Azerbaijan Rolls Out Red Carpet For Visiting U.S. Lawmakers
BAKU, Azerbaijan — It was well past4:30 a.m.local time, nearly an hour after touching down at Heydar Aliyev International Airport, and dozens of bleary-eyed passengers on our crowded Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul were still in the passport control room, milling around in confusion.
"Welcome to Azerbaijan," proclaimed a large sign overhead. This was my first-ever visit to a former Soviet republic, and the bureaucracy of getting a simple visa stamped in our passports was already starting to exhaust our newly acquainted group as we were shuffled from one line to another, Soviet-style, then told to take a seat and wait.
No sooner had I taken a seat and opened my laptop when a pleasant, middle-age lady from rural West Virginia introduced herself and asked me loudly if I had "wah-fah."
Photo: Larry Luxner
Baku's rapidly growing skyline is a mix of classic and ultramodern architecture. In May, more than 300 delegates from 42 U.S. states, including 11 sitting members of Congress, 75 state representatives and three former White House aides, traveled to Azerbaijan for a conference on U.S. relations.
Over the next four days, me and my colleague from The Washington Diplomat would meet lots of folks like her — enthusiastic, super-friendly lawmakers from places as diverse as Albuquerque, Memphis, Baltimore and Brooklyn — all visiting this strategic, energy-rich but hardly democratic nation on the Caspian Sea as delegates to a conference titled "USA-Azerbaijan: Vision for the Future."
No doubt this was among the biggest concentrations of American political star power ever seen in the Caucasus — 317 delegates from 42 states, including 11 sitting members of Congress and 75 state representatives, not to mention the former governors of New Mexico and Oklahoma as well as three ex-Obama White House insiders: political strategist David Plouffe, former press secretary Robert Gibbs and ex-deputy chief of staff Jim Messina.
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In fact, Plouffe, Messina and Gibbs were all called out in a Washington Post story that was published at the height of our trip. The article, "For Obama's ex-aides, it's time to cash in on experience," said all three were given five-figure checks to speak at the forum as part of Azerbaijan's charm offensive to woo Americans.
"Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, is in the midst of a campaign to build support in Washington and among other Western countries amid allegations of corruption and the jailing of dissidents," wrote the Post's Juliet Eilperin and Tom Hamburger, although they did not delve into the conference itself. Rather, they used it as a springboard to talk about how President Obama's pledges to curb special interests "have done little to slow a tide of groups hiring former top aides as highly paid consultants, speakers and media advisers in an effort to influence the administration — part of a longtime Washington practice in which interest groups seek access to the White House by hiring people who used to work there."
Politico did a similar story titled "Robert Gibbs, Jim Messina, David Plouffe headline Azerbaijan trip." Neither the Post nor Politico, however, was able to glean much on what was actually said at the conference, nor did they have any reporters who attended it.
The Washington Diplomat did.
In fact, we ended up being the only U.S. media outlet in the entire delegation, part of a 10-member D.C. group that had been invited by the Rumi Forum, a nonprofit that promotes interfaith dialogue and better relations with Turkey and other Turkic-speaking nations.
Rumi was one of the conference's various partner groups. The main organizers were the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan and the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians, an umbrella organization that advocates for better relations between Americans and Turkish, Turkic and Eurasian communities.
Our delegation, which largely consisted of professors and think tank scholars, was somewhat of an anomaly at the splashy event, filled with state legislators.
So what was the point of flying all those state reps halfway around the world? From the legislators' perspective, it was just a chance to get to know a critical U.S. ally.
"This is all about understanding a new economy, energy resources and national security," said Greenbelt lawmaker Tawanna Gaines, who represents District 22 in the Maryland House of Delegates. "They've asked for nothing in return. What they expect is to educate us, and for us to spread the word."
That, of course, is key — spreading the word. No matter how enlightening or welcoming these trips are, they're still junkets, and they serve a purpose. Here, there were a few overlapping agendas: promoting local business and educational ties, but also gaining an edge in a frozen bilateral conflict that's curiously playing out at the local level, thousands of miles away, in the United States. That would be Azerbaijan's longstanding beef with Armenia, which occupies the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Photo: Larry Luxner
A security officer stands guard in front of the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, a landmark architectural gem in Baku where the "USA-Azerbaijan: Vision for the Future" conference took place.
Armenians have some of the most formidable lobby shops in the United States; Azerbaijan clearly wants to get in on the action (and has hired firms such as the Podesta Group to help it). Resolutions supporting various nations are fairly common in state houses across the country, and although the toothless bills may not mean much to average Americans, they carry great weight to foreign governments eager to gain legitimacy for their causes.
Some state legislators may even one day wind up in the halls of Congress. So courting them is important to Azerbaijan, which wants to cement its growing reputation as the "anti-Iran" in the region. For example, three of the world's hottest pop divas — Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and Rihanna — have all performed in Baku, a direct contrast (and some say snub) to the ultra-conservative clerical regime in Tehran. The secular Muslim country of 9 million also maintains close ties with the European Union, United States and even Israel (Azerbaijan is home to 25,000 Jews).
That's why certain talking points were hammered home at the conference: Azerbaijan provides energy security to the region; it's reinvested those energy dividends back into its economy; it's a critical transit route for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan; it's a stable partner in an unstable neighborhood; and it could always use more American backing — political and economic — to stay that way.
Democrat Ronald Young, a former mayor of Frederick, Md., who now represents Maryland's District 3 in Annapolis, took away that basic message from the trip: "Azerbaijan is trying to promote its oil and gas, and also to make Americans aware of the fact that they're a very westernized Muslim country that's looking to build stronger relations by bringing legislators here from different states. I did some reading about Azerbaijan before coming, and I must say I'm very impressed with Baku."
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On the surface, it's hard not to be impressed with Baku — a glittering capital city of 2.5 million perched on a peninsula that juts out into the Caspian Sea and is often described as a cross between Paris and Dubai.
Like the latter, it was built at supersonic speed, propelled largely by energy wealth. The city's skyline is now dominated by the Flame Towers, a $350 million futuristic trio of gracefully curved skyscrapers that light up at night with images of fire, a nod to Azerbaijan's history of Zoroastrian fire worship. Meanwhile, a 33-story Trump Tower is nearing completion across from the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center, while the glitzy six-story Park Bulvar shopping mall along Baku's main waterfront promenade boasts more than 100 outlets, including Starbucks and Louis Vuitton, as well as a planetarium.
Most of this building boom was funded by energy revenues, which for a time gave Azerbaijan some of the highest growth rates in the world — 26 percent in 2005, 35 percent in 2006, and 25 percent in 2007.
That red-hot growth has since cooled dramatically, though the country still boasts a respectable per-capita GDP of $10,700.
Photo: Larry Luxner
Rida T.R. Cabanilla, who represents District 41 in the Hawaii Legislature, left, and Mark Takai, who represents Hawaii's District 33, present Azerbaijani Ambassador Elin Suleymanov with a box of Hawaiian Host chocolate-covered macadamia nuts during an Independence Day reception in Baku.
Azerbaijan's riches come from its huge oil and gas sector, which accounts for 67 percent of the country's GDP and 93 percent of its export revenues. Thanks to the presence of hydrocarbons in the Caspian Sea — the world's largest inland body of water — Azerbaijan has been able to slash its poverty rate from nearly 50 percent to just 6 percent in the last 10 years, according to the president, while reducing unemployment to an enviable 5.5 percent.
"Those of us who travel regularly to Azerbaijan are astounded every time. There's always something different," said Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. ambassador to Baku who now runs a security think tank in Estonia and spoke at the conference. A new pipeline that would carry gas from the Caspian Sea to hungry European markets — thereby making Europe less dependent on Russian gas exports — could make Azerbaijan even wealthier.
"Already $25 billion has been invested, and you're going to see a doubling of that," Bryza predicted. "Those who say it's over in Azerbaijan are simply ill-informed."
Baku's stunning transformation is precisely why sightseeing dominated the agenda of the May 24-29 event — from the Old City's iconic, 12th-century Maiden Tower and 15th-century Palace of the Shirvanshahs, to the impressive Milli Majlis, Azerbaijan's 125-member Parliament. That's where U.S. elected officials jostled for pictures in this opposition-free institution that's completely dominated by the ruling New Azerbaijan Party and its allies.
The visitors were also taken to Turkish-financed Qafqaz University, whose 3,300 students make it one of the country's leading academic institutions. Following a speech by rector Ahmet Sanic, lawmakers from Arkansas, Wyoming and Indiana approached the microphone one after the other, showering their hosts with praise.
"Education is the hope of the world, and the hope for Azerbaijan," beamed Mary Kay Papen, newly elected president pro tem of the New Mexico Senate. "I think we have a lot to learn from this country."
Also on the agenda was the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, a gleaming new complex that's rumored to be modeled after the National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, Va. The academy's rector is Hafiz Pashayev, Baku's former envoy to the United States and one of Azerbaijan's most powerful men (he also happens to be the country's deputy foreign minister and uncle of Mehriban Aliyeva, Azerbaijan's flashy first lady).
"I'm happy that so many Americans have come to Azerbaijan at the same time," said Pashayev, who served in Washington from 1993 to 2006. "Our goal is very simple: to stay independent and strong, and to be an example to others in the region. We are an excellent example of how to combine secularism with Islam, and we conduct a good-neighbor policy with all countries."
Delegates also toured the Qala Archaeological and Ethnographic Museum Complex as well as the Atashgah Temple, an ancient Zoroastrian shrine that a few years ago was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But Baku's most unusual, perhaps creepiest, tourist attraction of all is the National Flag Square — a windswept, suspiciously North Korea-like fortress constructed from 28 million rocks and crowned by a 531-foot-high flagpole that ranked as the world's tallest until 2011 (when Azerbaijan lost the title to nearby Tajikistan).
At virtually every stop, these friendly but rather parochial lawmakers from New Jersey, Texas, Ohio and Missouri were elevated to rock-star status during interviews by beautiful female Azerbaijani TV reporters fawning over their every utterance. The mantra "freedom is not free" became one of the more nauseating sound bites of the trip.
The Americans, meanwhile, traveled in a fleet of 10 sleek silver buses, happily exchanging business cards while rushing from one tourist attraction to the next. The Neoplan buses, manufactured in Turkey, whizzed by on modern six-lane expressways lined with high, elaborately lit-up concrete walls obscuring the poverty critics say is intentionally hidden from view.
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Photo: Anna Gawel
No fewer than 18 speakers opened the "USA-Azerbaijan: Vision for the Future" conference.
Critics of the "USA-Azerbaijan: Vision for the Future" trip say it was an influence-peddling junket to co-opt U.S. politicians. But what really took place at the gathering, and was it that unusual? Perhaps the back-story of who got paid what was notable, but in terms of content, nothing was said that you couldn't hear at any other similar inside-the-Beltway confab — lots of platitudes and praise, with the occasional criticism thrown in.
The main event of course was the conference itself, held the last day at the ultramodern Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center — a Baku landmark designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid.
The spaceship-like building, which like the international airport is named after the current president's father, is so striking that it was recently featured on the Discovery Channel's "Extreme Engineering" program, in an episode called "Azerbaijan's Amazing Transformation."
President Ilham Aliyev himself opened the conference (followed by a whopping 17 introductory speakers). For some unexplained reason, photographers were prohibited from taking pictures during his speech, although iPhones and the like were permitted.
"Since the early years of our independence, we've established a strong partnership with the United States," the 51-year-old head of state declared in fluent English. "American companies are among our main investors and have helped us to transform our economy. We cooperate in energy security, economic diversification and political reforms, and our soldiers stand shoulder-to-shoulder with yours to support efforts in Afghanistan. I'm sure that in coming years, issues of regional security will be at the center of our discussions."
He added, "Of course it's not a secret that energy factors played a role in our transformation," but insisted that his government has been working to diversify the economy and institute a "parallel strategy of economic and political reforms."
He didn't talk nearly as much about the political reforms, though. And the fact that Aliyev — who was elected head of state in 2003 shortly before the death of his father and faces widespread allegations of corruption, censorship and human rights abuses — was joined by so many American lawmakers in Baku elicited scorn from human rights groups.
The Baku-based Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety said on its website that the conference was "yet another publicity stunt" for the Aliyev regime and is in direct contradiction to Washington's own democracy promotion agenda. "It looks like the U.S. delegation missed a golden opportunity to send a message of solidarity to civil society in Azerbaijan," remarked the group's chief executive, Emin Huseynov. "We are particularly dismayed that out of 10 sessions of the meeting, no single hour was allocated for discussion of Azerbaijan's human rights situation, which is alarming."
As if to prove Huseynov's point, Martins Zvaners, deputy director of communications at Radio Free Europe (RFE), told us that his Baku correspondent was stopped by security from entering the Heydar Aliyev Center just as the conference began.
"We tried working through the organizers and tried to get some help from the U.S. Embassy in Baku. We even tried speaking to the presidential administration, which was involved at some level, but we were not able to attend. So we ended up catching people as they were coming out of the event," Zvaners said. "It's disappointing when a news organization is prevented from covering the news."
Asked about Radio Free Europe's exclusion, conference organizer Kemal Oksuz, president of the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians, said "no one from RFE contacted me about this. I don't know who denied them."
Oksuz, whose advocacy group was the main driver behind "USA-Azerbaijan: Vision for the Future," defended the event, saying its aim was straightforward and strategic: to forge stronger cooperation in a critical part of the world.
At left, former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Matthew Bryza is mobbed by Azerbaijani reporters at a conference highlighting U.S.-Azerbaijani ties. Bryza spoke on the panel "Energy Security in the Caspian to Europe: The Changing World Energy Security Dynamics and New Prospects for the Southern Energy Corridor."
"There is active U.S. leadership when it comes to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but not the Caspian Sea region," Oksuz told The Diplomat. "If the United States doesn't provide this leadership, the region will be left to Russian, Iranian and Chinese influence."
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Oksuz estimated that the five-day extravaganza cost roughly $1.5 million — including round-trip airfare for all the delegates, the expense of putting everyone up at the Four Seasons, Hilton or Park Inn, and speakers' fees for 75 or so politicians, diplomats, analysts and energy experts squeezed into the daylong conference agenda.
"We are a nonprofit organization, so we have to be cautious with every single penny," he told us in a phone interview from Houston, where the Turquoise Council — and much of the U.S. oil and gas industry — happens to be headquartered.
It helped that the event's corporate backers included the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) and Caspian Drilling Co. Ltd., as well as other well-heeled entities like ConocoPhillips, BP, McDermott International, KBR and others.
While he wouldn't discuss compensation arrangements for specific speakers, Oksuz sought to debunk rumors that speakers were paid exorbitant fees, saying that 95 percent of them received honorariums of $2,500 each. The remaining 5 percent — including Plouffe, Gibbs and Messina — were paid no more than $10,000 or $15,000, he told us.
Asked about the pricey gifts each participant received — including a hand-woven Azeri carpet, an executive briefcase and a set of Czech-made tea glasses — the Turquoise Council president said Azerbaijan is noted for its hospitality, and that "everyone was free to receive or not to receive" the gifts.
But Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, a nonprofit watchdog group, called the Baku shindig a prime example of the kind of high-powered wooing for which Washington is renowned.
"The Azeri government is trying to find ways to endear themselves to U.S. policymakers," he said. "A very effective way of doing that is to pay them to visit the country and give speeches. They're trying to buy favors with those who are well connected with the U.S. government.
"Quite frankly, I don't see anything inherently wrong with Azerbaijan trying to put on a better face for the United States," Holman added. "What would be wrong is former government officials letting themselves be used as lobbyists."
In 2009, Plouffe caught flak for giving a speech in Azerbaijan arranged by a lobbyist with ties to Baku. Once the controversy became public, he donated his $50,000 fee to the nonprofit National Democratic Institute.
"This time around, all of them [Plouffe, Gibbs and Messina] got prior approval from the Obama administration, so I do not expect them to turn over their payments," Holman said. "They followed protocol this time."
All three are also now in the private, not public sector, freeing them up to speak more candidly in public. Yet for all the hype surrounding their visit to Baku that was spurred by the Washington Post and Politico articles, neither of which covered any of their remarks, none of the three White House vets had much to say about Azerbaijan itself — nor did they offer any big revelations on U.S. politics.
Gibbs did recall a previous visit to Baku in 2005, when he accompanied Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Obama, then a junior senator from Illinois, to a carpet shop in the Old City's bazaar. Apparently, the young lawmaker wanted to bring home a souvenir for his wife Michelle.
"I have this distinct memory of Sen. Barack Obama haggling and haggling to the point where I was about ready to buy the rug myself," Gibbs recalled, entertaining his audience. "Wars have been ended with less haggling than between this shopkeeper and the future president of the United States."
Plouffe's speech was fast-paced and insightful, although not all that different from the canned Beltway talk one might just as easily hear at a think-tank luncheon in downtown D.C. He dissected Obama's 2008 election victory, the role of Super PACs in domestic politics and who might run for president in 2016 — with the audience glued to his every word. After the discussion, when one nervous young Azerbaijani approached Plouffe to introduce himself and ask about the role of multilateral institutions, the former senior presidential advisor spoke to him at length for 10 minutes as admirers queued up to get his attention.
During the Q&A, when The Diplomat asked Plouffe to talk about democracy in Azerbaijan, the country hosting him, he was more reticent, saying the State Department tracks such things in its annual human rights report.
"We praise countries who are doing the right thing, and point out where they need help, but [the key is] to be a helpful collaborator," he said.
"It's important to remember that Azerbaijan is still a very, very young country," he added. "Even in our country we have a lot of work left to do."
He then went on to shine a harsh light on some of America's own democratic deficiencies. "No one in our country should have to wait in line eight hours to vote," he pointed out, also decrying the corrosive tide of outside spending in U.S. elections, likening it to the Wild West.
"If you're thinking about running for president today, the question you have to ask yourself is, 'Do I have enough potential to put together enough Super PAC money?'" he said. "If you don't, you're dead."
Those words of wisdom flow freely now that Plouffe, along with Messina and Gibbs, have traded in their White House credentials for lucrative gigs as consultants, advisors and the like for groups eager to capitalize on their expertise and connections. Colleagues such as Stephanie Cutter, Ben LaBolt, Tommy Vietor, Jon Favreau, Bill Burton and others have all gone down similar paths.
Washington's revolving door, in fact, is a time-honored bipartisan tradition. Operatives inside the government frequently migrate to think tanks when their party is out of power. Big-name officials can earn top dollar on the speaking circuit once they're out of office, joining agencies such as the Washington Speakers Bureau. Or they form their own lobby shops. These are, after all, sharp, ambitious people who want to remain relevant and get paid handsomely while doing so.
As campaign manager for Obama's 2012 campaign, Messina successfully tapped the power of social media to help the president win re-election. It's little surprise he'd now form his own group to offer advice on data-driven, grassroots-focused politics.
Photo: Larry Luxner
Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs tells an audience in Baku about what it was like to work for President Obama.
Even for those still in office, trips abroad are often part of the job. Some CODELs (congressional delegations) may be jet-setting wastes of taxpayer money — research trip to Switzerland anyone? — but others trek to war zones like Afghanistan and take on gritty, serious itineraries.
Andy Fisher, Lugar's media relations manager, also said there's nothing unusual about Azerbaijan promoting itself across the United States, even at the strictly local level.
"Many organizations work to develop relationships at every level of government because someone may be a local legislator now, but in a few years' time, he may be the next leader of the country," said Fisher, pointing to Obama's 2005 visit to Azerbaijan.
"Certainly being able to develop some understanding of the global picture is important for politicians at every level," he added. "Throughout my 30-year career, I've seen lots of governments and NGOs doing these kinds of activities for members of Congress. It's not at taxpayer expense and in no way infringes on their official duties — and in fact improves their ability to make judgments."
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One of the best speeches of the day came from Fisher's longtime boss, former Sen. Richard Lugar, who was chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations when he lost his Republican primary to a tea party challenger in 2012, after 36 years on Capitol Hill.
"In too many countries, energy wealth is a curse, encouraging corruption," the statesman said. "President Aliyev has institutionalized transparency measures so the citizens can see energy revenues coming into the government and how they are spent. This is a very important example for countries with newfound oil wealth. The next step is to expand opportunities for civil society and the press to engage in the political life of this country. Regrettably, too few members of Congress are devoted to the study of foreign affairs. That's why I'm working at the German Marshall Fund, to establish an institute that will help improve understanding between Congress and foreign missions."
Lugar added that he sees "enormous potential" in Azerbaijan and its 9 million inhabitants.
"The realization of that potential — as well as the long-term stability of Azerbaijan — depend on successful democratic reforms," he said. "Azerbaijan needs to continue investing in its future by improving education and access to quality medical care, and by continuing to fight corruption. Women and girls need to be more prominent voices and full participants in society."
In a polite warning to his friend Aliyev, the 81-year-old Lugar added that Azerbaijan must strengthen government institutions while safeguarding the rights of citizens and guaranteeing "an independent and responsible media."
Paul Wolfowitz, former president of the World Bank, said that if the Azerbaijani people could choose, "I'm sure they'd much rather be located in a remote island in the Pacific than here in the Caucasus, near Russia and Iran and without any real friends close by."
Azerbaijan, he noted, "is peaceful and not a breeding ground for terrorists, it's overwhelmingly Muslim but is an example of religious tolerance, and an important source of oil and natural gas as well. Azerbaijanis would say they're fortunate to have the United States — a superpower which has no designs on their country — as a friend."
Yet the neoconservative — who as President George W. Bush's deputy secretary of defense was a strident architect of the disastrous Iraq War — cautioned his receptive audience that "Americans need to be careful about lecturing Azerbaijanis, telling them they should adopt our form of democracy as occasionally happens as a condition for American aid. Certainly, people are not going to change their form of government depending on aid from the United States, but as friends, it is appropriate for Americans to offer advice. Azerbaijan's leaders need to recognize that in the end, the government has to have the freely given support of its people. Democracy can take different forms, but it's proven that governments which enjoy popular legitimacy are governments that last longest."
Other speakers who took the podium that day were decidedly less critical — even strangely effusive about a country whose name a few lawmakers could scarcely pronounce. Interestingly, the office of Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) wouldn't even confirm to Politico that the congressman had attended the conference. He did by the way.
Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) held up Azerbaijan as "a free and shining light of democracy in the region" — a phrase parroted by several of Poe's Democratic colleagues, including Ruben Hinojosa of Texas.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) — his fiery rhetoric making him sound more like a preacher giving a sermon than a congressman from Queens — said "this forum shows you that Democrats and Republicans can agree on one thing: the importance of the relationship between the United States and Azerbaijan," also bizarrely declaring that Azerbaijan is an example of "what democracy is all about."
Photo: Anna Gawel
The $350 million Flame Towers, a trio of glass residential buildings that's visible anywhere in Baku, peek out from the cobblestone streets of the city's Old Town.
In perhaps the signature line of the day, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-N.Y.) seemed to channel Sarah Palin when she said, "You live in a very difficult neighborhood. I looked at the map."
To her credit, she also seemed to notice that much of the population outside Baku doesn't share in the capital city's riches, saying she hopes the government will use the "bounty of oil and spread it to those beyond this beautiful city."
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The state legislators we talked to were equally effusive about their host country. "One of the things I love about Azerbaijan is that they have so fresh in their minds what it is to be free from communism," gushed Nora Espinoza, a Republican state lawmaker who represents District 59 in southeastern New Mexico. "There's nothing like being there, seeing it with your own eyes. We in America have forgotten what our forefathers fought for. But they have lived it."
Espinoza was hardly alone in her enthusiasm.
New Mexico, it was later announced to a round of applause, had sent 25 delegates to the conference, more than any other state — including its illustrious former governor, Bill Richardson, who first visited Azerbaijan in 1999 when he was President Clinton's secretary of energy. They, along with the other visiting Americans, mingled with local Azerbaijanis, many of them prominent businessman, over endless meals of lamb shish kebob, tomatoes, pickled olives, cheese and wine. And on the night of May 28, following a lavish dinner, all were treated to a spectacular Independence Day fireworks display from government-owned Gulustan Palace overlooking Baku.
So was all this wining and dining worth it for the organizers?
Absolutely, Oksuz quickly replied. "We know what we're doing. We believe events like this conference will bring the significance of the region to decision-makers not only in D.C. but also nationwide. It wasn't easy to take all these people from 42 states to Azerbaijan, but we're convinced that the region is important to the U.S. and its allies."
And the payback for this sort of grassroots organizing often comes in the form of "friendship resolutions" in state capitals from Austin to Boston.
On March 6, for example, Texas Gov. Rick Perry kicked off Texas-Azerbaijan Friendship Day with a barbecue at the governor's mansion — and a resolution that was formally adopted by both houses of the Texas legislature. Five days later, a similar event was held at the California state capitol in Sacramento. The Turquoise Council and its affiliates have also hosted events in Mississippi, Oklahoma, Kansas, Ohio and Connecticut.
And in early June, the California State Senate adopted a resolution praising Azerbaijan as "a staunch ally and strategic partner of the United States."
These resolutions are of paramount importance to Azerbaijan because of its ongoing dispute with neighboring Armenia. In 1992, the two former Soviet republics fought a full-scale war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which both countries claim. An estimated 25,000 people died and more than a million were made homeless.
More than two decades later, Armenia remains firmly in control of this Delaware-size swath of land completely surrounded by Azerbaijan, though the de facto independent republic established after the 1994 ceasefire agreement isn't recognized by any United Nations member state — not even Armenia.
But it is recognized in Baton Rouge. On May 30, the Louisiana State Senate adopted a resolution "encouraging and supporting the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic's continuing efforts to develop as a free and independent nation in order to guarantee its citizens those rights inherent in a free and independent society."
That makes the Bayou State the fourth — along with Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine — to extend formal recognition to Nagorno-Karabakh, much to the delight of Armenian lobby groups, and to the consternation of Azerbaijani officials.
They're also bitter over Section 907, a clause in the 1992 Freedom Support Act that specifically prohibits U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan. If anything, Baku claims, Armenia is the party with blood on its hands — not Azerbaijan.
"As a result of Armenia's aggression, not only Nagorno-Karabakh but also several regions surrounding it, which have never been part of this autonomous district, are now under occupation," President Aliyev complained in his speech to U.S. lawmakers. "All our infrastructure and historical documents have been destroyed by the Armenian occupation army."
Some measure of sympathy came from Richard Morningstar, the U.S. ambassador in Baku.
"We know that the status quo is unacceptable, and that the occupation of Azeri territories is the greatest hardship Azerbaijan faces today," the diplomat said. "More has to be done to move the peace talks forward, but the Minsk Group co-chairs cannot do it on their own. Serious negotiations are needed to build trust and development a framework, but without trust and preparing people for compromise, any effort the sides undertake will fail."
In his speech, Morningstar also noted Azerbaijan's "remarkable transformation since of the collapse of the Soviet Union" and said Washington's relationship is based on three pillars: cooperation on regional defense issues, the promotion of democratic reforms, and energy security. The ambassador also praised the Aliyev government for supporting the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, noting that 40 percent of NATO coalition supplies bound for that country pass through Azerbaijani territory.
In addition, said Morningstar, "Azerbaijan contributes financial assistance to sustain Afghan national security forces and provides training to Afghan government officials. These are important and constructive contributions to Afghanistan's future and I might say that Azerbaijan has already committed to stay involved in Afghanistan after our troop withdrawal in 2014."
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Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan's current ambassador to the United States, told The Diplomat that as his country's former consul-general in Los Angeles, he welcomes the conference organizers' outreach to leaders beyond the Beltway.
"If we are talking about people-to-people connections, such outreach helps to introduce Azerbaijan to a much wider public than simply a Washington-focused effort and, in turn, showcases America's diversity to Azerbaijan," he said. "In my view, the presence of participants from all over the United States was the most unique part and, according to what I've frequently heard, a widely appreciated part of the convention."
The ambassador added that the event "focused on enhancing and enriching the U.S.-Azerbaijan partnership through public participation and cultural experiences rather than on opposing any third party" such as Armenia.
Looking back, David Koranyi, deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, called the conference a "useful opportunity to showcase the undoubtedly remarkable developments in Azerbaijan in general, and Baku in particular."
The Hungarian-born analyst, who was part of our D.C. delegation, noted the former Soviet republic's "strategic role" in Europe's energy security by its supply of natural gas through the Southern Gas Corridor, and commended its leaders' efforts to diversify Azerbaijan's energy-based economy while making significant investments in education. Yet he lamented that the organizers "left virtually neither space nor time to have a real dialogue and meet a broader spectrum of Azeri society" outside the government and state-controlled entities, such as human rights groups, opposition politicians and NGOs.
"That would have enabled us to engage in a genuine conversation not only about the achievements and opportunities but also the political and social challenges facing the country, in particular with respect to the democratic shortcomings as well as the lack of progress in the peace process over Nagorno-Karabakh," he said.
Olga Oliker, a senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corp., had similar gripes.
Many of the U.S. delegates, she said, knew little if anything about Azerbaijan, and too many panels "consisted of one-person presentations by prominent U.S. former officials, who talked mainly about events and policies in the United States and globally, not Azerbaijan specifically."
She said the extravaganza failed to highlight the real issues confronting the two countries, and that only Azerbaijani officials who parroted the official line were on the agenda. Even worse, "transparency, accountability and pluralism in the Azeri political, social and economic spheres are all severely lacking," and the poverty outside Baku stands in stark contrast to the capital city's glitzy skyscrapers.
In general, said Oliker, the conference was all part of a "charm offensive" by Azerbaijan to showcase its accomplishments.
"Whether this is meant to affect U.S. policy, to highlight good U.S.-Azeri relations to the Azerbaijani public or to serve some other purpose, is not clear to me," she told us. "Without better preparation of the invited U.S. officials, participation in such activities runs the risk of embarrassment or worse — for instance when legislators from the United States are quoted hailing Azerbaijan as a 'beacon of democracy,' something it quite clearly is not."
Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh, a former co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group aimed at defusing the Azerbaijan-Armenia war over Nagorno-Karabakh, is now director of the University of Kentucky's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.
Cavanaugh, while noting how important it is for Azerbaijan to "develop grassroots awareness" and counter efforts by Armenian-Americans to advance genocide resolutions, said the conference offered "mixed results" at best.
"Only a handful of speakers — President Ilham Aliyev and Sen. Richard Lugar, for example — addressed in-depth issues of policy concern and strategies to advance stability and development in the South Caucasus region," he said. "Many simply put forth ingratiating platitudes which undermined the rationale for the gathering."
Cavanaugh said participants had hoped to learn more about the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis, exactly how Azerbaijan supports U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, and what steps were being taken to advance oil and gas production, "but this was not offered, and represents a significant lost opportunity."
Donald C.F. Daniel, professor at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies and a former top official at the National Intelligence Council, said the Azerbaijanis probably got more value out of the conference than did the Americans.
"They had one clearly stated request: that the U.S. support them in their confrontation with Armenia, an adversary whose lobbying clout in the United States is evidenced by a law that sharply conditions American aid to Azerbaijan."
Yet Daniel said some of the rhetoric was clearly over the top.
"It is churlish to publicly criticize one's host — especially one that provided a strategically critical transit route to Afghanistan — but it does not encourage Azerbaijan to improve its governance and transparency if the rhetoric exceeds reality," Daniel told us. "Azerbaijan has come far and should be praised for its progress. But praise should be balanced — not by public criticism, but by encouragement to do more."