Matthew Bryza, the former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, is responding to a recent flurry of controversy over reports that he had joined the board of an oil company that was partly controlled by the government of Azerbaijan, calling the stories "just wrong."
The Huffington Post was among news outlets that originally reported, citing regional papers, that the company, Turcas Petrol, was in some way owned or managed by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR). In fact, while SOCAR and Turcas have a long history of joint businesses, and are joint investors in a major petrochemical project, Turcas is not in any way formally controlled by the state of Azerbaijan. (The Huffington Post has corrected its original report.)
"If people knew the facts they wouldn't be upset at all," Bryza told HuffPost in a recent phone interview. "But because [a local Azeri news agency] reported what it did, that Turkas was state-controlled, I can see why people would be upset. Their facts are just wrong."
For some opposition activists, the business dealings that Turcas does still have with the state of Azerbaijan are themselves enough to sustain concerns about a former American attaché entangling himself financially with the notoriously autocratic regime. Azerbaijan has consistently ranked poorly on international lists of human rights abusers, a fact that some opposition figures feel has been overlooked by U.S. policymakers because of the nation's regional strategic value.
"All my comments stand," says Murad Gassanly, the London-based director of the opposition group Azerbaijan Democratic Association who was quoted in the original HuffPost article.
Bryza dismissed complaints like Gassanly's as out of touch with the mainstream of Azeri political activists, and not reflective of his own track record as ambassador.
"I can see why people with political axes to grind in the Azeri opposition, especially those not fighting every day inside the country, of course they want to draw an extended connection [between Turcas and the state]," he said.
"The real activists are in Baku, risking their good fortune. If you talk to democracy and human rights activists in Baku you will hear a really warm reception to me."
Bryza also called it "the reality" of business in Azerbaijan that private, international energy companies would have some financial relationship with state industry, which manages Azerbaijan's oil reserves. "If you don't deal with the state-run companies," he said, it can be impossible to get anything done.
Bryza was appointed ambassador to Azerbaijan in late 2010, after spending several years working on Caspian energy issues at the State Department.
His year-long tenure as the top American diplomat in Azerbaijan, a country that holds a number of complex strategic positions for the U.S., including its glut of oil and proximity to Iran and Israel, was marked by almost constant controversy.
But Bryza remains deeply proud of his tenure, and says he faced as much, if not more, pressure from Azeri government agencies that considered him too aggressive in challenging the regime on human rights and free expression.
"I spent more time on activism and human rights issues in Baku than almost any other issue," Bryza said. "Overwhelmingly, my work was on internal reform, democracy, trying to get journalists out of jail and expand the realm of freedom of expression so there could be protests on the street."
Bryza also cited his public criticism of an overzealous military posture against Armenia and his objections to a "clumsy and brutish" government plan to coopt private property in Baku to build public works projects.
"I've never been afraid to criticize the government," he said. "After the property episode, I had a number of members of Parliament calling for me to be declared persona non grata."
But Bryza added that in general he preferred to manage human rights and democracy issues quietly and internally, rather than with big dramatic gestures, and with an emphasis on creating an environment -- often involving commercial growth -- that could allow reforms to last.
"The framework for U.S. policy in Azerbaijan had three components: security interests, energy and the regional economy, and internal reform, including democracy and human rights," he said.
"My approach has been for years, since helping to develop this policy back in the 2000s, that you have to be making real progress on all three of those. If you're not, whatever progress you make on one or the other cannot be sustained. Stability comes through legitimacy, and legitimacy comes through democracy."
CORRECTION: This story previously incorrectly stated the length of Matthew Bryza's tenure as ambassador to Azerbaijan. He served in the position for one year.