THE BLOG

No Change in Policy as Obama Picks Bush Era Diplomat as Envoy to Azerbaijan

Barack Obama ran for the Presidency on a platform of "change" and promised to bring a fresh approach to domestic and foreign policy issues. After the election, however, he disappointed his supporters by continuing many of his predecessor's policies.

One example of Pres. Obama's failure to break with the past is his nomination of Matt Bryza as the next ambassador to Azerbaijan. Bryza is a relic from the Bush Administration with a checkered and controversial past. He is a liability rather than an asset to the Obama administration and the United States.

For several months, Bryza had been going around Washington, dropping not so subtle hints that he will become the next ambassador to Azerbaijan. The fact that it took almost a year before he was actually nominated to that post, indicates that there were serious complications, including concerns by Russia about Bryza's role in the Georgian-Russian war, Azerbaijan's objection to his backing of Armenia-Turkey protocols, conflict of interest allegations about his wife's work, and questions about his wedding expenses.

Given all of these controversies, Bryza would have never been nominated as ambassador to Azerbaijan, were it not for some powerful friends at high places. According to press reports, Dan Fried, former Assistant Secretary of State, had personally recommended Bryza to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the post of ambassador.

Bryza's marriage to Zeyno Baran, a native of Turkey, generated the most controversy. The issue was not her ethnic origin, but what she did for a living, as Director of the Center for Eurasian Policy at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank that reportedly receives funding from ExxonMobile and other energy companies. According to Washington Times, "Turkish and Azerbaijani business interests funded a major conference at the Hudson Institute, which was organized in part by Mrs. Bryza." The newspaper quoted ANCA as stating that "the policy positions that Mrs. Bryza has advocated have often been aligned with ... the interests pursued by the Azerbaijani government and energy corporations with interests in the Caspian [Sea] region," and that "Mr. Bryza might be in violation of federal ethics rules because of his wife's connections to Turkish and Azerbaijani business interests."

Bryza was extensively questioned about his possible conflicts of interest during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's July 22 hearing on his nomination as ambassador to Azerbaijan. In response, Bryza told the Senators that the U.S. government had thoroughly checked his family's finances and "uncovered no conflicts of interest." He further told the Senators that his wife "Zeyno has undertaken a pledge to refrain from bringing any issue related to the Hudson Institute before...the State Department or before the U.S. Embassy in Baku." Needless to say, his wife's reported "pledge" is not a legally binding commitment.

Another controversial issue addressed by Bryza at the hearing was the serious allegation that Heydar Babayev, former Azeri Minister of Economic Development, helped pay for the Bryzas' lavish 2007 wedding in Istanbul. Infuriated by the accusation, Babayev sued the Azeri newspaper that had published the story. The journalist who had written the report was arrested and beaten, before fleeing the country. He has since filed a lawsuit against Azerbaijan in the European Court of Human Rights.

Bryza assured the Senators that it is "absolutely untrue" that Minister Babayev had financed his wedding. Nevertheless, should the European Court find that Minister Babayev had in fact helped pay for the wedding, Bryza could face several serious charges, including violation of U.S. government's gift acceptance and disclosure policy, non-reporting of such contribution to IRS as income, and perjuring himself during Senate testimony.

Bryza proudly announced to the Senators that he and his wife had invited to their wedding people they had known during the course of their work over the last decade -- including government officials, diplomats, opposition leaders, NGO's, and religious leaders in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Cyprus and Greece. Bryza stated that among the invitees to the wedding was "the Armenian Patriarch Mesrob, now deceased!"

As is widely known, the Armenian Patriarch of Turkey is very much alive, even though he suffers from dementia. It is simply astounding that Bryza does not know that Patriarch Mesrob is still alive -- someone he felt close enough to invite to his wedding! One hopes that this error is not indicative of how misinformed Bryza is about key people and events in that critical part of the world, where he seeks to represent the United States.

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