LOS ANGELES–A press conference by Azeri parliamentarians at the Museum of Tolerance on the Georgian conflict and its threat to western oil pipelines in the Caucasus was cut short Friday when this reporter was censored after asking about Azerbaijan’s growing belligerence towards Armenia.
The media briefing on the South Caucasus was hosted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center at its Los Angeles-based Museum of Tolerance. It featured a 5-member parliamentary delegation from Azerbaijan, as well as a member from the Consulate of Georgia. Azerbaijan’s Consul General in Los Angeles was also in attendance.
When a question was asked by this Asbarez reporter regarding an August 8 statement by the Azeri Foreign Ministry saying Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia served as a precedent for resolving ethnic conflicts in the region, he was silenced, not only by members of the audience and the Azeri consular staff, which denied the incident, but also by Rabbi Cooper who prematurely ended the conference (others were slated to speak) to take a tour of the museum.
Incidentally, the Republic of Armenia’s Consul General in Los Angeles, Armen Liloyan, was not invited to the press briefing. "We have never received such an invitation," he said, when asked why a representative from Armenia, a US partner in the Caucasus, sharing warm relations and strong ties to both the United States and the west as well as Russia, was not invited.
Asbarez contacted Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for commen’s on the Center’s failure to invite a representative from the Republic of Armenia to the briefing. But Cooper could not be reached for comment and did not return calls.
Though the event was publicized as a briefing about the "implications of the Russian invasion of Georgia for the region and for oil and gas supplies globally," it was more rhetoric than information. Throughout the briefing, one common theme was conveyed to the audience–that the conflict in Georgia was actually between Russia and the West.
"This is an offensive against the United States, American interests, and values," remarked Asim Mollazada, the Azeri parliamentarian giving the first and only briefing.
"We said we would like to be a reliable ally of the United States," he said, underscoring Azerbaijan’s centrality to US interests in the region.
Rabbi Cooper, who moderated the press conference, echoed most of Mollazada’s remarks in his praise for the two former soviet republics. Azerbaijan and Georgia, he boasted, were model republics in the region with their impeccable democratic track records.
Mollazada, who is also the chairman of Azerbaijan’s Democratic Reform Party and a member of its parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, warned that Russia’s advance into Georgia and the PKK sabotage of a section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline are "evil" forces that threaten to derail the democratic progress of Azerbaijan and Georgia.
According to international human rights watchdogs, such as Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Boarders, and Amnesty International, neither Georgia nor Azerbaijan has proven to be a model of democracy in the region.
On January 6, tens of thousands of Georgians, claiming fraud and demanding a recount, took to the streets to protest the election victory of American-allied President Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili called for snap elections in November after he imposed a state of emergency following a brutal police crackdown on peaceful demonstrators calling for his resignation. Saakashvili, whose government was criticized by Human Rights Watch for "crossing the line" in November, is now being accused of having enacted policies of ethnic cleansing in its breakaway province of South Ossetia, which it devastated in a bombing campaign that began on August 7th.
Meanwhile, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev has faced persistent criticism over his heavy-handed treatment of independent media and opposition parties.
According to Amnesty International, journalists in Azerbaijan "striving to expose the misuse of government power are increasingly living under the threat of politically motivated arrests, physical assault and even death…[and] are only free to express opinions that fall in line with government directives. Anyone daring to voice criticism of the authorities or to expose Azerbaijan’s enduring corruption problem faces an uncertain future."
Furthermore, the BTC pipeline, which Mollazada emphasized was as an agent of stability and democratic development in the region, has allowed Aliyev to strengthen his heavy-handed grip over Azerbaijan’s government. In preparation for his reelection in October, Aliyev has been establishing a cult of personality by 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.
Despite the reality on the ground, Mollazada insisted that the region’s oil pipelines "solve problems."
"[The BTC pipeline] is a system of transferring ideas of liberty…our goal, our priority is to create a system of liberty and human rights," he remarked. "If evil wins in Georgia, the system will go to the middle ages."
During the truncated question and answer session, an inquiry was made regarding the effect the conflict would have on the world oil market. Mollazada took advantage of the opportunity to frame the message in a way where American interests were being held hostage to Russian aggression in the region.
"Now oil is not pumping and immediately you will see prices will jump," Mollazada said, stating that American, European, and Israeli interests would only be secured if Azerbaijan was supported. "It is vitally important to the energy security of Israel and Europe."
But Azerbaijan’s longstanding insistence to isolate Armenia from regional development projects, namely the BTC pipeline, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway, have further jeopardized the security and stability of the region and harmed US and western interests in the South Caucasus.
In spite of the windfall profits from the US–and the west–facilitated by the BTC project, Azerbaijan continues to lobby the United States for foreign aid rather than using its oil-generated wealth to better humanitarian and infrastructural problems it faces. Instead it uses these profits to bolster its blockade of Armenia, increasing the need for US humanitarian support to that country, a US partner in the region and diplomatic bridge between the West and Russia as well as Iran.
Although the tense status quo in Karabakh has by and large held, Aliyev has been using petrodollars from the BTC pipeline to beef up the country’s military, purchasing armamen’s and vehicles from France, the United States and the former Warsaw Pact countries. The tremendous new oil wealth has allowed Aliyev to increase defense spending from $175 million in 2004 to $2 billion in 2008. According to a Stratfor analysis, “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.”
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 and de facto independence for Karabakh.
Last month, Rabbi Cooper visited Azerbaijan to meet with the Foreign Minister and a leading Muslim religious leader, according to an Azeri Press Agency report cited by Day.az on July 22. During his meeting with the Azeri cleric, Sheikh-ul-Islam Haji Allahshukur Pasha-zade, who two years ago called on Azerbaijani’s to prepare for a "jihad" against Armenia’s, Cooper reportedly described Azerbaijan as “a tolerant country, where everyone can practice his religion without any restrictions.” His remarks, published the next day in a Day.az interview, were in reference to the Jewish community in Baku.
In the interview, Rabbi Cooper went on to say that Azerbaijan should do more to “inform the US community in details about their country and especially about [the Nagorno-Karabakh] conflict. The United States are mostly well informed about the ‘genocide of Armenia’s.’ It would be good if Azerbaijanis held work for informing Americans about the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.”
In 2003, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles was embroiled in controversy over its refusal to establish a permanent exhibit on the Armenian Genocide. Despite a six-day hunger strike by 14 young human rights activists, calls from thousands of Armenian Americans nationwide, a major story in the Los Angeles Times, and growing interest on the part of local, state, and federal lawmakers, the Museum of Tolerance only agreed to include references to the Armenian Genocide in various exhibits at the museum. The Museum still does not have a permanent exhibit on the Armenian Genocide.