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Azeri Oil Money Got a Pass From This Ethics Committee

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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After criticism from President-elect Donald Trump, congressional Republicans backed down from their decision Tuesday to silence and subjugate the quasi-independent Office of Congressional Ethics. Assuming they stick to the reversal, that's fortunate -- even if not for the reasons Trump had in mind when he tweeted his dismay at the original plan. The OCE was a rare entity that exposed the goings-on in the Washington "swamp" that Trump promised to drain -- including the inner workings of some shady alliances that have undermined America's moral authority and standing as a global values arbiter.

One of the OCE's most high-profile investigations concerned Azerbaijan, a small, oil-rich post-Soviet nation that has more people recognized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International than Russia and Belarus combined. Azerbaijan is a hereditary dictatorship: President Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father in 2003 and has been in power ever since despite periodic rigged elections. It doesn't have a free press, and its economy is state-dominated; it's also involved in a festering conflict with neighboring Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh, a landlocked Armenian enclave handed to Azerbaijan by Stalin in 1923 but made autonomous. Armenia won the territory in 1994 after a protracted war and conflict has scarcely stopped since.  Azeris consider Nagorno Karabakh a historic part of the country that's recognized by the international community as such. 

Azerbaijan is also a country that has a friendly relationship with the U.S. In 2014, it received more than $64 million in U.S. aid, both civilian and military. The aid kept coming steadily as Aliyev's dictatorship thrived thanks to high oil prices. 

In May and June, 2013, a delegation of 11 U.S. Congress members and 32 congressional staff members visited Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to attend a conference called "U.S.-Azerbaijan: Vision for the Future." It was ostensibly funded by two non-profit groups, from which the U.S. legislators and their staff were allowed to accept travel. The OCE found, however, that the nonprofits received the money for the trip from the Azerbaijani state-owned oil company, Socar, and one of the groups -- paid $750,000 by Socar -- had been set up just one month prior to the conference. While in Baku, all the U.S. legislators received "rugs of various sizes and value" as gifts, and some legislators and staffers also got crystal tea sets and silk scarves. 

It must have been clear to everyone concerned that the conference was a government-sponsored event. Aliyev even made an appearance. In July, 2015, however, the congressional Committee on Ethics cleared all participants in the junket of any wrongdoing, noting that "either on their own initiative or at the committee's recommendation, all members have voluntarily remedied, or committed to remedy, any impermissible gifts received." As for the travel expenses, the committee claimed the legislators and their aides couldn't have known they'd come from the Azerbaijani government. In any case, the expenses had been pre-approved by the committee.

Azeri officials must be relieved at the OCE vote: They will be able to keep their "caviar diplomacy" -- applied in Europe as well as the U.S. -- out of the public limelight.

The U.S. has certain geopolitical reasons to be friendly with Azerbaijan. It is an alternative to Russia as a source of oil and gas for Turkey and Europe and, as a predominantly Muslim but secular state, an ally in the fight against terrorist groups like Islamic State. It is, however, a tyranny in a permanent state of war with far more liberal Armenia -- a country Freedom House ranks "partly free" compared with "not free" Azerbaijan. But despite its large and vocal diaspora, Armenia is a Russian ally, part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's pet economic project, the Eurasian Union free trade area. Under recent U.S. administrations, that closeness to Moscow has been a bigger sin than Baku's imprisonment of government critics.

Aliyev has paid generously to drive these advantages home to U.S. politicians. It employs the Podesta Group, led by the brother of key Democratic operative John Podesta, for $45,000 a month plus expenses, and it is unusually creative in its lobbying activities. It's hard to tell whether it's this creativity and generosity or any real U.S. strategic interest that makes the U.S. overlook the country's brutal dictatorship. A combination of both is likely: Without the "caviar diplomacy," Azerbaijan might be considered too small to defy declared U.S. values and principles for its sake.

When Trump tweeted Tuesday that Congress has more important things to do than to weaken the ethics watchdog, he was probably not thinking about the Azerbaijan investigation. Under Donald Trump's administration, the U.S. is probably going to drop the pretense of pursuing a values-based policy. The Trump organization has done business in Azerbaijan, partnering with the son of the country's transport minister to build a hotel in Baku. Trump canceled the Baku licensing deal after his election. But the ever-creative Azerbaijani embassy in Washington recently picked Trump's D.C. hotel as the venue for one of its trademark events "celebrating religious freedom and diversity." 

If the Trump administration continues U.S. support of Aliyev, at least it will be seen as openly and perhaps cynically calculating. Trump has no declared problems with authoritarian regimes. But Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans in Congress, who profess to stand on values, will appreciate some quiet about accepting junkets from Aliyev. The 2013 congressional delegation was a bipartisan group. The public wouldn't have found out about the trip if not for the pesky OCE.

(Updates story published Jan. 3 to add sentence in second paragraph on historic dispute over Nagorno Karabakh.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net