BY RICHARD SOLASH
With Congress on its summer recess, Washington’s political corridors are empty. But the debate surrounding U.S. President Barack Obama’s pick for ambassador to Azerbaijan is in full swing.
This month, it landed on the editorial pages of two Washington newspapers, adding fuel to the controversy that began in May, when Matthew Bryza’s nomination was first announced.
Bryza was one of the most visible U.S. officials in the Caucasus region during the administration of former President George W. Bush, serving as deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. He was also the U.S. co-chair of the Minsk Group, which seeks to broker a settlement to the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Bryza’s nomination has been harshly criticized by Armenian groups for what they see as his pro-Azerbaijan bias and alleged personal ties to the regime of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
At a July 22 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bryza said the criticism was to be expected given the high tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. “Being criticized or being thought of as being closer to one side or the other is part of the game,” he said.
But at the request of Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat, California), who represents the largest Armenian-American constituency in the country, the committee’s vote on Bryza’s nomination was put on hold.
Boxer and her legislative colleagues are far away from Washington at the moment, so they’re unlikely to have picked up a copy of the August 23 “Washington Examiner,” a conservative-leaning D.C. daily.
In a guest opinion-page column that day, former Republican Senator Conrad Burns came to Bryza’s defense.
Burns wrote: “It appears this opposition [to Bryza’s nomination] is based upon senators responding to special interest groups whose sole purpose is to oppose all things related to Azerbaijan.” The apparent reference was to efforts by the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), an influential Armenian lobbying group, to stop Bryza’s confirmation.
Burns continued, “Let’s…step forward with strong leaders like Mr. Bryza to work toward a common good for the United States, Azerbaijan, and throughout the Caspian region.”
After the column was published, the ANCA contacted the newspaper to point out a detail in Burns’ background that wasn’t mentioned in the piece: the senator himself can be linked, albeit in a roundabout way, to the family of President Aliyev.
The former senator is a senior adviser to the Gage Company, a Washington-based lobbying firm. The CEO of Gage is Leo Giacometto, a former political aide to Burns. In addition to being CEO of Gage, Giacometto sits on the board of a company called Silk Way Holding.
As revealed in an investigative report by RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service earlier this month, Silk Way Holding — which owns more than a dozen aviation industry companies in Azerbaijan — is partially owned by Arzu Aliyeva, the 21-year-old daughter of President Aliyev.
“It came, sadly, as no surprise at all that the people defending Bryza are exactly the people who are close to the Aliyev regime,” said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee, who added that he used the information uncovered by RFE/RL to connect the dots.
But it was apparently a surprise to the editorial-page editor of “The Washington Examiner,” who published Burns’ piece.
Two days after the piece appeared, Mark Tapscott wrote a special column that said, “Burns’ relationship to a special interest that may benefit by the Bryza appointment should have been revealed by Burns’ spokesman when the [editorial] was first proposed. When ‘The Examiner’ pointed this out to the spokesman after becoming aware of it, Gage Vice President Ryan Thomas offered no explanation or apology.”
The column, however, did include a statement that Burns had sent to the paper.
The former senator — who lost his Senate seat in 2006 in part because of his close ties to lobbyists — called the ANCA criticism “nothing more than an attack on the messenger.”
He denied representing Silk Way Holding and noted that he serves as an adviser to an unnamed company that he said had “business interests in Armenia.” The senator did not respond to requests for an interview with RFE/RL in time for broadcast.
Adil Baguirov, the co-founder of the U.S. Azeris Network, an advocacy organization made up of U.S. citizens of Azerbaijani background, told RFE/RL he didn’t understand why Burns’ piece had caused any controversy.
In an e-mailed comment, he wrote: “I am not sure what, exactly Senator Burns [is] ‘guilty’ of. For speaking his opinion and publicly supporting the decision and position of the Obama administration, or working with registered and law-abiding lobbyists, or for something else?”
Bryza’s nomination also hit the pages of “The Washington Times” this month. An August 11 commentary raising questions about the nomination was co-authored by Jean-Francois Julliard and Clothilde Le Coz, the general secretary and Washington director, respectively, of Reporters Without Borders, an international press-freedom watchdog.
The co-authors refer to a 2007 article that appeared in Azerbaijan’s opposition “Azadliq” newspaper that reported that former Economic Development Minister Heydar Babayev had paid for a significant portion of Bryza’s Istanbul wedding in August of that year.
Babayev denied the claim. Reporters Without Borders says the article’s author, Agil Khalil, was sued and targeted in four murder attempts before fleeing to France.
The commentary says: “There is no doubt that Mr. Bryza’s experience in the region could be valuable for improving relations between the United States and Azerbaijan, but we think that because he has been involved in a complaint and suit against a newspaper, his credibility within Azerbaijani civil society and his stated commitment to press freedom can easily be questioned.”
Asked to interpret the spate of local media coverage of Bryza, at a time when lawmakers who will vote on his nomination are away on holiday, the ANCA’s Hamparian said it “shows that there’s an awful lot here that needs to be examined, both by senators and by citizens.”
A confirmation vote on Bryza’s nomination is expected in September, when Congress reconvenes.