Caviar Diplomacy in Action

By Edmond Y. Azadian

In recent months, investigative journalists unveiled the amount of money, caviar, gold bullion and political capital spent by the Azerbaijani government in the West and especially in the US, to influence legislators in order to promote its policies.

No matter how much embarrassment those revelations may cause, Azerbaijan is determined to pursue its course of caviar diplomacy because there is no other way for the Baku government to cover up its abominable record of human rights. Turkey and Azerbaijan are on record for having the largest number of journalists in custody in the world. The current president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, inherited the throne from his father in a fashion very similar to that of the oil-rich Gulf kingdoms, and he governs the country ruthlessly. Azerbaijan’s oil reserves and its petrodollars remain the last shields to cover his autocratic rule.

The US government’s Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act is still on the books to deny any direct military aid to Azerbaijan until it ends its aggression toward Armenia, as well as an illegal blockade. However, both the Bush and Obama administrations have given presidential dispensation to waive the law in order to dissuade Baku from courting Moscow for arms.

The Azerbaijani government has enlisted a few academics and prominent public relations firms to market its untenable political position in the West. It is within this context that an article was planted on the New York Times opinion page (“Russia’s Next Land Grab”) on September 9, 2014 by Prof. Brenda Shaffer. She is presented as a “professor at the University of Haifa and a visiting researcher at Georgetown.” The revelation of her complete profile would have undermined her thesis, which is why her other activities have not been divulged. Indeed, she spends time in Baku as a professor at the Azerbaijani Diplomatic Academy, which might be considered scholarly activity had she not been also engaged in lobbying for Azerbaijan by presenting testimony to the US Congress. One can easily dismantle her arguments and refute her biased fiction, but cannot easily dismiss her shrewdness in formulating her article’s headline, which will certainly “grab” attention, as Russia-bashing and fanning the winds of the Cold War have become permanent fixtures in the press.

To prove her case, Shaffer forcibly places the Nagorno Karabagh issue within the context of the West versus Russia. A simplistic approach reducing a complex political and historical case to an equation is not worthy of a serious scholar. While it may not be strange for Shaffer to try to sell Azeri oil and gas in the West, it is disingenuous for her to use the readers of the New York Times for her professional ends.

Incidentally, the New York Times editors have compromised their impeccable standards of fair reporting and their hallmark journalistic excellence by failing to check the article’s facts, especially its tendentious thrust to serve Azerbaijani interests.

The writer has the good sense not to glorify Azerbaijan as a model democracy nor a “moderate Islamic country,” as many apologists would label it. Instead, she plays on a very sensitive chord by writing, “The South Caucasus may seem remote, but the region borders Russia, Iran and Turkey, and commands a vital pipeline route for oil and natural gas to flow from Central Asia to Europe without passing through Russia.”

Once she introduces the topics of oil and gas to the readers, she knows she can “grab” their attention and peddle her wares unquestioned. Therefore she continues, “Conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is not new. From 1992 to 1994, war raged over which former Soviet Republic would control the autonomous area of Nagorno-Karabagh, a mountainous region with a large Christian population of about 90,000 within the borders of largely Muslim Azerbaijan.”

To begin with, Karabagh’s population in 2013 was 146,573. Second, Karabagh has never been “within the borders of largely-Muslim Azerbaijan.” Just as Nikita Khrushchev whimsically annexed Crimea to his native Ukraine in 1954, Stalin, as the nationalities commissar, ripped the region from Armenia and placed it under the jurisdiction of Azerbaijan in the 1920s. Technically, Karabagh has never been fully integrated within Azerbaijan’s borders; even during Stalin’s tyranny it was an autonomous oblast, with its own legislature.

During the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan removed itself from the union, using the mechanism extent at that time in the Soviet constitution. Nagorno Karabagh used the same mechanism, putting a referendum question to vote, and voted to free itself from the union too. This dissociation of both entities also defines the principle of the territorial integrity of each party.

These facts do not jibe well with Azerbaijani claims and that is why in her unscholarly manner, Professor Shaffer discounts them in her article. Citing other sweeping statements to demonize Russia’s intentions (which we are not here to defend), she writes: “More to the point, Russia has found ways to keep the conflict alive. Three times in the 1990s, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed peace agreements, but Russia found ways to derail Armenia’s participation. (In 1999, for example, a disgruntled journalist suspected of having been aided by Moscow assassinated Armenia’s prime minister, speaker of Parliament and other government officials.)”

It is a fiction or a figment of Professor Shaffer’s imagination to relate that the “disgruntled journalist” who committed the massacre at the parliament was “aided by Moscow.” Had that been true, Moscow would have benefitted from the crime. The fact that there was no change of policy before or after the parliament massacre vis-à-vis Moscow belies the professor’s faulty assumption.

During the 1990s, no agreement was signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan that Russia would have been able “to derail.” Since May 1994, a shaky cease-fire agreement has been overseen by the Minsk Group subcommittee of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a subcommittee co-chaired by the US, France and Russia. Every time an agreement is reached at the negotiation table, it is broken within hours by the Baku government, either by shooting across the border or the use of bellicose language by President Aliyev.

It would be very illuminating and instructive for Ms. Shaffer to cite when, where and in what circumstances those agreements were signed. No self-respecting scholar should allow himself or herself to make such unsubstantiated statements that can be so easily dismissed.

One would be at a loss to try to refute all distortions and misstatements of facts. But one other statement cannot remain unanswered: “An unresolved conflict — a ‘frozen conflict,’ Russia calls it — gives Russian forces an excuse to enter the region and coerce both sides. Once Russian forces are in place, neither side can cooperate closely with the West without fear of retribution from Moscow.”

As an expert on the region, the professor must be aware that as much as Armenia remains Russia’s strategic ally, its government has refused the introduction of Russian peacekeeping forces between Armenian and Azeri positions. Similarly, Washington’s attempts to the same end were rebuffed, with the Armenian government arguing that its forces are capable of maintaining peace on its borders.

Another fact must not have missed Shaffer’s scholarly scrutiny. When war was escalating between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, Moscow’s representative in Karabagh, Arkady Volsky, offered to bring Karabagh under Russian tutelage, but the Armenians refused. The political landscape would have been completely different had Armenians acquiesced to that proposal.

Many apologists for Azerbaijan resort to cheap shots, as Professor Shaffer demonstrates, through scare tactics such as saying “Russian troops run Armenia’s air defenses.”

It is necessary to understand that if Armenia maintains an unsavory alliance with Russia, it is largely because it still has a fear of extermination. Armenia survived the first genocide of the 20th century and the Turks and Azeris have never given up their plans to see through to the end their grisly plans.

Sitting in Haifa, Professor Shaffer must know that she is the same distance from the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem as the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide memorial is from the Turkish border, where 1.5 million Armenians were murdered while their historic homeland was destroyed.