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How I Accidentally Became a Lobbyist for Azerbaijan

The small oil-rich country spends millions sweet-talking Congress. Here’s how I got fooled into helping.

Ilham Aliyev, President of  Azerbaijan, arrives for a working dinner at the White House March 31, 2016 in Washington, DC.
World leaders are gathering for a two-day conference that will address a range of issues including ongoing efforts to prevent terrorist groups from accessing nuclear material.  / AFP / Olivier Douliery        (Photo credit should read OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images)
Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan, arrives for a working dinner at the White House March 31, 2016 in Washington, DC. World leaders are gathering for a two-day conference that will address a range of issues including ongoing efforts to prevent terrorist groups from accessing nuclear material. / AFP / Olivier Douliery (Photo credit should read OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images)

A couple of weeks ago, a friend invited me to an event called Azerbaijan Appreciation Day. The email invitation stated that “Muslim and Jewish leaders” would gather for lunch at the Azerbaijani embassy in Washington to “express appreciation to Azerbaijan for its pioneering work in Muslim-Jewish relations.”

Sure, I thought. I support interfaith harmony. What’s not to like? I hadn’t heard that Azerbaijan was such a shining beacon of Muslim-Jewish relations, but I didn’t know all that much about the small nation of 9.4 million just north of Iran.

The day before the event, which was to be held on March 16, the venue was changed from the Azerbaijani embassy to the Embassy Row Hotel near Dupont Circle. When the day arrived, I made the short walk from my office, looking forward to meeting like-minded fans of interfaith events and to learning about Azerbaijan’s exciting religious initiatives.

The luncheon featured several speakers from the U.S. Jewish and Muslim communities. One  speaker, Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU), one of the event partners, declared Azerbaijan a “paradigm for religious tolerance among Muslim countries in the Middle East,” and that Azerbaijan “has become a great, great inspiration for many in the United States.” Sayyid Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), remarked that among Muslim majority countries, Azerbaijan was the “best example” of “respect for diversity built up over centuries.” Marshall Breger, a law professor who once served in the George H.W. Bush administration, noted that Azerbaijan demonstrated that a Muslim majority country “can support its Palestinian brothers and also recognize the state of Israel.” Azerbaijani Ambassador Elin Suleymanov mentioned that his nation was the first Muslim country to become a republic, which it formed in 1918 (only to fall to the Soviets two years later).

But something didn’t feel right. The invitation had indicated that after the luncheon, the group would pay a visit to a few members of Congress to tell them about how Azerbaijan is “promoting and strengthening Muslim-Jewish relations both at home and around the world.” But except for the mention of Azerbaijan’s relationship with Israel, I had yet to hear anything specific about the country’s religious policies. There had only been vaguely repetitive platitudes.

The weirdness continued. Many participants I spoke to had traveled from New York that morning to attend, but few seemed to know exactly why they were there or what we were supposed to be doing. With some noted exceptions, there also seemed to be little actual interest in interfaith initiatives among participants. One young woman I met was one of those who had been brought in from New York for the day’s activities. She gave me one-word answers when I asked her why she was there. Was she a member of one of the organizing groups? “No,” she said. Did she regularly participate in interfaith activities? “No,” she replied, sounding bored. How did she hear about the event? “Lonny,” she said.

That was a common answer participants gave when I asked why they had come. I later learned that this was Lonny Paris, who works with New York-based veteran campaign consultant Hank Sheinkopf and who was helping FFEU coordinate the afternoon. I’ve attended many interfaith events, but never one that was organized with the help of a consulting firm. Paris told me in a phone interview that he had enjoyed working with people who shared an understanding of how important it is to “showcase Azerbaijan to the world as a majority Muslim country that has a longstanding Jewish community and is a trading partner with Israel.” Paris continued, “It’s tremendous that they see also the importance in telling this story of Jewish and Muslim cooperation.”

After lunch, Paris divided the participants into smaller groups and directed us to a bus to shuttle us to the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill, which houses the offices of Congressional representatives. I ended up in a group composed primarily of Israelis, along with two young African-Americans who, after telling me that they were from New York, were silent for the remainder of the afternoon. Two members of our group were young tourists from Israel who had been sightseeing on the West Coast for a few weeks. They didn’t seem interested in talking about politics. In between visits to Congressional offices, they kept trying to take selfies. One of them asked me if we would be meeting Barack Obama.

Another member of the group worked as a producer for Fox News. He told me how surprised he had been, when he started working at Fox, to discover that the broadcast network actually was fair and balanced, just like it claimed to be. While we wandered Cannon’s halls, he explained patiently that Obama really is a Muslim. “A non-practicing Muslim,” he said, “but still a Muslim.” It was a statement that I have never before heard at an event claiming to be a celebration of interfaith relations.

Our group was slated to visit three House representatives that afternoon, all Republican: Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, a member of the Tea Party-leaning Liberty Caucus; Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska; and Mo Brooks of Alabama, who has claimed that a “large segment of the Muslim population” is supportive of terrorism. According to FFEU executive director Chris Sacarabany, no visits were paid to Keith Ellison or Andre Carson, the only two Muslims in Congress.

That was when I finally realized that Azerbaijan Appreciation Day was not really about Muslim-Jewish relations in Azerbaijan. It was about Azerbaijan’s relationship with Israel and U.S. Jewish organizations. In the lead-up to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s visit to Washington this week, it seems Azerbaijan was trying to win over members of Congress concerned about the country’s dismal human rights record by touting its strong relationship with Israel.

That’s because as a country with endemic corruption, elections marred by restrictions and allegations of fraud, and a poor human rights record, Azerbaijan has to be creative if it wants to stay on the United States’ good side. In the past several years, the government has jailed dozens of journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers in a sweeping crackdown on dissent. Aliyev’s title is president, but he succeeded his strongman father, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003 and has held office ever since. Freedom House categorizes the country as “not free,” with a media environment that is “not free” and Internet that is only “partly free.” In 2015, Transparency International ranked the country a lowly 119 out of 168 in its Corruption Perceptions Index. While Azerbaijan released dozens of political prisoners shortly before Aliyev’s visit to Washington, dozens more remain in prison, including journalist Khadija Ismayilova and opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov.

“Azerbaijan has few strengths to play to in the U.S.,” former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Kauzlarich wrote in an email. “A decade ago, Azerbaijan tried to use its Turkish connection via the Turkish [Caucus] in the Congress to generate support. That worked up to the point when Turkish-Israeli relations went south — and therefore support for Turkey in the Congress softened.”

Kauzlarich explained further, “Unable to lobby successfully on its own, Azerbaijan has used its Israeli connections to develop with the American Jewish community.” One use for this connection, Kauzlarich wrote, is “to buffer against criticism of Azerbaijan’s appalling human rights record.”

To be sure, the largely Shiite Muslim country does offer a level of religious tolerance uncommon in the region. Its constitution grants equality to Christians, Muslims, and Jews, though according to a 2011 U.S. State Department report, “other laws and policies restricted religious freedom in practice.” The nation’s Sunni and Shiite sects largely get along — though a growing number have left Azerbaijan to join ISIS as foreign fighters. About 20,000 Jews live in Azerbaijan, where they were shielded from the anti-Semitism of the Soviet era and surrounding Middle Eastern countries, and where they can attend synagogue and practice freely.

The small Muslim-majority country is one among a number of relatively obscure nations with corruption and human rights problems who spend small fortunes on lobbying in the U.S. capitol. Azerbaijan keeps lobbying firm Podesta Group on monthly retainer, and in 2014, the country and those acting on its behalf spent $4 million on efforts to win influence among think tanks and lawmakers. In 2015, an ethics investigation revealed that 10 members of Congress and 32 of their staff members had taken a trip to Baku, Azerbaijan in 2013, secretly funded in its entirety by the Azerbaijani government. They had also received carpets and other gifts worth thousands of dollars.

One possible direction of these efforts is to prevent sanctions from being placed on key individuals complicit in Azerbaijan’s human rights violations. In December, Republican Congressman Chris Smith introduced a bill that would deny U.S. visas to certain Azerbaijani officials. How ties to U.S. religious groups might benefit the Azerbaijani government cause became clear on March 30, when Rabbi Yonah Bookstein and several other religious and community leaders wrote a letter addressed to House Speaker Paul Ryan, published in the Jewish Journal.

“I am deeply concerned about upcoming legislation that would harm our friend and ally Azerbaijan,” wrote Bookstein, who had visited Azerbaijan in May 2015 for a conference on tolerance and diversity in the capital Baku, as had FFEU’s Schneier. “We all hope that as Azerbaijan grows, prospers and develops, they will enjoy the same kind of Democracy that we have in America — but that isn’t going to happen in a few short years. It would also be completely hypocritical and harmful to America, Israel and the Jewish community, if we were to implement sanctions against our allies in Azerbaijan.”

The Azerbaijani embassy had also hosted the “appreciation” luncheon I attended on March 16, though not the trip to Capitol Hill that followed. Mammad Talibov, political and legal affairs counselor at the Azerbaijani embassy, told me in an email that “it is important that our American friends, including members of Congress, know about the strategic importance of Azerbaijan and the strong partnership our nation enjoyed with the United States in many areas of cooperation.” It was “equally important,” Talibov continued, “that they see the significance of Azerbaijan’s example of promoting tolerance and diversity.”

That explained the weird vortex of obfuscation and platitudes that had plagued Azerbaijan Appreciation Day.

I didn’t understand why the FFEU — an organization I respect, and that has worked since its founding in 1989 to strengthen ties among the Jewish, black, and Muslim communities in the United States — would involve themselves in an event like this.

“You have to see things in context,” FFEU president Schneier told me in a phone interview when I asked him about Azerbaijan’s human rights record. “I know there have been some major improvements here. Azerbaijan is now taking in Syrian refugees. Everything in life is a process.”

He added, “We were very careful to stay away from any lobbying,” describing the event as “our opportunity to say thank you.” In a follow-up email with Paris, I asked him about Azerbaijan’s human rights record. His emailed response, exactly ten words enclosed in quotes, was, “Azerbaijan’s relationship with Israel and the United States is invaluable.”

I didn’t hear much about those ties or the country’s specific policies on Azerbaijan Appreciation Day. Rather, in an event I had thought would promote and celebrate reproducible religious initiatives, participants were fed glowing rhetoric and then packed off into buses to regurgitate what they’d just heard to representatives on Capitol Hill, to the benefit of an authoritarian regime.

Not everyone stuck around. Among those I interviewed, ISNA’s Syeed was the most forthcoming about Azerbaijan. He said he hoped to convey to Ambassador Suleymanov his desire for the country to be on a path to a “truly democratic society.” Syeed told me he had attended the luncheon but not the afternoon on Capitol Hill. “I need more orientation. I need to visit before I can advocate for Azerbaijan,” he said. “I haven’t been there in 40 years.”

Schneier told me that the afternoon’s meeting with Congressional representatives had been a success. “Sometimes 99 percent of life is just showing up,” he said. “Some members of Congress expressed to me that they just did not realize how many American Jews feel, how many American Muslims feel.”

“To think that a little tiny country like Azerbaijan is bringing Muslims and Jews together,” said Schneier. “Wow.”

AFP/Getty Images

Correction, April 1, 2016: Jeff Fortenberry is a Republican representative from Nebraska. A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that he was from Alaska.

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