khadija Ismayilova, Azerbaijan’s premier independent journalist, who is now also behind bars. When I asked him what difference it made if U.S. members of Congress praised the regime, he could barely contain his fury: “The effect is devastating,” he said, “because you have democratically-elected representatives confirming the legitimacy of a mafia. The legitimacy of thugs. The legitimacy of a group of people who kill, torture, and put people in jail just for expressing their opinion.” Milli pointed out that brittle, self-conscious authoritarian regimes always welcome signs of legitimacy from abroad: “If one congressman writes a letter or says something positive about Aliyev or his regime,” he said, “they show it on TV 20 times a day.”

What’s striking is that the positive sentiments extended to Azerbaijan by its friends on the Hill aren’t reciprocated by the government in Baku. In December 2014, the head of Aliyev’s administration penned a vicious (and distinctly Putin-esque) anti-American screed, accusing Washington of fomenting revolution under the pretext of promoting democracy. This, says former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Kauzlarich, was meant as a deliberate message: “You need us more than we need you.” The letter has been accompanied by a relentless anti-American campaign in the state-run media, a series of hostile statements by senior officials, and crackdowns on organizations funded by the U.S. government, like Radio Free Europe.

Milli highlights the absurdity of U.S. members of Congress praising a regime whose pliant media spares no breath fomenting anti-U.S. sentiment amongst its people: “Every day on TV, from nine in the morning till late in the evening, they say John Kerry has left all his other business and spends the entire day trying to destroy Azerbaijan. So I want to ask all those people in Congress: Is this the great regime you’re praising? Is this your great ally?”

Aside from generally bolstering its image, there are at least two specific reasons why the government in Baku is so keen to build support in Congress. One is to create a counterweight against its sworn enemies, the Armenians, who have a powerful lobby of their own. The other is to ward off burgeoning efforts by the human rights community to press for sanctions against key regime individuals. David Kramer, former president of Freedom House — and a high-profile proponent of the Magnitsky Act, which placed sanctions on Russian officials who committed human rights violations — speculated that a similar push might eventually succeed against Azerbaijan. Once talk of sanctions gains steam, he said, the regime “can say [to friendly legislators]: You were with us back then; we hope we can count on you now.” Judging by the inroads the lobby has made so far, this is a disquieting possibility.

In the meantime, Azerbaijan’s key lobbyist, the Podesta Group, is not above crossing ethical lines to try to tilt the climate on the Hill in favor of its client. In February, Maran Turner, executive director of the rights organization Freedom Now, organized a briefing to inform Capitol Hill staffers about Azerbaijan’s political prisoners. As the briefing approached, Turner says, she heard from invitees that the Podesta Group had called “every single office” to convince them not to attend. Podesta also contacted staffers of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, under whose auspices the briefing was being held, and asked them to cancel it. Though the briefing went ahead, only a few staffers ended up attending (though over a dozen had RSVP’d). Turner doesn’t know whether Podesta pressure was responsible for the poor showing, but expressed outrage that an American lobbying firm would attempt to prevent members of Congress from hearing about a foreign country’s human rights record.

But Podesta wasn’t done yet. Among the briefing’s few attendees, Turner says, was Katelyn Wohlford, an expensively-attired young woman who presented herself as a graduate student studying Azerbaijan. Her appearance immediately aroused suspicion, as the briefing was not open to the public — and though Wohlford asked no questions, she took copious notes. Afterward, Turner found Wohlford’s profile on the Podesta web site, describing her as “an associate working on the Podesta Group’s public relations and international teams.”

This version of events was confirmed by several other attendees. Wohlford did not respond to requests for comment, and a Podesta representative referred me to the Azerbaijani embassy, which also did not reply. Turner doesn’t know for sure what Wohlford did with her notes, but strongly suspects they were handed over to the Azeris. Indeed, several weeks later, Turner was told by Azerbaijan’s delegation to the United Nations in New York that they were “fully informed” about her organization and its efforts to organize the briefing. If Wohlford was indeed the source of this information, the implication is that the Podesta Group is providing details of closed congressional briefings to representatives of a dictatorial regime.

This week, Azerbaijan is hosting the first European Games, a major new international sporting event it’s promoting with gusto. Such glittery spectacles — like the Eurovision contest in 2012 and the Formula 1 Grand Prix next year — are meant to showcase the country as a modern, developed member of the international community. To make sure this message isn’t marred by inconvenient references to political prisoners, the government barred both Amnesty International and the Guardian from entering at the last minute. And just last week, a new FARA filing by the Podesta Group revealed that it will be providing one month of additional advice to Azerbaijan about its “online engagements.” Maran Turner of Freedom Now speculates that this is intended to counteract the negative press Azerbaijan is receiving in the run-up to the games. So if you see any trending stories about how America’s best friend in the Caucasus is making a name for itself in sport, treat them with appropriate skepticism — and remind your congressmen and women to do the same.

The photo shows Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, at a meeting in Germany this January.
Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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