When I wrote in the July magazine about Washington lobbyists offering to whitewash the regime in Turkmenistan, I noted that the firms with whom I spoke told me they could put together seemingly independent press events that in reality would promote their would-be Stalinist client. Tomorrow, I’ve learned, lobbyists for a business group close to the crooked government of Azerbaijan have scheduled what looks to be a similar event at the National Press Club.
The event will feature a delegation from the Association for Civil Society Development in Azerbaijan (ACSDA). “We are coming to learn what we can about how American NGOs advocate within the U.S. system, and to share our experiences in an emerging democracy that is not even a generation old,” the delegation leader, ACSDA vice president Vali Alibayov, said in a press release. The uplifting aim of his organization, says the release, is to “contribute to the development of civil society in Azerbaijan by uniting and coordinating the activity of nongovernmental organizations.”
Bob Lawrence & Associates, a Washington-area firm, put together the press release and is organizing the visit. “It’s a group of human rights activists and free advocates,” Patrice Courtney, a senior associate at Bob Lawrence, told me when I called to ask about the event and the ACSDA. “The people on the delegation are scholars and intellectuals.” According to Courtney, the group “operates independently of the government.
In reality, the whole affair appears to be a government propaganda mission and delegation members are hardly as exalted a bunch as Courtney claimed. Let’s start with Bob Lawrence, which, it turns out, promotes the interests of President Ilham Aliyev but is paid by a cut-out: Renaissance Associates, a pro-government business group based in Baku, the Azeri capital. In 2006, President Ilham Aliyev–who inherited power from his father when the old man died and then got elected in his own right in a rigged vote four years ago–came to Washington for a White House visit. Renaissance advocated for that visit and Bob Lawrence & Associates handled the logistics.
As for the ACDSA, its website reveals that the group’s projects include cheerleader-type programs like “Baku is a Hero City” (which reeks of Soviet nostalgia) as well as more explicitly political ones, such as election monitoring and polling. In a poll conducted a few years ago, according to a 2005 New Republic story, the ACDSA found that “only 5.9 percent of those surveyed voted for opposition candidate Isa Gambar” when he ran against Aliyev. Yet, the story said, “official statistics gave Gambar 12 percent of the vote, and some foreign observers said that he garnered as much as 40 percent.” Another poll from the ACDSA found that many Azeris believed there was no corruption in Azerbaijan, even through Transparency International has consistently rated it as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Or take the group’s exit polls for 2004 municipal elections, which found that 99.85 percent of voters felt no pressure while voting. Yet, as the New Republic noted, “the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored its own poll, with vastly different results. USAID states on its Azerbaijan website that the “municipal elections in December 2004 did not even meet the standard of the Presidential election [which were considered to be fraudulent].” And an international observer who monitored the elections didn’t recall seeing anyone from the group polling stations and “thinks the numbers were made up.”
As for delegation head Alibayov: according to the ACDSA website, he’s a member of the International Association for Public Relations. The press release for the event doesn’t actually dwell much on questions of human rights or free speech, but instead discusses matters like the “increasingly important U.S.-Azerbaijan strategic relationship,” and how Azerbaijan “now provides more than a million barrels of oil daily to the West outside OPEC.” Alibayov is quoted as saying, “[W]e realize that America needs friends in the broader Middle East, and our people are more than ready to build a strong partnership.”
Courtney asked me if I’d be attending the event. I told her I was pretty busy and that the whole affair looked like a sham put together by several front groups for the government. “I admire your candor,” she replied.