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Armenia and Azerbaijan’s lobbying activities

A response to Anna Barseghyan’s article on ‘The difference between Armenian and Azerbaijani lobbying activities in Europe’.

December 21, 2020 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and Commentary

Armenian diaspora protesting in Los Angeles, USA. October 2020. Photo: Tverdokhlib / Shutterstock

Anna Barseghyan’s article provided a biased view of Azerbaijani-Armenian relations that is very common in European and North American media. This is despite attempts to portray these opinions as balanced. There are four main reasons for this.

The first is the large, wealthy and therefore influential Armenian populations and lobbies that exist in countries such as America and France. As Barseghyan writes, “EU official announcements are quite pro-Armenian”. France has the third largest Armenian community in the world, which numbers around 600,000 people. In late November, the French Senate voted to recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Armenia. Of course, this action was condemned by Azerbaijan. Although the vote was only symbolic, it showed the degree to which French foreign policy is confused regarding frozen conflicts. After all, how can Paris take this step and at the same time oppose Russia’s de facto occupation of Georgian and Ukrainian territories and annexation of Crimea.

Armenians have long lobbied Washington to impose sanctions against Azerbaijan even though it was Baku’s territory that had been occupied by Armenia. Azerbaijan was the only post-Soviet state denied assistance under Section 907 of the 1992 US Freedom Support Act. Baku always believed US policy was patently unfair because it sent the signal Armenia was being rewarded for occupying a fifth of Azerbaijani territory. In October 2001, the US Senate amended the Freedom Support act to permit presidents to waive Section 907, allowing Presidents George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama to provide assistance to Azerbaijan.

The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) reported that Senator Bob Menendez, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had called for sanctions against Azerbaijan and Turkey for “aggression against Armenia and Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh)”. Menendez does not seem to understand that countries cannot undertake “aggression” against their internationally recognised sovereign territory.

The second is Western bias in support of Christian countries, which is clearly seen in French President Emmanuel Macron’s support for Greece over Turkey and Armenia over Azerbaijan. Long-standing negative European stereotypes of Turkey have blocked its membership of the EU for decades. This has had a knock-on effect on European attitudes towards Azerbaijan.

The third is the influence of pro-Russia sentiment in some Western countries. This can be seen in France, where Gaullists, the extreme right and the extreme left hold pro-Kremlin views regarding countries such as Azerbaijan and Ukraine. French politicians, such as Valéry Giscard d’Estain, believe that Crimea was “always Russian”. As the recent vote in the French Senate has shown, many think that Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenian.

Before discussing the mechanics of Azerbaijani lobbying, let us analyse the themes that both sides are attempting to promote. On the Armenian side, recognition of the genocide of Armenians during the First World War is backed by 32 countries, although not by Turkey. Armenian lobbying has been unsuccessful in the former USSR where only two (Russia, Lithuania) of the fifteen post-Soviet republics, in addition to Armenia, recognise the massacres as a genocide as defined by the UN in 1948; Ukraine officially uses the term ‘tragic events of April.’ The reasons are likely to be a mixture of pro-Western Georgia and Ukraine not wishing to align with pro-Russian Armenia and pro-Russian Belarus and Kazakhstan fearful of using the term ‘genocide’ because it would open up a pandorah’s box on Soviet crimes.

At the same time, lobbying for EU sanctions against Turkey is unlikely to be successful. It is unclear to many (including me) why these restrictions should be imposed in the first place for its support for Azerbaijan re-taking back its sovereign territory. Any Western sanctions put in place against Turkey and Azerbaijan for implementing international law under article 2(4) of the UN Charter would simply be an example of double standards.

The third, as Barseghyan writes, is the support shown for the population of Nagorno-Karabakh to “determine their own future”. If this happened, it has to be asked why the EU should just stop at Nagorno-Karabakh? Why not apply this proposal to other post-Soviet frozen conflicts, Russian regions such as Chechnya and the Kuril Islands, and other ethnic conflicts in Belgium, Romania, Slovakia and Spain? It is unclear why the EU, OSCE, UN and Western governments should ignore the concept of territorial integrity in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The fourth, EU assistance to Armenia is a sign that Yerevan wants to have the best of both worlds in a geopolitical sense. Although you would not notice it in Western reporting, Armenia has been a long-term Russian ally since the disintegration of the USSR in the early 1990s. In 2013, Yerevan made its choice when it withdrew from the EU’s Eastern Partnership and joined Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union. Armenia continued to turn its back on Europe after the 2018 ‘colour revolution’ brought Nikol Pashinyan to power.

In a major contrast to Armenia, in the same year Yerevan turned its back on Europe, Ukrainians rose up against President Viktor Yanukovych who also attempted to end Ukraine’s European integration. Putin succeeded in Armenia but failed in Ukraine. Armenians did not protest their country’s shift from European to Eurasian integration while Ukrainians protested in their millions and 100 were murdered during the Euromaidan Revolution to maintain their country’s European choice. 

Azerbaijani lobbying, as outlined by Barseghyan, is actually far less controversial compared to Armenia’s activities. Four of the five points she outlines in her article are indisputable. These include Azerbaijan’s importance in relation to European energy security, the Western principle of upholding the territorial integrity of states, Azerbaijan’s status as a secular Islamic state, and its position as a model of tolerance regarding national and religious minorities. Azerbaijan and Israel have a well developed security relationship and Azerbaijan is a staging area for Israeli intelligence operations in Iran. The fifth – the nature of Azerbaijan’s political system – depends on whether you are an optimist (young evolving democracy) or pessimist (authoritarian state).

The assumption found in most Western writing that Azerbaijan is the ‘intolerant’ side in the conflict is simply wrong. America and Europe also have issues with nationalist populists, who have promoted intolerance towards national and religious minorities. As reported by Simon Ostrovsky for PBS News Hour, Armenia’s three decades-long control of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts was also accompanied by the destruction of Azerbaijani religious and cultural artefacts.

Barseghyan blamed Azerbaijani “rhetoric, discourse and physical action” for starting the recent war. In fact, this was brought about by Pashinyan’s nationalism, specifically his threat to annex Nagorno-Karabakh. The leader also disavowed the 2009 ‘Madrid Principles’, which were agreed by both sides under the auspices of the OSCE in order to peacefully resolve the conflict. The first salvo’s in this year’s war were undertaken by Armenia in July, according to former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Armenian leaders also believed that Azerbaijan would not use military force because this would trigger a Russian military intervention in support of a member of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation). However, Russian security guarantees only apply to internationally recognised Armenian territory and not to the Azerbaijani lands that the state occupied.

Now to the mechanics of Azerbaijani lobbying.

Barseghyan writes that Azerbaijan uses “oil money to buy influence” in Europe. This is not a surprise, as all countries with energy resources do the same. Saudi Arabia and Russia are two major examples of this practice.

In addition, Azerbaijan is not alone in lobbying using official and unofficial means, as this has been done in Washington and the capitals of Europe for a long time. You only have to take a look at the websites of Washington’s Foreign Agency Registration Act (FARA) and Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) to see how billions of dollars pour into American politics each year from foreign governments.

As I have written about in an extensive study of this practice, Ukrainian oligarchs and governments have been buying influence in Washington for the last three decades. As the case of Paul Manafort shows, some of the funds received by US consultants are not declared and end up in offshore Caribbean tax havens. Manafort was unlucky and was sentenced to jail because he went public after working for a decade in Ukraine for the pro-Russian Party of Regions in order to head Donald Trump’s election campaign. Others have been luckier and gotten away with hiding their cash payments.

Barseghyan writes about relatively innocent activities undertaken by Azerbaijani lobbyists, such as paying for the restoration of buildings, international conferences and the creation of new think tanks. This kind of work is done by many foreign governments in Europe and America. In Washington, one of the ways of bypassing registration with FARA or LDA is to donate directly to think tanks. The Kazakh government, for example, donated to the well-known Center for Strategic and International Studies. Ukrainian oligarchs have donated to at least three influential Washington think tanks – Brookings Institution, Peterson Institute for International Economics and Atlantic Council.

In comparison, Azerbaijan’s lobbying activities are therefore no worse than those of many other governments in Europe and America. Importantly, they seek to counter unbalanced reporting and various pro-Armenian governments in the West.

Azerbaijan waited three decades for the West and Russia to peacefully resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the Minsk Group. However, the West and Russia have always approached the conflicts in Eurasia with a strategy of ‘freeze and forget’ which was evident with France and the US not paying attention to the south Caucasus for many years allowing Russia to fill the vacuum. Another reason was the three co-chairs of the Minsk Group – Russia, France and the US – were pro-Armenian. Worst still, France’s foreign policy confusingly supported separatism in the south Caucasus and territorial integrity in Ukraine. Meanwhile, all three countries rebuffed attempts by Turkey, which borders both Armenia and Azerbaijan, to join as a co-chair of the Minsk Group.

Unlike Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan, his Azerbaijani counterpart upheld the ‘Madrid Principles’, which, rather ironically, have been implemented through military force. A second irony is that Turkey is now an important geopolitical player in the south Caucasus in a region where it is in competition with Russia and Iran. The outcome of the 44-day war is that Azerbaijan-Turkish and Armenian-Russian ties are now more firmly entrenched and Turkish military cooperation with Ukraine is growing.

Azerbaijan’s military success also has important ramifications for Georgia and Ukraine’s frozen conflicts. International forums, such as the Minsk Group for the south Caucasus and Normandy Group for the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region, are discredited. We have to wait and see if incoming US President Joe Biden will change the dynamics in these international forums, strike a more balanced position between Armenia and Azerbaijan and re-energise US policies towards Eurasia.

Taras Kuzio is a professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and a Non-Resident Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

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