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Azerbaijan's Opinion-Shaping Campaign Reaches 'The New York Times'

  • Robert Coalson

Brenda Shaffer speaks at the Hezliya Conference in 2011. She did not respond to numerous requests to comment for this report.

Brenda Shaffer speaks at the Hezliya Conference in 2011. She did not respond to numerous requests to comment for this report.

Earlier this month, "The New York Times" published documents demonstrating Azerbaijan's efforts to expand its relationship with think tanks in the United States to bolster U.S. public opinion of the country and make it clear that Baku "is an important security partner."

"It is a campaign that produced real results," the September 6 report stated.

Three days later, the very same newspaper published an op-ed about Azerbaijani-Armenian tensions without disclosing the author's ties to the government in Baku.

The op-ed argued that Azerbaijan's breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region might become "Russia's Next Land Grab," as the piece's headline warned, after the Kremlin's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea territory in March.

The September 9 piece was penned by Brenda Shaffer, a political-science professor at Israel's University of Haifa who is currently a visiting researcher at the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies (CEREES) at Georgetown University.

What the author's tagline did not reveal is that Shaffer has worked as an adviser "for strategic affairs" to Rovnag Abdullayev, president of Azerbaijan's state-owned SOCAR energy giant.

Deflecting Attention From Crackdown?

SOCAR and Azerbaijan have been lobbying Washington and the European Union to regard Baku as an energy partner while downplaying or ignoring the country's authoritarian government and dismal human rights record.

When shown a photograph of Shaffer's SOCAR business card, "The New York Times" responded on September 17 by attaching an "editor's note" to Shaffer's op-ed saying the piece "did not disclose that the writer has been an adviser to Azerbaijan's state-run oil company," even though Shaffer "signed a contract obliging her to disclose conflicts of interest, actual or potential."

A business card identifying Brenda Shaffer as an adviser to SOCAR.

A business card identifying Brenda Shaffer as an adviser to SOCAR.

Gerald Knaus, chairman of the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative think tank, says Shaffer's article correctly points out that all of Russia's neighbors are concerned about Moscow's aggressive policies in Ukraine.

He disagrees, however, with what he calls the "subtone" of the piece that "the West should support whatever the Azerbaijani government is doing, which is an argument that one has heard a lot from people associated with Azerbaijan or even lobbyists for Azerbaijan."

Rebecca Vincent, a former U.S. diplomat in Baku and an independent human rights activist, told RFE/RL in an e-mail that "Azerbaijani officials seem to be using [the Ukraine crisis] and other regional events to deflect attention from the ongoing human rights crackdown in the country, which is now worse than perhaps ever before."

"There are now a reported total of 98 political prisoners in the country," Vincent wrote.

Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly brushed off Western criticism of its rights record, portraying it as biased and inaccurate.

Lobbying For Baku

Shaffer did not respond to numerous requests to comment for this report. CEREES Director Angela Stent also did not respond when asked to comment.

SOCAR spokesman Nizameddin Guliyev, however, told RFE/RL that Shaffer had not worked for SOCAR. "I have worked at SOCAR for seven years," Guliyev said. "I haven't heard that she has worked for this company."

Nonetheless, it is evident Shaffer has presented herself as Abdullayev's adviser since at least as early as 2013. She appears in that capacity on the program of a Budapest workshop on energy trade from March 18, 2013.

An energy-industry source who asked not to be identified told RFE/RL that Shaffer introduced herself that way earlier this year as well and showed a SOCAR business card.

In other cases, however, Shaffer does not mention her work for SOCAR. Her biography on Georgetown University's website mentions that she once was an adviser to the government of Israel, but omits her affiliation with SOCAR.

On June 15, she published an op-ed in "The Washington Post" identifying herself only as a Georgetown visiting researcher, the same description she used for her August 3 piece for "The Wall Street Journal."

An occasional Reuters columnist, Shaffer has used other media appearances as well to tout Azerbaijan as a partner to the West and a potential crucial player in European energy security while not disclosing ties to SOCAR.

In an interview with "Platt's Energy Week" in May about whether Azerbaijan can "ease Europe's energy woes," the moderator described her only as a "visiting professor, researcher, expert in this Eurasia area with Georgetown University."

In the interview, Shaffer called Baku's decision to condemn Russia's annexation of Crimea in a UN vote "very important." "It was not easy for Azerbaijan to be one of the only countries bordering Russia that actually voted with the United States on this. A very difficult decision," she said.

Playing The Energy Card

Shaffer has also testified at committees and subcommittees in both houses of the U.S. Congress. On June 11, she testified at a hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, where she was identified only by her Georgetown affiliation.

"In the past two decades, the U.S. has asked for Azerbaijan to join it in security initiatives that were important to Washington," she told the hearing. "Baku has always answered these U.S. requests, despite the fact that they often prompted serious responses and consequences from Russia and Iran."

In addressing Baku's often-criticized human rights record, Shaffer said "the long-standing U.S. policy that rests on the premise that a 'vibrant civil society creates stability' ignores the fact that in many parts of the world, elements of civil society are connected to foreign countries, which have no interest in democracy or stability."

Her comments received positive coverage in Azerbaijan's state media.

In July, Shaffer testified on "European energy security" before the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on European Affairs, again identifying herself only as a Georgetown and University of Haifa academic. She argued, as she often does, for U.S. support for the SOCAR-led Southern Gas Corridor.

In April, Shaffer delivered a presentation on European energy security to Congressional staffers at a Capitol Hill briefing. The other speaker at the April 11 event was Rauf Mammadov, SOCAR's representative in the United States.

Shaffer has publicly portrayed condemnation of Azerbaijan's rights record as misplaced. In an October 2013 article by the Azerbaijani Contact news agency about U.S. criticism of Azerbaijan's October 9 presidential election, Shaffer was quoted as saying that "Azerbaijan is frequently criticized, but other countries have real problems."

She was quoted as saying that the people of Azerbaijan trust Aliyev because he has brought "peace, stability, and economic development."

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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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