LONDON – It operates from an exclusive Mayfair address and throws lavish parties for politicians of all parties. Ostensibly an independent trade body, The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) regularly takes members of Parliament, members of the European Parliament and British government officials on trips to the former Soviet state, where they are put up in luxury hotels.
On previous trips, members of the Council of Europe visiting the capital, Baku, are among those to have been treated royally. According to one insider: “These are real vacations and there are many expensive gifts. Gifts are mostly expensive silk carpets, gold and silver items, drinks, caviar and money. In Baku, a common gift is 2 kg of caviar.”
Nice work if you can get it. But human rights groups are questioning the society’s use of “caviar diplomacy” to enhance the image of one of the most autocratic countries in the world, at a time when it is plagued by allegations of rigged elections and harsh treatment toward independent journalists and opposition parties.
The society is accused of being a mouthpiece for the country’s elite families who own much of its oil and mining interests. It is chaired by Tale Heydarov, the London-based son of Kamaladdin Heydarov, the minister for emergency situations, who is one of President Ilham Aliyev’s inner circle and is often described as the most powerful man in Azerbaijan.
“On the face of it, TEAS may seem to be an independent organization,” said Tom Mayne of human rights organization Global Witness. “But the fact that its chair is Tale Heydarov can only raise questions about the society’s impartiality and its aims.”
According to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, the “society” claims to be an independent advocacy group, but its talking points very much reflect the goals and objectives of the Azerbaijan government, which is dominated by a handful of oligarchs.
The society, which also boasts the well-connected political lobbyist Lionel Zetter as director, is based in a section of central London close to the U.K.’s Parliament. It provides secretarial support to Parliament’s all-party group on Azerbaijan and has assiduously cultivated relationships with politicians from all sides, throwing glitzy receptions for MPs at their parties’ annual conferences. The society boasted recently that some 400 Tories attended its jazz reception after this year’s Conservative Party conference.
According to the list of registered interests, the society has given at least £71,740 ($117,450) to Tory MPs to cover trips to the country. Conservative MP Mark Field, a member of the all-party group on Azerbaijan and its former chair, was at one point being paid £6,000 a year by the society for his advice. Field did not respond to requests for comment.
The society has also spent at least £9,700 on sending Labour MPs to the country, regularly judged to be one of the most corrupt in the world by Transparency International (a nongovernmental organization that monitors and publicizes corporate and political corruption in international development), while the new Labour lobby group, Progress, has held an event that enjoyed its sponsorship. In May 2011 a delegation of parliamentarians, including MPs Bob Blackman, Stephen Hammond, Gerry Sutcliffe, Mark Field and his assistant, Julia Dockerill, as well as peers Lord Kilclooney and Lord Rogan, went on a five-day visit to Azerbaijan, paid for by the society.
Separately in the same year, Baroness Eccles, and Viscount Eccles, members of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, the body responsible for monitoring Azerbaijan elections, took trips to the country that were funded by the society.
The often extravagant nature of the welcome accorded to visiting dignitaries seems to flow from the country’s first family.
According to the leaked U.S. cables: “First lady Mehriban Aliyeva appears to have had substantial cosmetic surgery, presumably overseas, and wears dresses that would be considered provocative even in the western world. . . . On television, in photos, and in person, she appears unable to show a full range of facial expression.
“The first lady and her two daughters hosted second lady Lynne Cheney for dinner in September 2008. Prior to the second lady’s arrival, while the three ladies were waiting for Mrs. Cheney’s car, one Secret Service agent asked ‘which one of those is the mother?’ Emboffs [embassy officials] and White House staff studied the three for several moments, then an Emboff said, ‘Well, logically the mother would probably stand in the middle.’ “
The country’s own cosmetic enhancement, carefully crafted by the European Azerbaijan Society, has seen it win support in high places. Prince Andrew is a regular visitor the country, where he is known as the “dear guest.” Last year British Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed Aliyev to London before the Olympics.
According to a poll carried out by the society: “72 percent of MPs appreciate Azerbaijani president Aliyev’s activity and have stressed that he is a reliable partner of the West.”
The society is also influential in British business circles. Last month it organized a high-profile trade conference promoting the U.K.’s involvement in Azerbaijan. BP is one of the main players in a consortium intending to bring Caspian gas from the European border of Turkey to Italy. MP Charles Hendry, the prime ministerial trade envoy to Azerbaijan, told the conference that the “U.K. government wants British businesses to be the partner of choice for their Azerbaijani counterparts.”
But critics question whether the U.K. should focus more on the country’s human rights abuses than its gas reserves.
“The Azerbaijani government is engaged in a deliberate, abusive strategy to limit dissent,” Human Rights Watch said in September. “The strategy is designed to curtail opposition political activity, limit public criticism of the government, and exercise greater control over nongovernmental organizations.”
Amnesty International recently called on the Azerbaijani authorities to halt their “crackdown on freedom of expression” after a journalist and a writer who criticized the government were both jailed on what campaigners called trumped-up charges.
However, British MPs who were part of the Council of Europe delegation that observed Azerbaijan’s October elections, in which President Aliyev was voted in for a third term, countered such concerns.
“I have been to at least 10 polling stations,” said MP Mike Hancock, whose aide and girlfriend was once paid £3,000 for work she did for the society. “I have not seen even minor shortcomings that people might complain of.”
Hancock said his views were shared by the 40-strong team of observers and that his aide’s work for the society had been declared to Parliament and complied with all rules.
Despite the reassurances, human rights groups are urging politicians from all sides to look beyond the image of Azerbaijan crafted by powerful PR interests bankrolled by the Baku elite.
Tory MP Robert Walter, who led the team of independent observers and praised Azerbaijan for having “a large presence of national and international observers for the 2013 presidential election,” said that politicians should be suspicious of third-party groups representing foreign powers.
“I have throughout my parliamentary career avoided association with groups funded by or acting on behalf of foreign governments,” Walter said. “As vice chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group, I think this has been a wise decision.”