U.S. JEWISH GROUPS BACK AZERBAIJAN DESPITE RIGHTS CONCERNS
WASHINGTON — Azerbaijan has long lauded its relations with pro-Israeli
groups that advocate on its behalf in Washington, a bond rooted in
Tel Aviv’s rapport with the former Soviet republic that touts itself
as a haven for the Jewish people in the Muslim world.
And amid mounting international criticism of Azerbaijan’s human
rights record, U.S.-based Jewish organizations are standing firm in
their support of Baku, which they see as a linchpin of stability in
a region replete with governments hostile to Israel.
“Our message is clear and consistent: Azerbaijan is an important
strategic partner for the United States and the West, as well as
a valued friend of Israel and the Jewish people,” American Jewish
Committee (AJC) executive director David Harris last week following
a meeting in Baku with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
“In an increasingly turbulent world, Azerbaijan’s contributions to
regional stability, energy security, counterterrorism operations,
and religious tolerance are all things to be valued,” Harris added.
The 75-minute private meeting on February 2 followed a flurry of
recent public relations activities in Washington to highlight Baku’s
public embrace of its Jewish population and strategic ties with Israel.
These efforts are part a broader lobbying campaign by oil-rich
Azerbaijan to bolster its credibility as an important strategic partner
with the United States on issues such as energy, counterterrorism,
and Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea territory in March 2014.
At the same time, Western officials say the human rights situation
has deteriorated precipitously in Azerbaijan, where numerous rights
activists, journalists, and government critics have been arrested in
the past year.
Speaking at a January 30 panel discussion in Washington, Samad
Seyidov, chairman of the international and interparliamentary
relations committee in the Azerbaijani parliament, swiftly pivoted
to his country’s friendly record toward Judaism and other religions
in response to a question about alleged human rights abuses committed
by the government.
“I wanted to remind you that in Azerbaijan today, Jewish people and
Azerbaijani people, Muslim people and Christians, they are living
in peace,” Seyidov said, adding that Azerbaijan has a Jewish member
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov lays a wreath during
a ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust
memorial in Jerusalem in 2013.
Kenneth Bandler, a spokesman for the AJC, said in e-mailed comments
that the issue of human rights “did come up” at the organization’s
recent meetings in Baku, but he declined to provide further details,
citing the “private” nature of the conversations.
Azerbaijan’s Jewish population totals more than 9,000, according to
the country’s most recent census in 2009, though other estimates have
put that figure as high as 30,000. The nation of around 9 million
people is also home to several synagogues.
Azerbaijan has made no secret that it values U.S.-based Jewish
organizations as a key lobbying lever in Washington ever since Baku
and Tel Aviv began cultivating ties the 1990s — a rapprochement
widely seen as aimed at countering Iran’s influence in the region.
In 2000, then-Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev “for acting in our
favor” by trying to persuade U.S. lawmakers to repeal a 1992 ban on
direct aid to Baku due to its conflict with Armenia over the disputed
region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
A 2006 quoted an Azerbaijani Embassy official in Washington as saying
that “Jewish organizations made a certain contribution” to a U.S.
waiver on the embargo enacted after the September 11, 2001, terrorist
attacks as Washington sought Baku’s help for counterterrorism
operations in Afghanistan.
Azerbaijan’s outreach to Jewish groups in the United States continues
as part of a lobbying campaign that it has ramped up in Washington
in recent years.
U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act filings show that the Podesta
Group, a lobbying firm that Azerbaijan pays $60,000 per month,
contacted pro-Israel advocacy groups such as the America Israel
Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Jewish Institute for National
Security Affairs in the second half of 2014.
The Podesta Group declined to comment when contacted by RFE/RL.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s partnership with Israel — which includes
energy and arms trade greatly valued by both sides — was highlighted
in several op-eds in Washington newspapers in recent months.
In November, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call published co-authored
by Mark Levin, executive director of the Washington-based National
Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, titled Muslim Azerbaijan:
Bucking The Anti-Semitic Trend In Europe.
“With a new Congress taking shape, now is the time for Congress’ many
friends of Israel to learn more about Azerbaijan…. Once they do,
they will see that Azerbaijan is an example for other countries to
follow with respect to supporting Israel,” wrote Levin.
The Washington Times ran a sponsored article on January 28 titled
Azerbaijan’s Rich History With Jewish Settlers Opened Door To Israel
The same day, it published by former U.S. Congressman Dan Burton,
who serves as chairman of the Azerbaijan America Alliance. In the
piece, Burton calls Azerbaijan a “strong defense and economic partner
to Israel” and quotes Israel’s ambassador in Baku as saying that
“tolerance in Azerbaijan is an example to the entire world.”
Media reporter that Burton’s position with the Azerbaijan America
Alliance was omitted from the original piece. The Washington Times
later updated the op-ed to include the affiliation.
While senior U.S. officials and lawmakers have criticized Azerbaijan
for what they call a crackdown on critics, including the jailing of
independent investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija
Ismayilova, leading American Jewish groups have portrayed Baku’s
rights record as a symptom of democratic growing pains.
“Full democracy and transparency can take decades to develop,” Harris
of the AJC was as saying in December. “And if these were the sole
litmus tests for foreign relations, then both the U.S. and Israel
would have far fewer partners.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of
Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, that continued
rapprochement between Baku and Jewish communities could be an effective
approach to improving human rights in Azerbaijan.
“Countries that have demonstrated friendship to their Jewish
communities — even though their records on human rights issues and
other things are not perfect, and we know that — we have to try
to encourage them to change, but at the same time to recognize the
progress that has been made and the importance of the relationship
with them,” Hoenlein told the news agency.
Richard Kauzlarich, a former U.S. ambassador to Baku, said Azerbaijan’s
tolerance toward Jewish communities is indeed a positive and a “good
example” to the rest of the Muslim world.
At the same time, Azerbaijan’s official message “has gotten more
developed in terms of trying to deflect some of the questions that are
obviously difficult to answer,” such as human rights, added Kauzlarich.
“Pointing to this, religious tolerance for them is another plus in
the dialogue on things like human rights, which aren’t as pleasant,”