Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has opened another battlefront thousands of miles away from Baku, in the pages of local and national newspapers and news sites in the US. Much like the Syrian mercenaries Baku recruited and deployed with the help of Turkish defense contractors to target Armenians, Azerbaijan’s US-based lobbyists are at the forefront of an “information warfare” that costs millions of dollars annually.
One important aspect of the work of these lobbyists is to place, disseminate and promote anti-Armenian narratives. Their tactics have evolved into a relentless smear campaign through US media outlets, painting Armenia as a close ally of Iran that undermines Western policies and Armenians as intolerant and anti-Semitic. At the same time, Azerbaijan is depicted as a beacon of tolerance, an ally of Israel and a champion of religious rights.
Baku’s lobbyists continually push this narrative by placing articles in various media outlets, reaching out to editors with numerous “factsheets” and disseminating Baku-approved stories to contacts in positions of power. Many such propaganda pieces that are essentially commissioned by the Azerbaijani government appear in US media outlets without proper disclaimers, and therein loom the danger and deception.
Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings by Azerbaijan’s lobbyists show how they approach almost every major outlet from Bloomberg to CNN, the Washington Post, the Jerusalem Post, the New York Times, NBC, Al-Jazeera, San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, Haaretz, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal; the list is almost interminably long.
Over the past few weeks, numerous articles have discussed Azerbaijan’s war on Armenia; many have had a bias, some suspiciously so. It may be impossible to tell which are penned by Aliyev’s supporters and which are commissioned or disseminated by Baku’s agents here; but a few are (and will be) known because of FARA filings.
From comments left under strikingly pro-Azerbaijani articles, it is clear that many readers have been frustrated and disheartened. Arguably, readers have a right to know whether the content they are consuming is either commissioned or part of a foreign government’s “information warfare.” Without proper disclaimers under articles received from embassies by way of lobbyists, editors risk tarnishing the credibility of the news outlets they represent and deliver a blow to the idea of journalistic integrity. A simple one-liner would suffice, such as, “This article was sent to us by [insert name of PR firm] on behalf of the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the United States of America.” Editors uncomfortable with such disclaimers might reconsider running blatant propaganda pieces that essentially import the state-sponsored narrative of a country with one of the worst media freedom records.
To give readers a clearer idea of how Azerbaijan’s lobbyists place and disseminate narratives that support Baku’s propaganda campaign, I will take a close look at the activities of certain lobbyists employed by Aliyev’s government, by examining hundreds of pages of FARA filings available in the US Department of Justice (DOJ) online archives.
An ‘Information Warfare’
In an Aug. 25 article titled “Russia and Iran’s Dangerous Energy Gambit in the Caucasus” and published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, human rights lawyer and national security analyst Irina Tsukerman embraces all the talking points put out by Baku. She refers to Artsakh as a “fake republic” and an “ersatz entity.” After a series of hypotheticals (like Russia and Armenia might join forces to bring “Russian biological weapons close to Azerbaijan”), she proceeds to advise Baku on how to handle pro-Armenian sentiment in the west.
“Azerbaijan should form a closer joint defense relationship with the US, benefiting from joint training and insights from experienced field operatives and officers. Additionally, greater resources need to be marshalled for information warfare and the political aspect of the battle being waged, including supporting professional media to counter disinformation, building personal and long-term relationships with public officials at all levels, and, most importantly, vigorously pursuing legislative and legal relief in US, European, and international bodies. Armenian officials responsible for human rights abuses should be sanctioned,” she writes (italics my own).
Since a large chunk of her article deals with the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), which is active in DC, one might understand that Tsukerman is essentially encouraging a foreign government, Azerbaijan, to wage “information warfare” against a grassroots Armenian-American organization that promotes and advocates for the interests of and issues important to American citizens of Armenian origin. In other words, she is calling on Azerbaijan with its dismal media freedom record to export its relentless propaganda to the US.
In its 2020 report, Freedom House designated Azerbaijan as a “consolidated authoritarian regime” with a score of 10/100, observing that “Constitutional guarantees for press freedom are routinely and systematically violated, as the government works to maintain a tight grip on the information landscape. Defamation remains a criminal offense. Journalists and their relatives face harassment, violence and intimidation by authorities. Many have been detained or imprisoned on fabricated charges, while others face travel bans.” Armenia fared as “partly free,” with a score of 53/100. The report noted “Independent and investigative outlets operate relatively freely in Armenia, but their work is generally found online.”
We may not know what motivates Tsukerman’s anti-Armenian rhetoric; she has no known ties to current lobbyists for Baku.
On Oct. 20, another one of Tsukerman’s articles, co-authored by Jason Epstein, was published by Newsweek. Tsukerman and Epstein “unite in [their] support of Sunni-majority Turkey’s Shi’a ally, Azerbaijan, an unabashedly pro-Western country, as it is unfairly smeared….” The article argues that the war is not about religion; it discusses Azerbaijan’s secularism, the Pope’s 2016 visit to Baku, religious minorities in Azerbaijan, and “Ashkenazi, Georgian and Mountain Jews.”
“No wonder Iran, the largest Shi’a country in the world but with ethnic Azeris comprising of up to 30 percent of its population, feels threatened by a tolerant Azerbaijan’s continued geopolitical success and therefore supports Armenia,” write the authors. Tsukerman’s co-author Epstein is the president of Southfive Strategies, LLC and a former public relations consultant for the Turkish Embassy in Washington (2002 – 2007); he has “long considered [himself] both pro-Israel and pro-Turkey.” Among Southfive’s past clients are the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy in Baku, the Turkish Embassy in Washington and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ Washington office.
Epstein’s work with the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, which is funded by the Azerbaijani government, began on Aug. 1, 2008, when Epstein registered as a foreign agent with the DOJ’s FARA unit for his work with the Academy. In describing his engagement with that entity, Epstein wrote, “Assisting the Academy in producing a policy conference in Azerbaijan on US-Azeri relations, as well as meetings with Azeri officials, business leaders, religious leaders, and media personalities.”
When asked whether Southfive would engage in political activities and what those activities might entail, Epstein responded, “Encouraging journalists to file stories on US-Azeri relations, based on their experiences at the conference and during various meetings.”
The disclaimer under the Newsweek article reads: “Jason Epstein is president of Southfive Strategies, LLC, an international public affairs consultancy. Irina Tsukerman is a New York-based human rights lawyer and national security/geopolitical analyst, the vice president of Timberwolf Phoenix, a media and security consultancy, and an adviser to the London-based International Justice Organization. The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.”
There is no mention of Epstein’s past lobbying work for the governments of Azerbaijan and Turkey. A reader would have to independently research Southfive Strategies to learn that for years it had engaged in lobbying on behalf of Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Baku’s US Agents
A FARA filing by the Podesta Group in 2013 details the extent of its outreach to US politicians, universities, think tanks, but also most major news outlets, including Bloomberg, Foreign Policy, CNN, Washington Post (and Times), EurasiaNet, Associated Press, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Jerusalem Post, Al-Jazeera, Los Angeles Times, NBC, New York Times and Haaretz.
Just between June and December of 2017, Podesta received $260,735.56 for its work on behalf of the Azerbaijani Embassy in the U.S., according to a Department of Justice (DOJ) report. That year, Podesta was one of four companies registered with the DOJ for work on behalf of Azerbaijan that cost Baku $560,735.56. During a six-month period that same year, 16 companies worked on behalf of Turkey with a total (reported) price tag of $4,284,020.06. Meanwhile, during the six-month period, an Avedis Boyamian offered pro-bono policy consultation to Armenia; price tag: $0. This information is available in the DOJ report titled, “Report of the Attorney General to the Congress of the United States on the Administration of the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, as amended, for the six months ending December 31, 2017.”
Among the lobby groups that have represented Azerbaijan in the past couple of years are the Livingston Group (contract terminated on Oct. 13), Stellar Jay Communications, BGR Government Affairs, Sanitas International, Rasky Partners (click here for an earlier and more detailed contract, and here and here for samples of their media outreach), and Baker Donelson (contracted by BGR). Meanwhile, another lobbying firm, S-3 Group, which works on behalf of the Baku-based Investment Corporation owned by Seyidov Tural Oglu, has “create[d] and place[d] earned and digital media to further diplomacy between America and Azerbaijan,” according to a DOJ filing; for instance, S-3 sent out pro-Azerbaijan factsheets on Oct. 15.
To get an idea of the ties, experience and expertise some of these lobby groups retain, a quick glance at the rank and file of BGR Public Affairs will suffice. Among their team members are: former Governor of Mississippi Haley Barbour; former Policy Director at the Senate Finance Committee Matt Hoffmann; Former Representative Sean Duffy (R-WI); former Senior Executive Clandestine Service Officer with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Daniel Hoffman; former FBI man Tom Locke; former US Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker; former Director of Legislative Affairs for the National Security Council Mark Tavlarides; former senior USAID official Lester Munson; a Frank Ahrens who can arrange “client interviews with Fox News, CNN, The Washington Post and major wire services”; and a Jeff Birnbaum who is a former “White House, congressional and tax reporter for the Wall Street Journal, a senior political correspondent for Time Magazine, Washington bureau chief for Fortune Magazine and a columnist for the Washington Post.”
When Azerbaijan and Turkey pay millions to employ such lobbying firms, they are in effect buying ease of access to major national news services.
A ‘Stellar’ Case
The case of one public relations firm employed by Baku might offer a glimpse into the Azeri lobbying efforts through pro-Azerbaijan articles in US media. The articles pushed on various editors deal with that general theme of “tolerant Azerbaijan” and “intolerant Armenia.” Whatever “information warfare” Tsukerman might have been alluding to in her article is displayed below.
At the center of the story is Jacob Kamaras, the former editor-in-chief of the Jewish National Syndicate (JNS), where pro-Azerbaijan and anti-Armenian articles have appeared in the past two years (for instance, Irina Tsukerman’s Oct. 12 article), including pieces that promote denial of the Armenian Genocide. Kamaras is the founder and chief of Stellar Jay Communications, which actively lobbied for the Azerbaijani Embassy in the US in 2020, and about which Julian Pecquet, founder and editor of the Foreign Lobby Report, has written. Note that Kamaras has filed a Fictitious Business Name Statement for his company with the DOJ.
Kamaras registered to lobby for the Azerbaijani Embassy on Jan. 31, 2020. The DOJ form informs that the registrant engages with Azerbaijan’s Ambassador Elin Suleymanov and “receives a $3,300 fee per project.” Kamaras’ principal mode of operation is through outreach to newspapers and editors, as noted in another DOJ file. Still another DOJ filing reveals that Kamaras, whose work for the Embassy entailed “media consulting and op-ed placement,” was paid $56,100 between Feb. 17 and July 10, 2020, presumably for 17 “projects.”
Among the papers Kamaras submitted to the DOJ are a number of emails he sent to news outlets, urging them to publish certain pro-Azerbaijan articles and offering certain pro-Azerbaijan talking points. There are 14 files (excluding the company’s registration) that span the first eight months of the year; the last disclosure is dated August 7.
Propaganda: Israel Should Ally with ‘Tolerant’ Azerbaijan
In the first email dated Feb. 12, addressed to the editors at the conservative CNSNews.com, Kamaras asks the news website to consider publishing an article by Maayan Hoffman, the news editor at The Jerusalem Post, titled, “A Jewish-Muslim paradigm for peace.” Hoffman argues that “Azerbaijan has pioneered a paradigm for warm Muslim ties with Israel, the nation Tehran repeatedly vows to wipe off the map… Israel only stands to benefit from having an ally like Azerbaijan on the border of arguably the Jewish state’s fiercest enemy.” She stresses that Jews live in Azerbaijan in “peace and prosperity” and details various developments in the benevolent attitude of Baku towards its Jewish minority population.
Kamaras’ email (like all his other emails discussed below) ends with a disclaimer noting that the email and its contents are sent by Stellar Jay Communications on behalf of the Azerbaijani Embassy.
On Feb. 13, CNSNews published the story, slightly altering the headline to read, “Here’s What a Jewish-Muslim Paradigm for Peace Looks Like.” A brief bio of the author appeared below the article: “Maayan Hoffman is news editor and head of online content and strategy at The Jerusalem Post. She has been an American-Israeli international journalist for more than two decades.” There was no mention of Stellar Jay Communications or the Azerbaijani Embassy.
Propaganda: Armenia is Anti-Semitic
Kamaras’ second email dated March 9 is addressed to Rob Shimshock of CNSNews, containing yet another article, this time by Jesse Bogner and titled “The ‘old anti-Semitism’ is alive and well.” This piece alleges that there is “medieval-style anti-Semitism coming from Armenian organizations and commentators,” and that “[T]he ANCA’s recent rhetoric on Twitter represents the latest indicator of not only the anti-Semitism emanating from Armenia, one of the world’s oldest Christian nations, but also of the disturbing perpetuation of classical Christian anti-Semitism.” Of course, Bogner portrays Azerbaijan as a haven of tolerance. “By contrast, Armenia’s Muslim-majority neighbor has a deep relationship with Israel, no history of anti-Semitism, and a prosperous Jewish community of its own for more than two millennia,” he writes.
Apparently CNSNews did not publish Bogner’s article. On March 15, the piece was published on Bogner’s blog on The Times of Israel. Again, there was no mention of the Azerbaijani Embassy; just Bogner’s bio: “Jesse Bogner is an author and journalist. His memoir and social critique, The Egotist, has been translated into five languages. His work has been featured in The Daily Caller, MSN, The Daily Wire and The Huffington Post. His book of articles, Tikkunim (Corrections), was released in January 2018.”
It is outside the scope of this article to counter such propaganda. However, I will refer you to Yoav Loeff’s Jan. 27 article titled, “Armenia’s Antisemitism? The Truth Is Different,” in The Jerusalem Post, which he wrote coincidentally in response to a piece by Hoffman—the same Hoffman whose articles Kamaras disseminated on behalf of Azerbaijan’s Embassy. Loeff, who teaches Armenian history and culture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is Jewish and has traveled to Armenia with other Jews and Israelis on many occasions, and stresses that he has “never heard a hint of antisemitic expression.”
“If there is some criticism, it is usually about Israel’s hesitation to recognize the Armenian genocide that was perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire…” he writes.
“Armenia’s small Jewish community never suffered antisemitism in their adopted homeland. Most of them left in the early 1990s, after the severe earthquake in the north of the country in 1988 and the collapse of the Soviet Union,” explains Loeff. He notes the dire economic situation following the earthquake and the Artsakh war and adds, “They did not leave because they faced any antisemitism; they left because they sought better life.”
Loeff also discusses the various ways in which Armenian government representatives had honored Holocaust victims, from Armenian President Armen Sarkissian’s attendance at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem to the erection of a monument in Yerevan in memory of the victims of the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide. “Unfortunately, there is no parallel such monument in Israel,” he adds.
Propaganda: Azerbaijan is a Friend to Israel
On March 13, Kamaras emailed The Jewish Voice editor Fern Sidman, offering him a piece by Hoffman, this time titled, “Could fighting coronavirus be the latest frontier in the Israel-Azerbaijan relationship?” Hoffman noted the presence of Azerbaijan’s Finance Minister Samir Shafirov at the AIPAC Policy Conference and quoted him to have said, “Cooperation with Israel is not limited to oil supply; we are interested in widening cooperation in defense and the transfer of technology.” Apparently Shafirov also read Azerbaijan’s first-lady-turned-vice-president Mehriban Aliyeva’s remarks praising Azerbaijani-Jewish ties in the US. The gist of the article was the importance of strengthening Azerbaijani-Israeli ties. The email closed with the usual disclaimer about Kamaras communicating on behalf of the Azerbaijani Embassy.
Hoffman’s piece was accepted and published without any mention of Kamaras’ firm or the Azerbaijani Embassy. However, some days later, NBC news published a piece highlighting Hoffman’s article as an example of “foreign governments… using American lobbyists to promote their efforts to fight the coronavirus outbreak and safeguard their countries’ reputations in the U.S. capital.” NBC goes on to point out that “The piece was written by Maayan Hoffman, identified as a Jerusalem Post news editor, but the published version makes no mention that the commentary was placed by Stellar Jay Communications, a lobbying firm representing the government of Azerbaijan, as a FARA filing shows.”
NBC was right about foreign governments promoting their countries, safeguarding their reputations and “placing” op-eds in various papers. What NBC failed to understand is that this was not about the coronavirus, but part of an information war that ultimately feeds and bolsters the myth of the religiously tolerant Azerbaijan and the intolerant Armenia; and that is one of the key objectives of Baku, and by extension their US agents.
Propaganda: Armenia is a Friend to Iran
On April 23, Kamaras sent out another email to CNSNews with an article written by Bogner, who—in Kamaras’ words—“examines how the coronavirus is not stopping Iran from fueling conflict and undermining sanctions through its proxies. Specifically, he looks at Armenia’s role in empowering Iran economically.” The article, titled, “Coronavirus doesn’t stop Iran from fueling the fire of conflict,” accuses Iranian trucks of delivering fuel to “Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-occupied region which several U.N. resolutions affirm as part of Azerbaijan,” charges Armenian banks of “enabling” Tehran, and faults “Democratic US lawmakers” for having a “pro-Armenian policy agenda.”
The article ignores Azerbaijan’s ties with Iran, the fact that in 2019 Azerbaijan’s imports from Iran were worth US $452.63 million and exports at US $41.13 million, while Armenia’s imports from Iran were worth US $324.7 million and exports at US $83.84 million, according to the United Nations COMTRADE database. In other words, both countries maintain an economic relationship with their sanctioned neighbor.
Once again, Bogner’s piece did not appear in CNSNews and instead was published on his blog on the Times of Israel without any mention of the Azerbaijani Embassy or Jay Stellar Communications.
Propaganda: Azerbaijan Champions Religious Freedom
Kamaras’ next email (May 6) was also to CNSNews, in which it becomes clear that Rob Shimshock (the recipient) did not respond to the lobbyist’s previous two emails (which also explains why Bogner’s pieces ended up on his blog). This time, Kamaras submits his own article titled “Azerbaijan’s postponed Formula 1 race transcends sports” about which he tells Shimshock, “I write that despite the event’s postponement this year, the annual Formula 1 auto race hosted by Muslim-majority Azerbaijan — particularly during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan — is a powerful display of religious freedom, especially in a world plagued by sectarian conflict and now by the invisible enemy of the coronavirus.”
What Kamaras fails to mention is that Freedom House gave Azerbaijan a score of 0 out 4 for religious freedom in its 2020 report, which noted, “The regime exercises control over religion through state-affiliated entities such as the Caucasus Muslim Board. Religious communities that attempt to operate independently face burdensome registration requirements, interference with the importation and distribution of printed religious materials, and arrest and harassment of religious leaders with international ties or a significant following.” In other words, the idea of a religiously tolerant Azerbaijan is a myth nurtured by Baku’s agents abroad.
In any case, at the end of the article submission, Kamaras includes his bio: “Jacob Kamaras, former editor in chief of the Jewish News Syndicate, is noted for his work on the Middle East and American politics. His writing has appeared in the Washington Times, Independent Journal Review, the American Spectator, and various Jewish and Israeli media.” It makes no mention of his role as a lobbyist on behalf of the Embassy of Azerbaijan to the US. However, the email does end with the usual disclaimer.
CNSNews published the article on May 7, slightly altering the title to read, “Azerbaijan’s Grand Prix Transcends Sports, Speaks to Religious Freedom.” However, it added the following to Kamaras’ bio: “Jacob Kamaras is founder of Stellar Jay Communications, a PR firm representing Azerbaijan.” The next day, another lobbyist on behalf of Azerbaijan, Mark Tavlarides of the BGR Group, emailed the article out to relevant contacts, urging them to read it.
Propaganda: Israel and Azerbaijan are Partners (and Trailblazers in the Understanding of Aging)
A few days later, Kamaras reached out to the editor of the Salinas Californian, Silas Lyons, with a story written by Diana Cohen Altman, former executive director of the Karabakh Foundation and a contributor to the JNS. Altman’s piece was about Azerbaijanis who live up to 120 years old in Lankaran. Altman discusses diet, genetics and clusters of very old people in Azerbaijan, as well as longevity in Ashkenazi Jewish populations. Quoted in the piece is a surgeon who is a member of the Azerbaijan-Israel Inter-Parliamentary Work Group. The piece concludes with yet another nod to Azerbaijani-Israeli friendship with these words: “Azerbaijan has fostered significant partnerships in the humanities and other disciplines, and the West is building an understanding of Azerbaijani culture and contributions. Amid the pandemic and in the coming years, the U.S. scientific community may look to Israel and Azerbaijan — who are partners in technical and other arenas — for breakthroughs in the understanding of aging.”
The piece did not appear in The Californian. Instead, it was published by The Jerusalem Post on June 4. The final paragraphs were altered a bit, and there was this addition: “The Azerbaijani superaging phenomenon may also be of particular interest to social scientists, given major societal changes during the past century. Consider this: Someone over the age of 100 might have witnessed what is now the Republic of Azerbaijan as a portion of the Russian Empire, a part of the early Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, and as an S.S.R. of the Soviet Union.” In effect, this addition attempts to insert a historical footnote in this article that on the surface appears to be about longevity.
Altman’s bio appears at the end of the piece: “Diana Cohen Altman, principal of Cultural Diplomacy Associates, L.L.C., and former executive director of the US cultural non-profit Karabakh Foundation, writes extensively about Azerbaijani cultural and civil-society topics.” It made no mention of the Embassy of Azerbaijan or Jay Stellar Communications. Also to note, Altman is still listed on the Karabakh Foundation’s website as its Executive Director.
Propaganda: Armenians are Intolerant, Anti-Semitic
On June 11, through Kamaras, Baku resorted again to charges of anti-Semitism as a desperate attempt to vilify Armenian Americans. An email informs that Kamaras’ own article appeared in BreakingIsraelNews (Israel365News.com), titled “Armenia’s Self-Defeating Campaign Against Christians.” The article ran as an op-ed. It decried Armenian-American opposition to evangelical pastor Rev. Johnnie Moore’s support of Azerbaijan and Trump’s Middle East policies, singled out Asbarez news for its coverage and bashed the ANCA, accusing it of anti-Semitic tweets.
Although at the base of his email, Kamaras included his disclaimer—“This material is distributed by Stellar Jay Communications on behalf of the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the United States of America…”—the published article made no mention of the author’s bio or of his work on behalf of the Azerbaijani Embassy. Readers were (and continue to be) misled into believing the piece was written by a concerned writer and not a paid agent of Azerbaijan’s propaganda campaign. The Azerbaijani news.az reprinted the article, also without any mention of Kamaras’ role as a foreign agent for Baku.
Propaganda: Armenia is an Occupier; Unreliable Partner; Aids Iran
On July 14, Kamaras approached The Washington Free Beacon with a list of Azerbaijani talking points on the escalation of violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan. “I wanted to share a few angles below that could help you provide broader context in any story, if you choose to pursue one. Should you want to set up a phone interview with the ambassador, please let me know and I’ll be happy to arrange it,” wrote Kamaras. The Beacon did not take him up on the offer. In fact their last report that even mentions Azerbaijan ran in January of this year. Nonetheless, it’s worth reviewing Kamaras’ talking points.
Aside from highlighting some European support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, Kamaras shared an article by none other than Bogner in American Thinker titled, “Democrats’ West Bank rhetoric rings hollow,” in which the author asks, “Where is the condemnation of Armenia’s occupation of the same percentage of internationally recognized Azerbaijani territory, in the Nagorno-Karabakh region?”; another article by Paul Miller in the JNS titled, “Beware of the sanctions busters,” accuses Armenia of “offering the [Iranian] mullahs one of their best escape routes from crippling American sanctions”; as well as Hoffman’s article in BreakingIsraelNews titled, “A Nation that is ‘Faithful’ to Iran Is no ‘Reliable Partner’” (one can glean the spirit of the article from the title). He also shared a July 7 article in Arab News by Iranian American journalist Adelle Nazarian, a foreign policy analyst with Breitbart News who was in Azerbaijan in 2019. In it, Nazarian argues that “Now is the time for US lawmakers to echo Europe’s support for territorial integrity. Hypocrisy should no longer be accepted.”
Propaganda: Armenians are ‘Plagued by Extremist Ideologies’
(Like Nazism and Anti-Semitism)
On July 13, Kamaras emailed Fox News correspondent Hollie McKay, offering her the opportunity to interview Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to the US Elin Suleymanov. McKay had interviewed the Ambassador in March 2019. She did not interview the Ambassador in July, but Fox News did speak with him on Sept. 28, just as Azerbaijan launched its offensive. (On Oct. 4 McKay did report on the recruitment of Syrian fighters by Turkish defense contractors to fight in Azerbaijan).
In early August, Kamaras approached a number of news sites on behalf of Amb. Suleymanov. On Aug. 5, he emailed Mercury News asking them to publish an article penned by the Ambassador, titled “Hate crimes have no place under the California sun.”
The Ambassador’s article centers on a scuffle between Armenian and Azerbaijani protesters in Los Angeles. He proceeds to highlight some statements from Jewish American groups regarding the incident and suddenly hurls allegations of anti-Semitism. “Both Armenia and the Armenian communities abroad have long been plagued by extremist ideologies, political violence and a complicated history with anti-Semitism, Nazi collaborators and Middle Eastern radicals,” he writes.
Such broad charges are not only insulting to Armenians worldwide and Armenian Americans, many of whom fought the Nazis, but also warps history, erasing the sacrifices of many like the members of the Manouchian Group, one of the most active French resistance groups. Of course, this is coming from the representative of a government that wholeheartedly joins neighbor Turkey in its unashamed and continued denial of the genocide perpetrated by its Ottoman Turkish predecessor.
Essentially, the Ambassador is relying on charges of anti-Semitism against Armenians to draw support for the Azerbaijani policies and claims against Artsakh. By doing so, he is using the very real presence and danger of anti-Semitism in the world as a tool to further Baku’s agenda and in the hopes of garnering Jewish American and Israeli sympathies. As Kamaras’ previous emails show, Baku’s tactics have at their core the manipulation of fears towards both Iran and anti-Semitism.
The Ambassador’s article was presumably rejected by Mercury News, because on Aug. 6 Kamaras submitted the same piece to the San Francisco Chronicle. Three minutes later, he sent the piece to The Sacramento Bee; and a minute later to The Hill. The article was finally published in The Monterey County Herald on Aug. 12, despite its overt propagandizing and vilification of Armenians worldwide.
That is the last of Kamaras’ activities submitted to the DOJ.
A Glance at BGR
Other lobby groups, such as BGR, also heavily publicized pro-Azerbaijan viewpoints and articles, and reached out to various media outlets for interviews, or to offer talking points. For instance, the DOJ FARA registration unit received a copy of an email from Mark Tavlarides of the BGR Group, which shared an article by the same Nazarian, titled, “Azerbaijan: A Nation that Bears the Torch, and Burden, of Bringing Religious Freedom to its Less Tolerant Neighbours in the Region.”
“The author, Adelle Nazarian, visited Azerbaijan’s 5th World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue in Baku. Nazarian noted the insightful meetings and visits which left her ‘acutely aware of the sensitive nature of Azerbaijan’s position as a potential kingmaker for the cause of religious freedom and unity between the three Abrahamic faiths in the region.’ She expressed hope that religious freedom would also flourish in Azerbaijan’s neighbors in the region,” wrote Tavlarides in his email.
Tavlarides has on many occasions disseminated pro-Azerbaijan articles on behalf of the Embassy, such as a piece by Hoffman in the JNS, titled “Azerbaijani national hero provides a paradigm for Jewish-Muslim relations.” On numerous other instances, Tavlarides sent out the links to articles, official Azerbaijani statements, “resources,” factsheets (including an Oct. 5 email), press releases, the pro-Azerbaijan statements of various organizations and politicians, and tweets such as one sent out by Israel’s Ambassador to the US touting Azerbaijan as a beacon of religious tolerance, as well as another one by Luke Coffey, director of Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, critical of Armenia and Armenians.
In a turn from the cynical to the absurd, Tavlarides also disseminated a link to an episode of the CBS show “Seal Team,” which depicts the fictional “support of elite US forces to help protect an Azerbaijani power plant from a potential attack by Armenian loyalists, Shiite militia, or foreign powers looking to reduce American influence in the region.” Tavlarides went on to stress that “The scene emphasizes the strategic role of Azerbaijan as ‘our only ally in the Caspian Sea and a deterrent to unaligned powers in the area.’”
The Case of Brenda Shaffer
In 2015, Till Bruckner of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published a piece titled, “How to Build Yourself a Stealth Lobbyist, Azerbaijani Style.” The focus of the article is Brenda Shaffer, a visiting researcher and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, professor at the University of Haifa, and former head of the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard, which was funded by the Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce. Bruckner discusses Shaffer’s various activities and lays out her myriad connections with Azerbaijan’s lobbyists, including her role as adviser to the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR).
According to Bruckner, Shaffer’s activities included testifying before the House of Representatives’ Committee on International Relations, contributing to various DC think tanks (including a panel discussion on Azerbaijan, hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, during which she reportedly praised the country’s “vibrant press”), and writing numerous op-eds for US and Israeli news outlets. She was often consulted on matters relating to Azerbaijan—whether by the media or US officials.
“Supported by an overseas regime and an assorted network of overt and undercover lobbyists, she used oil money to build her academic credentials, then in turn used those credentials to promote Azerbaijan’s agendas through Congressional testimony, dozens of newspaper op-eds and media appearances, countless think tank events, and even scholarly publications,” wrote Bruckner.
In a 2006 Harper’s Magazine piece titled “Academics for Hire,” journalist Ken Silverstein wrote, “Caspian watchers beware: the next time you see or hear an ‘independent’ American expert talking about how the region’s rulers are implementing bold reforms, check the expert’s credentials to see just how independent he or she truly is.”
Shaffer continues to publish op-eds on the subject. For instance, on Oct. 14, JNS ran a piece by Sean Savage titled, “How the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict could impact Israel’s regional strategic landscape.”
“Israel and Azerbaijan maintain a strategic alliance. It is not just about arms sales or oil, but a very deep strategic cooperation,” she told JNS, adding, “Israel has friendly ties with the Armenian people and is home to a vibrant Armenian community. On strategic issues, however, the two states are on different sides. Armenia has close cooperation with Iran, and much of the military supplies to Armenia today transit Iranian territory.”
Shaffer’s credentials were left as “a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center.” The JNS piece was reprinted in multiple outlets.
Armenian Americans Fight Back
The ANCA, the Armenian Assembly and many concerned Armenian Americans have been vocal with their efforts to pressure lobbyists to back down and terminate their contracts, as Foreign Lobby’s Pecquet reports. “Already over the weekend, the Armenian diaspora bombarded the S-3 Group with more than a thousand emails with an identical message pressuring the Washington public affairs firm to stop representing a new client from Azerbaijan (Foreign Lobby Report was copied on the emails),” wrote Pecquet, adding, “The firm recently picked up a Baku-based company called Investment Corporation, LLC for $25,000 per month to ‘create and place earned and digital media to further diplomacy.’… The diaspora letter, which you can read in its entirety here, describes S-3’s client as a ‘thinly veiled front for the Government of Azerbaijan through a proxy shell corporation.’”
Their aim is to vilify Armenians worldwide.
The Livingston Group terminated its contract with the government of Azerbaijan on Oct. 13. Pecquet notes that this came three months after the lobby group informed the DOJ that it was negotiating another contract with Baku. Pecquet also reported that DLA Piper, a lobby group working for the state-owned Azerbaijan Railways CJSC, terminated its contract on Oct. 19. DLA Piper was contracted to “provide the foreign principal with legal advice and assistance relating to U.S. sanctions on Iran that affect the transport of oil, gas, and other petrochemical products that originate in third countries and that transit through Iran.”
Meanwhile, the lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs cut its ties with Turkey on Oct. 23, after pressure from the Armenian American community. The decision came following protests led by the ANCA and the Armenian Assembly outside the firm’s offices, as well as pressure from current clients like Los Angeles County, California State Assembly, and Los Angeles Community College District representatives, reported Politico.
“A lot of people have bought a lot of summer homes and fishing boats and put their grandkids through college by lying about Armenia and covering up for Azerbaijan,” ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian told Politico.
Hamparian said that BGR was next on the list.
Fact: Baku Aims to Vilify Armenians through US Media
Some of the articles disseminated by these lobby groups employed by Azerbaijan cross-link with others written by authors like Bogner, desperately trying to paint Armenia as a threat like Iran, and Armenians as anti-Semites. Reading these articles, one might not even realize that there is a Jewish community in Armenia as well, and they too have spoken up (See Lara Setrakian’s article in Haaretz titled, “’I’m Jewish and Armenian. Israeli Weapons Are Killing My People”). Their existence is not weaponized in western media by either Armenians or the Armenian government.
In all this, it is clear that Azerbaijan’s smear campaign against Armenia relies on those two tales: Armenia is dangerous; and Armenians are intolerant and anti-Semitic. The basic calculations run something like this: Israel is good; Iran is bad; Armenia is to Azerbaijan what Iran is to Israel; therefore, Armenia must be bad, and Azerbaijan must be good; and furthermore, Israel and Azerbaijan must stand united, while Iran and Armenia are the enemy and must be sanctioned. These are the points that are being pushed by Baku’s lobbyists to elicit an unfavorable public perception of Armenia and Armenians. Their aim is to vilify Armenians worldwide. The sheer number of articles pushing this narrative is astounding. Some of them are paid for and disseminated by Azerbaijan’s lobbyists, and published without any disclaimers to highlight that fact. The propaganda is so blatant that one wonders how anyone—whether readers or editors—could take any of these pieces seriously.
However, the responsibility to vet and flag such articles falls squarely at the feet of editors. By publishing articles without the appropriate scrutiny and disclaimers, editors are complicit in the disinformation campaign and agents of Baku’s information war. Mercenaries and lobbyists are motivated by Aliyev’s petro-dollars. One can only hope that editors are driven by the pursuit of truth; and those who are not should consider sending their resumes to the Azerbaijani Embassy in DC.
Author’s note: I’d like to thank Khatchig Mouradian for his feedback. This article does not deal with the activities of lobby groups working on behalf of Turkey, or the financial contributions of Azerbaijan’s lobby groups to US politicians running for office, or other activities and outreach efforts (such as the Oct. 2 Zoom session with Amb. Suleymanov and congressional staff hosted by BGR), as they are outside the scope of this piece. Those interested can read more about Azerbaijan’s lobbying efforts at Opensecrets.org, a website that tracks developments in the shady lobbying world.