With preparations in full swing for the British royal family's largest public spectacle in nearly a decade, a storm of bad press has shifted attention from the fairy-tale wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton to the prince's uncle, Prince Andrew, Duke of York.
The 50-year-old Prince Andrew's judgment and his role as Britain's trade envoy are being questioned as details emerge of his friendship with a billionaire child-sex offender and links to some of the world's most dictatorial and corrupt regimes, particularly among former Soviet-bloc countries.
"The Daily Mail" reported this week that Andrew, third in line to the throne, had developed a "close friendship" with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev during at least seven visits over the course of five years.
Reports said at least two of the visits have been private, leading to speculation that he has personal business interests in Azerbaijan.
In an e-mail to RFE/RL, Buckingham Palace rejected such speculation, insisting that the Duke of York -- as Britain's special representative for international trade and investment -- is asked by the British government "to develop relationships in economies identified as those with which the U.K. should do business, and that includes Azerbaijan."
It said the prince's activities in Azerbaijan "are focused on identifying business opportunities for UK companies."
Andrew's most recent visit to the oil-rich country was in November 2010, as the ruling party consolidated its near-total dominance of domestic political life in parliamentary elections.
The British press also has revealed that the Duke of York hosted Sakher el-Materi, son-in-law of Tunisia's deposed leader, at Buckingham Palace three months before the Tunisian regime collapsed.
There were allegations that he had close ties to one of the Libyan leader's sons, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi.
As controversy raged around him, it has emerged that Prince Andrew on March 7 lobbied Mark Field, Conservative MP and chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Azerbaijan, to help boost British business with Azerbaijan.
Field told "The Guardian" that the prince "feels it is a Cinderella country that has tremendous opportunities."
Meanwhile, another Conservative MP -- Andrew Rosindell, a member of the Commons foreign affairs committee -- was quoted elsewhere as calling Prince Andrew's strong relations with the Azerbaijani leaders "a jolly good thing," adding that there were "many countries like [Azerbaijan] that we trade with."
Tom Porteous, who directs Human Rights Watch's London office, told RFE/RL that in a sense, the focus on Prince Andrew himself is "a bit unfair."
"The real responsibility surely lies with the United Kingdom, government because Prince Andrew is really just doing his job and he has clearly been given a brief to go around the world, drumming up business for Britain," Porteous said. "If he has been engaging in some cultivation of leaders in countries which are well-known for corruption and human rights abuses, then presumably this is something of which the British government is aware and they should have done something about this some time ago."
A Question Of Topics
"The Guardian" reported that Prince Andrew met Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov during a visit in April 2010 to gas-rich Turkmenistan, considered one of the most closed and most corrupt countries in the world.
The prince's office said the visit was made at the request of Britain's government to discuss energy issues.
Tom Mayne, of the anticorruption campaign Global Witness in London, told RFE/RL that such meetings could be positive if Prince Andrew raised important issues such as corruption.
"Unfortunately, what we've been hearing -- for example in the leaked cables -- is that Prince Andrew doesn't take the topic of corruption seriously," Mayne said. "Turkmenistan is perceived as one of the most corrupt countries in the world: the country doesn't publish a proper budget; there is very little information about what happens there to the money that the country earns from its sale of oil and gas. It is his obligation, if he's promoting business, to raise these issues."
According to one purported U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Prince Andrew criticized Britain's corruption investigators for what he called "idiocy" during a 2008 brunch with British and Canadian business leaders in Bishkek.
Washington's ambassador to Kyrgyzstan at the time, Tatiana Gfoeller, allegedly recorded in the secret cable that Andrew went on to denounce reporters "who poke their noses everywhere" and "(presumably) make it harder for British businessmen to do business."
As the businessmen chorused that nothing gets done in Kyrgyzstan if former President Bakiev's son Maksim does not get "his cut," Prince Andrew joked: "All of this sounds exactly like France."
In a detail that hints that Andrew's relations with the elites could be used for diplomatic purposes, the prince is quoted as revealing the contents of a letter to the Azerbaijani president from his Russian counterpart.
In it, President Dmitry Medvedev is said to have told Aliyev that if Baku supported recognizing the 1933 man-made famine (Holodomor) in Soviet Ukraine as genocide at the United Nations, "then you can forget about seeing [the breakaway territory of] Nagorno-Karabakh ever again."
Prince Andrew added that other regional presidents had told him of receiving similar "directive" letters from Medvedev.
The prince's connections to Kazakhstan, another former Soviet republic rich in hydrocarbons and minerals, had been in the spotlight following the 2007 sale of the duke's former marital home to Timur Kulibaev, the Kazakh president's son-in-law.
There have been concerns that Prince Andrew has compromised his position in part because of the understanding that he received £3 million more than the guide price for the property.
Mayne said that private business deal had put the prince in a "very tricky position."
"Kazakhstan has suffered a lot from corruption," Mayne said. "The president himself has been involved in a corruption scandal in the 1990s; and Timur Kulibaev, it is reported, is under investigation in Switzerland in a money-laundering case; and there are major questions over Mr. Kulibaev and the amount of control he exerts over the business sector in Kazakhstan."
Revelations about Prince Andrew's role as Britain's trade envoy have been emerging along with continued media scrutiny over his friendship with New York financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was jailed in 2008 for soliciting underage prostitutes in Florida.
Most recently, a photograph emerged showing Andrew with his arm around the waist of the teenage prostitute at the center of the case.
Prince Andrew's former wife, Sarah Ferguson, admitted that she had accepted 15,000 pounds from Epstein to help pay off her debts.
The affair led to calls for Prince Andrew to lose his position as British's trade ambassador, with Labour Party lawmaker Chris Bryant denouncing "his boorish gaffes and dodgy friendships."
The duke's office says he remains "fully committed" to the role of trade envoy and is "pleased to have the support of government in doing so."
A spokesman for David Cameron said the prime minister had full confidence in the prince, adding he was doing an "important job" and is making a "major contribution" as trade envoy.