Azerbaijan plants flag in DC lobbying scene

A new nonprofit supporting Azerbaijan is setting up shop in Washington to provide a counterbalance to the Armenian-American lobby. 

Azerbaijan and Armenia have clashed off and on since the 1990s over Nagorno-Karabakh, an unrecognized territory in western Azerbaijan that claims to be independent. The neighboring countries blame each other for the conflict over the territory, and the U.S. has been pushing for a peaceful resolution to the dispute.

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Now the Azerbaijan America Alliance is coming to Washington in a bid to make some influential friends.

The group hosted its coming-out party Tuesday night at the Reserve Officers Association on Capitol Hill, holding a reception meant to serve as an introduction to power players on Capitol Hill and Embassy Row. Several lawmakers were expected to attend, along with the ambassador for Azerbaijan to the United States.

Founded by Anar Mammadov, a young Azerbaijani businessman and son of the country’s transportation minister, the Alliance hopes to highlight the ties between Azerbaijan and the United States, whether it’s through energy or national-security interests.

Mammadov told The Hill he loves his country and wants to do his duty to help it.

“I think [the Alliance] can bring these two countries together,” Mammadov said. “I think America is one of the biggest friends of Azerbaijan.”

The one other individual listed in the leadership of the Alliance is Khayal Sharifzade, the group’s chairman. Sharifzade is the former CEO and chairman of the Bank of Azerbaijan.

Sharifzade is also a member of the board of directors of ZQAN Holdings. Mammadov is founder, president and chairman of that company, which is based in Baku, Azerbaijan, and has interests in oil and gas, construction and telecommunications.

According to Justice Department records filed in May, the Alliance signed a $2.4 million, yearlong contract with the lobby firm Fabiani & Co. to conduct outreach in the United States. Jim Fabiani, a longtime GOP lobbyist and former chairman and CEO of Cassidy & Associates, is leading the effort.

The Azerbaijan group is playing catch-up with Armenia, which has had a lobbying presence in Washington for decades. 

Lobbyists for the Alliance will likely highlight that Azerbaijan is now a member of the United Nations’ Security Council and is contributing troops to NATO forces in Afghanistan. The nation, which is in the Caucasus region on the Europe-Asia border, has a wealth of energy resources, helping to provide oil and natural gas to Europe.

The country’s poor human-rights record could prevent the group from gaining much traction, however. The State Department’s 2010 Human Rights Report on Azerbaijan said the country has flawed elections, allows arbitrary arrests for political reasons and restricts the press.

“Once again we’re seeing millions being spent by a foreign government entity — in this case, the son of billionaire Azerbaijani Transport Minister Ziya Mammadov — to whitewash his country’s abysmal human-rights record and aggression against Karabakh and Armenia,” said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, in a statement.

Here in Washington, the Alliance will have an agenda to push.

One item will be lobbying on the Freedom Support Act, a 1992 law passed by Congress to aid former Soviet provinces in their transition to democracy. One provision of that law bans direct aid to the Azerbaijani government, which the Alliance will work to reverse.

The Alliance is looking to expand and is advertising to hire an executive director for the group. But once it settles down in Washington, the group can expect a rough reception from its Armenian-American counterparts.

“It doesn’t change the fact that the Azeri government continues to make threats against the people of Nagorno-Karabakh,” said Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America.