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U.S. Jewish Groups Back Azerbaijan Despite Rights Concerns

A man swathed in a tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl, reads a religious book at a synagogue in Baku. (file photo)
A man swathed in a tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl, reads a religious book at a synagogue in Baku. (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- Azerbaijan has long lauded its relations with pro-Israeli groups that advocate on its behalf in Washington, a bond rooted in Tel Aviv’s rapport with the former Soviet republic that touts itself as a haven for the Jewish people in the Muslim world.

And amid mounting international criticism of Azerbaijan’s human rights record, U.S.-based Jewish organizations are standing firm in their support of Baku, which they see as a linchpin of stability in a region replete with governments hostile to Israel.

"Our message is clear and consistent: Azerbaijan is an important strategic partner for the United States and the West, as well as a valued friend of Israel and the Jewish people," American Jewish Committee (AJC) executive director David Harris said in a statement last week following a meeting in Baku with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

"In an increasingly turbulent world, Azerbaijan's contributions to regional stability, energy security, counterterrorism operations, and religious tolerance are all things to be valued," Harris added.

The 75-minute private meeting on February 2 followed a flurry of recent public relations activities in Washington to highlight Baku’s public embrace of its Jewish population and strategic ties with Israel.

These efforts are part a broader lobbying campaign by oil-rich Azerbaijan to bolster its credibility as an important strategic partner with the United States on issues such as energy, counterterrorism, and Russia’s annexation of Ukraine's Crimea territory in March 2014.

At the same time, Western officials say the human rights situation has deteriorated precipitously in Azerbaijan, where numerous rights activists, journalists, and government critics have been arrested in the past year.

Speaking at a January 30 panel discussion in Washington, Samad Seyidov, chairman of the international and interparliamentary relations committee in the Azerbaijani parliament, swiftly pivoted to his country’s friendly record toward Judaism and other religions in response to a question about alleged human rights abuses committed by the government.

"I wanted to remind you that in Azerbaijan today, Jewish people and Azerbaijani people, Muslim people and Christians, they are living in peace," Seyidov said, adding that Azerbaijan has a Jewish member of parliament.

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov lays a wreath during a ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem in 2013.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov lays a wreath during a ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem in 2013.

Kenneth Bandler, a spokesman for the AJC, said in e-mailed comments that the issue of human rights "did come up" at the organization's recent meetings in Baku, but he declined to provide further details, citing the "private" nature of the conversations.

'Example To The Entire World'

Azerbaijan's Jewish population totals more than 9,000, according to the country's most recent census in 2009, though other estimates have put that figure as high as 30,000. The nation of around 9 million people is also home to several synagogues.

Azerbaijan has made no secret that it values U.S.-based Jewish organizations as a key lobbying lever in Washington ever since Baku and Tel Aviv began cultivating ties the 1990s -- a rapprochement widely seen as aimed at countering Iran's influence in the region.

In 2000, then-Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev praised leading American Jewish groups "for acting in our favor" by trying to persuade U.S. lawmakers to repeal a 1992 ban on direct aid to Baku due to its conflict with Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

A 2006 article in Middle East Quarterly quoted an Azerbaijani Embassy official in Washington as saying that "Jewish organizations made a certain contribution" to a U.S. waiver on the embargo enacted after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as Washington sought Baku's help for counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

Azerbaijan’s outreach to Jewish groups in the United States continues as part of a lobbying campaign that it has ramped up in Washington in recent years.

U.S. Foreign Agent Registration Act filings show that the Podesta Group, a lobbying firm that Azerbaijan pays $60,000 per month, contacted pro-Israel advocacy groups such as the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in the second half of 2014.

The Podesta Group declined to comment when contacted by RFE/RL.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan's partnership with Israel -- which includes energy and arms trade greatly valued by both sides -- was highlighted in several op-eds in Washington newspapers in recent months.

In November, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call published an opinion piece co-authored by Mark Levin, executive director of the Washington-based National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, titled Muslim Azerbaijan: Bucking The Anti-Semitic Trend In Europe.

"With a new Congress taking shape, now is the time for Congress' many friends of Israel to learn more about Azerbaijan.... Once they do, they will see that Azerbaijan is an example for other countries to follow with respect to supporting Israel," wrote Levin.

The Washington Times ran a sponsored article on January 28 titled Azerbaijan's Rich History With Jewish Settlers Opened Door To Israel Alliance."

The same day, it published an op-ed by former U.S. Congressman Dan Burton, who serves as chairman of the Azerbaijan America Alliance. In the piece, Burton calls Azerbaijan a "strong defense and economic partner to Israel" and quotes Israel's ambassador in Baku as saying that "tolerance in Azerbaijan is an example to the entire world."

Media reporter Erik Wemple of The Washington Post noted that Burton's position with the Azerbaijan America Alliance was omitted from the original piece. The Washington Times later updated the op-ed to include the affiliation.

Democratic Growing Pains

While senior U.S. officials and lawmakers have criticized Azerbaijan for what they call a crackdown on critics, including the jailing of independent investigative journalist and RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova, leading American Jewish groups have portrayed Baku's rights record as a symptom of democratic growing pains.

"Full democracy and transparency can take decades to develop," Harris of the AJC was quoted by as saying in December. "And if these were the sole litmus tests for foreign relations, then both the U.S. and Israel would have far fewer partners."

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told in December that continued rapprochement between Baku and Jewish communities could be an effective approach to improving human rights in Azerbaijan.

"Countries that have demonstrated friendship to their Jewish communities -- even though their records on human rights issues and other things are not perfect, and we know that -- we have to try to encourage them to change, but at the same time to recognize the progress that has been made and the importance of the relationship with them," Hoenlein told the news agency.

Richard Kauzlarich, a former U.S. ambassador to Baku, said Azerbaijan's tolerance toward Jewish communities is indeed a positive and a "good example" to the rest of the Muslim world.

At the same time, Azerbaijan’s official message "has gotten more developed in terms of trying to deflect some of the questions that are obviously difficult to answer," such as human rights, added Kauzlarich.

"Pointing to this, religious tolerance for them is another plus in the dialogue on things like human rights, which aren't as pleasant," he said.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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