US Business Group Seeks End to Ban On Azeri Aid

BAKU (Reuters)–The American Chamber of Commerce in Azerbaijan (AmCham) began efforts on Friday to repeal a controversial amendment to a US law which bans direct US government help to the former Soviet republic.

"Representatives from AmCham will travel to the US capital personally to communicate to members of Congress the negative commercial impact that Section 907 has on US business interests," the chamber said in a statement.

The amendment to the Freedom Support Act was passed due to heavy lobbying from the Armenian Diaspora in 1992 at the peak of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Azerbaijan is the only ex-Soviet republic to be excluded from receiving direct US government assistance.

Critics say it ultimately penalizes US firms–which have invested heavily in oil and gas and related service companies.

"We feel we have much less influence here and aren’t listened to as much as we would be if we promoted more cordial relations between the two countries," said John Crider–an AmCham board member and head of a company in Baku.

Crider said Section 907 prevents American companies from having much input in drafting new legislation on taxes and labor law than other foreign investors.

Currently a whole range of US agencies such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and USAID have only limited authority in Azerbaijan.

If 907 were repealed–the doors would open to these agencies–allowing OPIC to insure and underwrite political risk for US companies operating here–he said.

The AmCham delegation will lobby Congress this fall to grant President Bill Clinton special waiver authority to remove 907–as part of the draft "Silk Road Bill," which focuses on US policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus region.

"This would be a good year to get around to this as next year is an election year and the new administration will have to figure out their foreign policy and it will take a long time before we can lobby on this again," said Timothy Dolan–executive director of AmCham in Baku.

The Armenian National Committee of America issued an urgent action alert to the Armenian-American community–urging immediate reaction to threats in the Senate to repeal Section 907.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.)–the leading Senate opponent of Section 907–is set to offer his anti 907 Silk Road Bill as an amendment to the foreign aid bill when it reaches the floor as early as Monday.

This amendment would effectively eliminate Section 907–rewarding the Azeri government for blockading Armena and rejecting international efforts to mediate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The ANCA announced that the key to defending Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh lied in grassroots activism and urged all Armenian-Americans to contact their US senators and urge them to not vote for the Silk Road bill.

The ANCA said that the Silk Road bill would hinder US interests in the Caucasus and the Caspian region by provising US tax dollars to the corrupt and undemocratic Azeri government and threaten the fragile Karabakh peace process.

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