In the summer of 2000, Svante Cornell drove a motorcycle from Azerbaijan to Turkey to deliver the first barrel of Caspian Sea oil along the newly inaugurated Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. His motorcycle was sponsored by Azercell, Azerbaijan’s chief telecommunications company. A photo from the trip features a smiling Cornell carrying a bright blue barrel of Azerbaijani crude in his sidecar through dry mountainous landscape.
Pictures of the trip have since been deleted from the website of Cornell’s consulting firm. The photos, obtained through the Wayback Machine, also show Cornell standing at the center of a team of 12 in front of SOCAR, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic, and a shot of Azerbaijan’s former President Heydar Aliyev addressing the group as “great politicians.”
Cornell is among the American scholars who has built a successful career writing about Azerbaijan’s politics while cultivating a relationship with its government. He is the chair and co-founder of the Central-Asia Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program (CACI), a joint research center that encourages “Americans and Europeans to enter into an active and multi-faceted engagement with this region,” as stated on its website. The CACI was affiliated with Johns Hopkins University until 2017, when it joined the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC), a think tank based in Washington, DC.
Sources show that over the years, Cornell has received consistent communication from lobbyists who represent Azerbaijan. A review of over 200 pages of FARA filings reveals that Cornell and other key figures from the CACI and the AFPC for years were in close contact with lobbyists from the Podesta Group and the DCI Group, LLC. Cornell also directs a research center partly funded by companies with financial interests in the oil-rich South Caucasus nation. He has worked as a consultant to companies involved with security, energy and defense in the region.
The government of Azerbaijan spends hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to influence scholars at preeminent universities in the United States and shape public opinion of its image. Lobbyists meet and communicate regularly with scholars from institutions including Harvard, Georgetown, Tufts and Boston University about US-Azerbaijan ties and Azerbaijani public relations. Between February and June of 2016 alone, the Podesta Group received $379,325.73 for its work on behalf of the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan, according to a document filed with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). FARA requires agents hired by foreign entities, including foreign governments, to disclose their activities.
Among the funders of the CACI are oil, gas, mining and tobacco companies with economic interests in the South Caucasus. An archived brochure from the CACI website from 2006, which has since been deleted, states, “Over the years, many corporations active in the region have also provided open-ended support, including Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, Newmont Mining, Phillip Morris, and Unocal.” At the time, both Exxon-Mobil and Chevron were invested in Azerbaijani oil fields.
In turn, Cornell’s academic writing shows a bias in favor of Azerbaijan. He has published articles celebrating Azerbaijan’s reforms and anti-corruption efforts, blaming Armenia for its war with Azerbaijan in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) in 2020, and encouraging cooperation between Azerbaijan and the United States.
“A long overdue generational change is taking place in Azerbaijan’s political system, accompanied by what appears to be a serious effort to wean the country off its dependence on oil and to make its state institutions more responsive to the population’s needs,” Cornell writes in a 2019 article published in The American Interest titled “Azerbaijan: Reform Behind a Static Façade.” “The reform effort in Azerbaijan provides an opportunity for the U.S.-Azerbaijan political dialogue to be centered on positive cooperation.” Cornell’s favorable depiction is entirely at odds with any objective account of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan is an oil-wealthy dictatorship whose ongoing widespread corruption and systemic human rights violations are well-documented by Western journalists and human rights groups. The country has remained in the bottom third of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index since 2012, and received a score of 23 out of a 100 in 2022, 0 being highly corrupt.
The Podesta Group represented the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan in the United States from 2009-2017. The firm sends “informational materials” on behalf of the Azerbaijani Embassy to public officials and media outlets, according to its FARA filings. It also counsels the embassy on US policy, informs nonprofit organizations about global energy security and regional stability in the South Caucasus, and provides the embassy with public relations support.
A former lobbyist with the Podesta Group who represented Azerbaijan during this time period did not return several phone calls.
The reputation of the Podesta Group, formerly a lobbying powerhouse in Washington, was damaged when it was subpoenaed during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. The investigation alleged that former President Donald Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort hired the firm to influence American media and public officials on behalf of pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians. Charges brought against the firm were dropped in 2019.
From 2014 to 2016, the year that the Podesta Group suspended its operations, the firm contacted Cornell 19 times by email, according to numerous FARA filings. The firm also emailed S. Frederick Starr, co-founder of the CACI, nine times and held several meetings with Ilan Berman, senior vice president at AFPC, and Stephen Blank, senior fellow for Russia at AFPC. The subjects of the emails and meetings were either Azerbaijani public relations or US-Azerbaijan relations.
Cornell initially denied that he had ever been approached by or had any interaction with lobbying firms like the Podesta Group. He said that in his opinion Azerbaijan does not work very actively with lobbying groups in the US.
“What I know about them is mostly what I read in the media, but I personally think their role has been overhyped,” Cornell said in an email. “With some exceptions, it seems to me these public relations firms try to maximize the money they get and minimize the work they actually do.”
In a follow-up email, Cornell admitted that he had been approached by the Podesta Group before 2017, when there was a “more concerted effort by PR firms working with the Azerbaijani embassy or other Azerbaijani organizations reaching out to think tanks including ours” than there has been in the past five years, according to Cornell.
He said the emails consisted of either “invitations to Embassy events and the like, some of which I responded to and attended, and mailings trying to promote the Azerbaijani position on events relating to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, and possibly some domestic issues, which I largely ignored.”
Among the events Cornell has accepted invitations to include government-sponsored conferences in Azerbaijan and Artsakh, where Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has also been in attendance. On April 28, 2022, he participated in a visit organized by the government of Azerbaijan to the city of Shushi, a strategic city in Artsakh with cultural significance to both Armenia and Azerbaijan that was captured by Azerbaijani forces during the 2020 war. American and French ambassadors have refused to visit Shushi in order to avoid the appearance of taking sides in the conflict.
He also attended a conference on April 13, 2021 hosted by Azerbaijan’s government during which academics from around the world posted questions to President Aliyev.
“Let me congratulate you and the people of Azerbaijan on the restoration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity,” Cornell said during the conference, in reference to Azerbaijan’s victory in the 2020 war with Armenia. Azerbaijan launched a full-scale attack on Artsakh and captured most of the disputed territory.
“It is clear that this historic achievement has changed the politics of the Caucasus region and far beyond. Most importantly, I think it has shown to the world the capabilities of Azerbaijan and the resolve of Azerbaijani statehood,” Cornell said during the conference.
Among the academics who attended the conference was Brenda Shaffer. Shaffer regularly publishes scholarly articles on the CACI website, including several she penned jointly with Cornell.
A 2015 investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project uncovered that the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard led by Shaffer was set up with funding from the US Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, a pro-Azerbaijan pressure group whose Board of Directors includes a vice president of SOCAR.
“Supported by an overseas regime and an assorted network of overt and undercover lobbyists, [Shaffer] 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,” the article says.
Shaffer and Cornell both also serve on the board of advisors of Caucasus International, a foreign policy journal based in Baku.
Alex Galitsky, program director at the Armenian National Committee for America in Washington, says that attending government-sponsored academic conferences in Azerbaijan and having direct ties with think tanks and academic institutions in the country are two key indicators that scholars have a close connection to the government of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan relies on these scholars to influence public perception around the world in favor of its political interests.
“They are shaping the public opinion of an elite group of thought leaders, scholars, policymakers and academics in the way they engage on these issues,” Galitsky said in an interview.
In turn, such scholars publish writings promoting cooperation between Azerbaijan and the United States.
“They say it’s in the interest of US stability and power projection that countries like Azerbaijan are propped up, and in the same breath dismiss the significance of Azerbaijani human rights abuses and autocratic conduct, saying these things are irrelevant in the calculation of how the United States should engage with a country like Azerbaijan,” Galitsky said.
In addition to his contacts with the Podesta Group, Cornell also attended a meeting with representatives from the DCI Group, LLC. The DCI Group represented the Embassy of Azerbaijan in the United States from 2012-2013. On October 14, 2013, a representative from the DCI Group met with Cornell for breakfast, according to the organization’s FARA filings. A year earlier, on October 9, 2012, the DCI Group emailed Cornell “regarding his book Azerbaijan Since Independence, his relationship with the Ambassador and his insights and future collaboration on Azerbaijan issues.” The purpose of the email was to “influence US policies on behalf of the Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan.”
A review of Azerbaijan Since Independence by Joshua Kucera, the former Caucasus editor at EurasiaNet, calls Cornell “generally pretty pro-Azerbaijan.”
Several lobbyists at DCI Group either did not return several emails or declined to participate in an interview.
Cornell said that the meeting was set up by a former student of his from Johns Hopkins who worked at DCI Group and wanted to learn more about Azerbaijan and the Caucasus. He said the student and her colleague from the firm “showed up with copies of my book with post-it notes sticking out of the book, points on which they wanted to ask questions.”
“I remember being slightly miffed by this rather crass attempt by a well-paid for-profit company getting educated for free, but I obliged as a favor to a former student,” Cornell said in an email.
While teaching at Johns Hopkins, Cornell also led a consulting group he co-founded called Cornell Caspian Consulting, LLC. The company “provides counsel to private or public contractors” on security issues, energy development, defense and military matters, and business matters, as well as “contacts with regional firms, organizations, or governments” in the Caucasus, Central and Southwest Asia, according to its website.
Cornell Caspian Consulting “encourages its staff to keep a close relationship with institutions engaging in policy-relevant academic research.” “Most CCC staff keep a part-time position in universities, think tanks or research institutes,” its website reads.
Cornell participated in the launch of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline in 2000 as a representative of Cornell Caspian Consulting.
Galitsky says it can be difficult to identify the financial ties between the government of Azerbaijan and its network of scholars promoting its interests around the world.
“It’s so behind the scenes and non-transparent that it allows people with direct overt relationships with Azerbaijani officials to get off scot-free and not be seen as tainted by Azerbaijan’s oil money and bribery. It allows them to maintain legitimacy and continue to promote the Azerbaijani regime’s propaganda in these circles with full credibility,” Galitsky said.
However, the covert nature of Azerbaijan’s lobbying to academia allows it to carry on without scrutiny.
“They don’t want the perception that their strongest advocates and allies in academia and scholarship are on their payroll, because that would invalidate a lot of the work they’re doing,” Galitsky said. “People would see it as what it is—a ploy by Azerbaijan to influence American public opinion.”