Flacking for despots: Inside Azerbaijan’s lobbying in the U.S. (Video)


Lobbying is extremely effective on any democratic governance, including in the U.S. politics. Though politicians are prohibited from accepting money directly from foreign governments, it is believed that indirect funding may occur through domestic lobbyists hired by foreign actors. What this means is, regardless of what happens in dictatorships from Central Asia to the Middle East, where the regimes deny basic rights to their citizenry, if they dump enough money into the US political system, they will get positive images.

Based on what is publicly reported, foreign governments spent millions in Washington D.C. last year through their lobbyist, public relations, and even law firms, to establish relationships with members of Congress, who are widely regarded as the nation’s shakers and movers.

Manipulating U.S. public opinion via lobbyists…

The effect of flacking for despots is generally acknowledged, but rarely discussed in explicit detail. Being a journalist from Azerbaijan, I did some digging in the past on Azeri lobbying contracts here in the U.S. This topic recently broke on the national media thanks to an ongoing investigation by the House Ethics Committee regarding secretly funded all-expenses-paid trips of the U.S. congressmen to Azerbaijan,

Unfortunately, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, the amount Azeri government is offering to D.C. lobbyists is reportedly going up and up – despite growing dips in the coffers, according to reporters and researchers in the U.S. capital who closely follow the topic.

(Watch my clip focusing on Azerbaijani government’s efforts of buying influence in the U.S. below. The text continues after the video)

“Azeri lobbying in DC has expanded rapidly over the last few years and there is no sign of slowing down anytime in near future,” Casey Michel, a journalist/researcher who has been following Azerbaijan’s PR innovation in the U.S., said in an interview.

“Azerbaijan is among top 10 countries in the world based on how much money it spends in the U.S.,” said Ilya Lozovsky, journalist at Washington, D.C.-based Foreign Policy Magazine.

The Azeri State Oil Company SOCAR, which has reportedly hired several U.S. firms to organize congressional trips to Baku including the one in 2013 involving dozens of House members and staffers, still holding an office for lobbying purposes in the U.S. capital.

The Azerbaijan America Alliance, a Washington D.C.-based group led by the son of regime’s Transport Minister Ziya Mammadov, is another example of the Azeri government emissaries acting as lobbyists abroad. The Alliance on its website has listed over 60 congressmen, — widely regarded as the nation‘s shakers and movers — as members of friendly Azerbaijani Caucus, co-chaired by representatives Bill Shuster and Steve Cohen.

“These are some of the Congress members that are attending expensive galas, making toasts, saying nice things about the regime,” Lozovsky said.

Michel, who declined an invite to 2013 congressional trip as a journalist, which has been found by ethics investigators to be improperly funded, described the techniques that Azeri lobbyists are using while organizing such moves. “I personally was asked to attend to [2013 trip] by one of Azeri representatives. She said you could cover it so long as you don’t write anything critical of the government and what you see. We would be happy to put you up, to feed you, and fly you over; just don’t write anything bad,” he said, adding that “as a journalist, that’s not necessarily a promise that one can make. “

The problem with Azerbaijan’s lobbying is, Lozovsky says, that almost all of its lobbyists are presenting single specific point of view, which is in favor to the regime. “They’re advocating for only one-sided view about what is happening the country,” he said. “Not a single word on human rights situation.”

For Lozovsky, there are people in the Congress who understand the human rights situation in Azerbaijan but unfortunately a large number of them maybe aren’t well aware of the country, which “works well for the regime to manipulate the general opinion and present itself.”

“Shadow” lobbyists…

Azeri lobby machine has been able to involve not just traditional lobbyists in the U.S. capital but academics as well. Some of them, says Michel, “have even failed to disclose relationships that they maintain either with the Azeri government or with SOCAR.”

“There are lobbyists –not necessarily academics, – who write articles about Azerbaijan also posing as uninterested observers claiming to have no relationship with the government whatsoever, and the editors in question just let this relationship slide and do not update the pieces afterwards to reflect that relationship.”

According to the U.S. laws, lobbyists working for foreign governments are required to register at Foreign Agent Respiration Act – FARA, showing their contracts and activities.

However, said Lozovsky, “I’ve heard from several people that there are other entities that are working for the Azerbaijani government and are not making the filings as required by law. So there is potentially a hidden field here that we’re not aware of yet.” “This is something I will continue to look into; I know other journalists are also looking into this,“ he added.

Elmar Chakhtakhtinski, chairman of Azerbaijani Americans for Democracy, AZAD, told me that some Azeri lobby groups are trying to avoid the law by registering themselves as public non-profit organizations. “However they are actually lobbying under different names, just like Turquoise Association, and Houston-based Friends of Azerbaijan Association…. The more shadow attempts when they’re trying to channel money through other groups that represent ethnic or other types of interests.”

These are “barely” legal tactics, Chakhtakhtinski said, in fact, some of which might even be violating rules of Congress when they try to recruit U.S. congressmen to go to Azerbaijan for lobby events.

What should worry Americans about these all is that “there is a foreign power, which is a repressive corrupt foreign government, that tries to buy American foreign policy,” Chakhtakhtinski said.

As much as the Azeri lobbyists are succeeding at doing so, “their interest will serve at the expense of American interest and the U.S. taxpayers’ interest,” he added. “We can see concrete examples of what they accomplish by these lobbying efforts. Senator [Chuck] Schumer, who knows very well about foreign policy, called Azerbaijan a great democracy, while his colleague, Congressman Ted Poe went even further calling Azerbaijan a shining light on democracy. The more congressmen make public statements which are very far from reality which makes U.S. policymakers look bad in the eyes of the world.”

Pretending “democracy”

Yet analysts and journalists question the service that oil-reach dictators are seeking from Washington lobbyists, as instead of spending their countries’ wealth on developing their societies, they rather choose to pay for lobbyists just to pretend that they do so.

“The governments are aware that they have a tarnished image. But what happens is that instead of working to change that image they’re trying to polish that image. What they get is nothing,” Navbahor Imamova, Central Asia analyst and journalist at Voice of America, said.

“What I would say to people who are wondering about lobbying, why don’t you push for real changes there, so that the news comes here and there is something positive to report about it,” she said.

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