06/25/2012 10:03 am ET Updated Aug 25, 2012

Grinding Axes: The Matthew Bryza Controversy

"I don't consider the rights of exiles to be a priority for Azerbaijani democratic movement at the moment. But we do have the right to continue our common struggle in unity with friends and colleagues in the country, and attempts to drive wedges between fellow Azerbaijanis will not succeed."

Earlier this month I gave a brief comment to Huffington Post regarding recent appointment of the former US Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Matthew Bryza, to the Board of Directors of Turcas, a large Turkish energy corporation. I wasn't, in fact, speaking on behalf of Azerbaijani opposition parties or the democratic movement as a whole, but was expressing my position on the issue. I tried to place it in the context of the wider history US-Azerbaijani relations, dominated as they are by the energy lobby. The issue of Turcas ownership is of irrelevance here -- SOCAR/Turcas oil and gas partnership is a well-known fact, publicized here on Turcas' website. Given astronomic levels of corruption in Azerbaijan and SOCAR's centrality to the national economy, it should be obvious what kind of impression such a career choice by a former US ambassador would make. My intention was to highlight the symbolic nature of this event (somewhat preceded as it is by Stanley Esqudero's experience in Azerbaijan), so as to criticize in general the state of US-Azerbaijani relations today. I used the term "oil-drenched"; Tom de Waal described them as "transactional."

I was, therefore, very surprised to read Mr. Bryza's abrasive and personal response to my comments in an interview with Huffington Post on 19 June: "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]."

The connection is actually pretty clear and direct, but if it does not exist, then why is Mr. Bryza's close working relations with the ruling regime in Azerbaijan are advertised so prominently in his credentials as Turcas Director, especially given his total lack of business experience?

But what really puzzled many in Azerbaijan was the refrain against Azerbaijani political exiles, so reminiscent of the Aliev regime propaganda, coming from a former US ambassador. "The real activists are in Baku, risking their good fortune," he said. It is ironic, therefore, that just as thousands of Azeri political exiles in the West I am here because of political activity in the first place. My story is so typical (deported/family persecuted/prevented from returning) it needs no elaboration. But there are many others who suffered a far worst fate.

Agil Khalil, an investigative journalist with the opposition Azadliq newspaper, wrote a story in 2007 alleging that Mr. Bryza's wedding was partly funded by a senior government minister. The latter then sued the journalist, the editor and the paper. In the year that followed Mr. Khalil suffered four assassination attempts before finally fleeing to France. But it is to US that most political refugees from Azerbaijan flee, including former Speaker of Parliament Rasul Guliyev -- in exile since 1990s. The widow of murdered opposition journalist Elmar Huseynov (assassinated in March 2005 in Baku) took refuge in Norway. It is not known how many of us have left the country for political reasons, but the systematic persecution of opponents continues unabated, with even protesting musicians being targeted.

I don't consider the rights of exiles to be a priority for Azerbaijani democratic movement at the moment. But we do have the right to continue our common struggle in unity with friends and colleagues in the country, and attempts to drive wedges between fellow Azerbaijanis will not succeed. But I agree with Mr. Bryza that real heroes are in Azerbaijan, risking their good fortune. Like Mehman Huseynov, photo-journalist and activist, arrested on trumped up hooliganism charges earlier this month. Or Hilal Mamedov, human rights campaigner, arrested just days ago. Surely, those who care for their good fortune should avoid doing business with people and governments responsible for such abuses.

This has been going on for years, with countless victims of repression and ever-growing authoritarianism. Whatever US government engagement in Azerbaijan on human rights and democracy has been so far it has had zero structural impact. Behind-the-scenes advocacy simply does not work -- it is merely appeasement of authoritarianism.

Two things can be concluded from all of this:

1) It is unacceptable for senior US (and indeed European) government officials to go into any sort of private business dealings with the Aliev regime, directly or indirectly. It seriously damages US image and standing.

But more importantly:

2) US policy in Azerbaijan is based on false premise and its short-termism threatens long-term US/Azerbaijani interests and relations. It undermines the shared values of democracy. It is imbalanced to the point where human rights is merely a legitimisation discourse for the oil and security interests, and becomes devalued as the result. It damages confidence in the US amongst Azerbaijani pro-democracy activists. It must change.

It was refreshing to hear the newly appointed US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Morningstar (former US Secretary of State's Special Envoy on Eurasian Energy) speaking about need to engage on a wider agenda and move "beyond pipelines." But even a cursory look at discussions at Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his nomination this month indicates where the real priorities are likely to remain. Until that changes controversies such as the ongoing saga around Matthew Bryza may well happen again, and will again be exploited by those not predisposed to healthy US-Azeri relations.