By Shahin Abbasov
The US Senate’s failure to confirm the appointment of acting ambassador Matthew Bryza to Baku threatens to undercut Azerbaijani relations with the United States.
Bryza’s mandate as US envoy expired at the end of 2011 when the Senate did not take action to approve his recess appointment by US President Barack Obama. Bryza’s nomination had been opposed by Armenian Diaspora lobbying groups, which apparently believed that the diplomat had overly cozy ties to Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Bryza — an experienced career diplomat who served as the US envoy in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks, as well as point-man for coordination of US energy policy in the Caspian Basin — was dispatched to Baku by Obama in early 2011 to serve as ambassador to Baku on a temporary basis. The Senate’s failure to act on his appointment once again creates a void in a diplomatically sensitive area. The nomination process must now start afresh. Deputy Chief of Mission Adam Sterling is expected to lead the embassy in Baku until a new envoy arrives.
Behind closed doors, Bryza’s confirmation controversy is being interpreted by officials in Baku as a slap in the face to Azerbaijan. Many in Baku are particularly miffed at what they see as the undue influence of US-based Armenian Diaspora organizations over the confirmation process. Two of the leading critics of Bryza’s nomination in the Senate — California Democrat Barbara Boxer, and Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat — have well-established associations with Armenia diaspora organizations.
Publicly, most Azerbaijani officials have described Bryza’s status as an internal matter for Washington. At the same time, some Azerbaijani diplomats have hinted that US legislators are venal and prone to influence peddling. Commenting on the lack of a Senate vote, Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov asserted that “Baku understands that some pro-Armenian senators who are under Armenian Diaspora pressure are behind this.” He also said at a December 23 briefing, that he “would not link [the unscheduled vote] with the US role” in the Karabakh talks.
On January 5, Foreign Ministry spokesman Elman Abdullayev expressed hope that the Bryza flap would not hamper bilateral relations. “Ambassador Matthew Bryza was a very strong, competent diplomat, who did much to develop the relations between the United States and Azerbaijan”, the Interfax-Azerbaijan news agency quoted Abdullayev as saying. “We would like to see the development of these relations on the rise.”
Later on, Abdullayev lashed out at US legislators for refusing to confirm Bryza. “It is unpleasant to watch [this] incomprehensible tendency, when the senators or congressmen become an instrument in the hands of the Armenian lobby, thereby harming US interests,” the diplomat was quoted as saying.
During a late December appearance at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov took a swipe at the Senate. According to Azerbaijani news agency reports, Azimov asserted that the Senate’s failure to confirm Bryza’s nomination “could become a bad precedent for American diplomats who would not know whose policy they should pursue – the president’s policy, the Senate’s or the interests of a handful of lobbyists.”
The US State Department has not responded to Azimov’s or remarks.
Azimov’s point of view seems to resonate in Baku. One group of influential civil society activists has contended that “the Bryza issue” raises questions about US fairness in the Karabakh peace process. A December 15 letter signed by prominent civil society figures in Baku and sent to President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton outlined these concerns. In it, Eldar Namazov, chief of staff under the late President Heydar Aliyev, Center for National and International Studies Director Leyla Aliyeva (no relation to President Ilham Aliyev), political analyst Ilgar Mammadov, economic analyst Sabit Bagirov and Turan News Agency Director Mehman Aliyev said that the botched Bryza vote “does not serve to refute” the impression among many Azerbaijanis that the longtime Karabakh talks have failed because of the influence of Armenian Diaspora lobbyists in such mediator countries as the United States and France.
[Editor’s Note: Mehman Aliyev formerly served as board chairman for the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan, part of the Soros Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, a separate part of that network.]
Namazov, who, like many Azerbaijani (and Georgian) public figures, holds a high opinion of the Bryza, commented to EurasiaNet.org that the campaign is “not about the ambassador’s personality,” but “about principles.”
“He is one of the best US diplomats ever working in our region. But, in this case, the principle of the United States remaining an unbiased mediator in Karabakh conflict is more important,” Namazov said.
The Bryza episode could have a lingering negative effect on Baku, fostering distrust in whoever becomes the next American envoy to Azerbaijan. “Confirmation in the Senate would mean that the Armenian lobby is happy with a nomination and it will create suspicions in Baku,” Namazov said.
Analyst Elhan Shahinoglu, head of Baku’s Atlas research center, raised the possibility that a peeved Azerbaijani government “could delay receiving, or even refuse to receive the new ambassador.”
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter in Baku and a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan.