President Barack Obama's pick for the next U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan cleared a key congressional hurdle on September 21 by winning the approval of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Senators on the committee voted 17-to-two to approve Matthew Bryza as the top U.S. diplomat in Baku, a position that has been vacant for more than a year. His nomination must now be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, which usually approves the majority of nominations that have cleared the committee.
But a potential roadblock to Bryza's confirmation arose shortly after the vote when Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat, California) placed a hold on the nomination, preventing the full Senate from voting on it.
RFE/RL later confirmed that Senator Robert Menendez (Democrat, New Jersey), who, along with Boxer, had voted against Bryza during the committee vote, had also placed a hold on the nomination.
Bryza's nomination has been contentious and controversial from the start.
The career diplomat was one of the most visible U.S. officials in the Caucasus region under President George W. Bush, as deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.
He was also the U.S. co-chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Minsk Group, which seeks to broker a settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that broke away from Azerbaijan after a war in the 1990s and is populated mainly by ethnic Armenians.
But Bryza's nomination, which was announced in late May, provoked an immediate and angry response from Armenian diaspora groups and some Armenian officials, who accuse Bryza of a pro-Azerbaijan bias.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had originally scheduled a vote on Bryza for August 3, but it was postponed at the request of Boxer and pushed back until after Congress's summer recess.
Boxer, who represents California, the U.S. state with the largest Armenian-American constituency, was one of a number of senators who had strongly questioned Bryza at a July 22 hearing.
She had asked Bryza why he had not explicitly condemned Azerbaijan for its role in a June firefight near Nagorno-Karabakh that left one Azerbaijani and four Armenian soldiers dead. Armenian and Karabakh officials had described the clash as an act of Azerbaijani aggression, while Azerbaijan said the incident was a consequence of Armenia's failure to withdraw from its territory.
Bryza referred to an OSCE statement condemning the violence and said, "There is no military solution to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh."
"I agree with you," said Boxer in response, "but that's why I was looking for a more forceful answer in terms of the condemnation of Azerbaijan."
The California senator, along with fellow Democratic colleagues, also pressed Bryza on several other matters from his State Department days, including a quote attributed to him that said, "Armenia must agree that Nagorno-Karabakh is legally part of Azerbaijan," and his delay of three months in condemning Azerbaijani desecration of Armenian gravesites.
In his defense, Bryza said his words had been incorrectly translated from Russian, and that he had needed time to clarify the circumstances surrounding the destruction of the graves.
"Being criticized or being thought of as being closer to one side or the other is part of the game, and I have to just remain always objective and deliver the tough messages when necessary," Bryza said.
Concerns And Support
At the September 21 vote, Boxer said she wasn't confident that Bryza would deliver those messages when it comes to confronting the government of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev.
Barbara Boxer, Democratic senator from California
"Mr. Bryza has demonstrated a pattern of unwillingness to speak out forcefully in the face of continued Azerbaijani aggression toward Nagorno-Karabakh," she told the committee. "My 'no' vote today is a reflection of my belief that...we desperately need someone who unequivocally believes that we must stand up to threats of violence, wherever they come from, as we continue down the tough road to peace."
Bryza has received consistent support from Republican backers, however, including the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top minority member, Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana), who has praised the diplomat for "[advancing] United States interests by taking a balanced approach."
Ahead of the September 21 vote, the Armenian National Committee of American (ANCA), an influential Armenian lobbying group, sent letters to senators urging them to stop Bryza's nomination. Their website's headline was split between a message of congratulations on Armenia's Independence Day and a call to voters to press their senators on the Bryza nomination.
Aram Hamparian, ANCA's executive director, told RFE/RL after the vote that he was disappointed at the outcome, blaming it on a "business-as-usual" mentality in Congress.
"A lot of senators have a lot of reservations about the Bryza confirmation, but institutionally, there is a kind of built-in deference on the legislative side to presidential appointments," Hamparian. "And I think that very often legislators give the benefit of the doubt to a nominee even when they have some serious, serious reservations about that nominee."
He said his group would continue to rally senators' support to fight the confirmation.
The U.S. Azeris Network (USAN), an advocacy organization made up of U.S. citizens of Azerbaijani background, has supported Bryza's nomination since it was first announced.
In e-mailed comments to RFE/RL, USAN co-founder Adil Baguirov welcomed the result of the vote and said its members had sent "hundreds of letters" to Congress asking senators to consider the nomination without giving weight to "groundless allegations" against Bryza.