American Jewish Committee to Lobby for Azeri Interests, Announces Director

AJC Executive Director David Harris with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev

BAKU (Combined Sources)–The Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, was in Baku Saturday, August 9, where he told journalists at a press conference that his organization would lobby on behalf of Azerbaijan’s interests in the United States.

Harris was visiting Azerbaijan on the invitation of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev. During his two-day visit he met with the President, Foreign Minister, Prime Minister and other officials.

"[The] AJC has long appreciated the importance of Azerbaijan as an example of religious tolerance and a proven friend of the United States and Israel," Harris said. "We valued this opportunity to learn more about this strong ally in a challenging and critical region. We look forward to sharing our views about Azerbaijan’s key role when we return to the United States."

However, Harris’ remarks stand in stark contrast to significant documented evidence to the contrary. Azerbaijan’s numerous political as well as social human rights abuses both against its Azeri majority as well as its ethnic minorities, including Armenia’s and have been widely reported in US press as well as international human rights bodies.

But according to the Harris, “Azerbaijan is critical to Western energy security and to the avoidance of a potentially dangerous monopoly in the market for natural gas.” The South Caucasus, he explained, is witnessing a historic event in Georgia because the recent outbreak of fighting in South Ossetia is important not only for Georgia, but also the whole region, including Azerbaijan and its territorial integrity.

The AJC will lobby for the US Government to pay more attention to the work of the OSCE Minsk Group, mediating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Harris said, adding “the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was the key issue of discussion during my visit to Baku. We will work to improve the OSCE Minsk Group’s mission in the settlement of the conflict."

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which has yet to be resolved, is in danger of erupting as Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev continues to make louder calls for renewed war to "take back" Karabakh by force. Making the situation in Azerbaijan more tense is the growing uncertainty over the outcome of Azerbaijan’s upcoming Presidential elections, slated for October 15.

There is a definite cult of personality that is being established that threatens the viability of democratic development in Azerbaijan. Aliyev has been propping up billboards throughout the country, depicting his father, the late president Haydar Aliyev and himself in a manner reminiscent of the Stalinist Soviet Union and 1980s Iraq under Sadam Hussein.

Aliyev has faced persistent criticism over his heavy-handed treatment of independent media and opposition parties. Meanwhile, over a million Azeri refugees from the Karabakh Conflict still live in shantytowns and abandoned train carts. Human rights violations are at an all time high, as severe media restrictions continue to result in the imprisonment and torture of journalists and opposition activists. According to Eurasianet, Aliyev’s recent claims that his government allegedly oversaw the creation of 650,000 new jobs by the end of 2007 are not being received well by most of Azerbaijan’s population, which has yet to feel the effects of the country’s massive oil revenues.

With less than three months to go until elections are held in Azerbaijan, controversy is looming over President Ilham Aliyev’s failure to solve many of the country’s social ills. With Karabakh a major election issue in Azerbaijan, Aliyev has sought to exploit nationalist fervor surrounding the unresolved conflict to detract from his administrations failures at home. In recent months, he has been touring the country and delivering speeches in which he publicly calls for a new war to take Karabakh back by force.

On June 26, Aliyev staged the country’s first military parade in 16 years, and announced his intentions to build a military industrial complex that would support a second round war with neighboring Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijan ethnically cleansed its Christian Armenian minority in a series of pogroms and massacres as the Soviet Union was collapsing, forcing the Armenia’s of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave forced into Azerbaijan, to declare independence. Karabakh’s democracy movement, legal by the statutes of the Soviet Constitution, triggered a brutal military attack on the enclave by Azerbaijan, sparking a conflict that ended with a Russian brokered ceasefire in 1994.

Azerbaijan has been using petrodollars from the BTC pipeline to beef up its military, purchasing armamen’s and vehicles from France, the United States or the former Warsaw Pact. According to Stratfor, “Azerbaijan’s armament now has many wondering if Baku is planning another conflict against a neighbor that has been cut out of the region’s recent energy wealth.”

A renewed conflict would halt any possibility of Caspian energy reaching the west, and be a direct threat to U.S. and European interests in the region.

Following an unprecedented violation of the Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire by Azeri forces on March 5, Stratfor intelligence wrote in an analysis piece citing the growing threat to regional security of a richer and stronger Azerbaijan.

“Azerbaijan has grown stronger and richer following the 2006 completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, which Western companies developed to feed oil to Europe,” it said. “The BTC led to a more pro-Western Azerbaijan, and the tremendous new wealth it generated has helped the country increase its defense spending from $175 million in 2004 to more than $1 billion at the start of 2008.” Azerbaijan’s military budget has since reached $2 billion.”

"Energy wealth has doubled Azerbaijan’s gross domestic product; Azerbaijan’s defense budget has jumped from just a few hundred million a year to a billion this past year,” Stratfor wrote earlier in 2007. “The country is arming itself, and neighboring Armenia is closely watching. The two countries have been deadlocked over the Azerbaijani secessionist region of Nagorno-Karabakh — a conflict that has flared into a war in the past. Azerbaijan’s armament now has many wondering if Baku is planning another conflict against a neighbor that has been cut out of the region’s recent energy wealth.”

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s longstanding insistence to isolate fellow US Ally Armenia, from regional development projects, namely the BTC pipeline, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Ralway, have further jeopardized the security and stability of US interests in the South Caucasus.

During the planning stages of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, Azerbaijan pressured British Petroleum to bypass a more economic a commercially secure route that went through Armenia, a fellow US partner in the region. In 2003, New York Congressman Joseph Crowley (NY-07) criticized the routing of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and gas pipeline during the House International Relations Committee markup of the reauthorization for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). The Committee was considering the OPIC’s application for political risk insurance in connection with construction of the BTC pipeline.

At the markup, Congressman Crowley stated: "American taxpayers are being asked to help cover hundreds of millions of dollars in increased costs for the BTC pipeline route that would bypass the more economic and commercially viable route through Armenia. If the Caucasus region–in my opinion is to move forward–we must ensure that all countries move forward together at the same time. Choosing favorites in the Caucasus will not promote regional stability, economic integration, and peace."

Despite all this, Harris assured Azerbaijan’s leadership that his organization would work for the interests of Azerbaijan in the United States.

“As your friends, we will try to do something for this but it mostly depends on Azerbaijan itself. Americans shouldn’t only know Azerbaijan as an energy-rich country but also as a country that made important contributions to peacekeeping efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said, promising to take steps towards the strengthening of relations between Azerbaijan and the United State.

“We will work to improve the relations between the United States and Azerbaijan," he said. "We will also pay attention to Americans’ education [of Azerbaijan] to convey to them the basic knowledge about Azerbaijan and to inform the political circles and U.S. presidential contenders about Azerbaijan."

Meanwhile, the Azerbaijan Press Agency reported on Monday that the Izmir-based Azerbaijan Culture Center has began a petition drive demanding that the Turkish-Armenian border remain closed until the withdrawal of Armenia’s from the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

The head of the Center, Jamal Mammadkhanoglu, underscored that the borders should not open without an “Armenian withdrawal from Azerbaijani lands.”

"Turkey has to maintain its embargo against Armenia for that,” he said. “Otherwise, Azerbaijan has no other option but to liberate its lands through military force.”

Azerbaijan and Turkey must unite as one nation, like “a clenched fist,” he said.


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