Long before Donald Trump was upending the Republican Party’s presidential primary with his black-and-white worldview, he had a more nuanced foreign policy as a global deal maker.
No stranger to the Muslim world, Trump has closed multimillion-dollar deals for golf courses, office towers, and hotels in Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia and Azerbaijan. No doubt "he loves" these Muslims.
In the case of Azerbaijan, the savvy Trump appears to have shown no hesitation. The country has a reputation as an oppressive kleptocracy whose ruling family was described by a U.S. State Department official in a Wikileaks cable as the Caspian Sea’s version of the Corleone family of “Godfather” infamy. However, as Trump knows well, when it comes to real estate, it is all about location. And Azerbaijan’s critical geo-political location, and it’s vast oil reserves, ensures that the U.S. and the rest of the West will ignore whatever that nation does that might get in the way of doing business. The predominately Shiite Muslim nation is also Israel’s top oil supplier.
To the north, the country is bordered by Russia, to the south by Iran and to the west by its arch-nemesis, Armenia. Long simmering tensions between Armenia, a predominately Christian nation, and Azerbaijan, a secular Muslim country, broke out into a shooting war in the late 1980’s that still flares up since a 1994 truce.
For Trump, in such a geo-political pivot point, finding the right partner was critical. Promotional material produced in 2014 predicted that his signature hotel would be 33 floors high and would provide the “highest level of luxury and refinement” in the heart of Baku, the nation’s capital on the shores of the Caspian Sea. So Trump turned to the well connected, locally based Garant Holding. Garant is run by Anar Mammadov, whose father, Ziya Mammadov, is the national government’s Transport Minister and top advisor to the nation’s leader, Ilham Aliyev, who took over ruling this former Soviet republic from his father in 2003.
(Ilham’s father Heydar's hold on power extended from 1969 through the early 1980s. Only two years after Azerbaijan’s independence from the dissolving Soviet Union in 1991, Heydar was back on top until 2003 when he stepped down and Ilham took over.)
According to an October 2015 report from Human Rights Watch the Azerbaijan regime plays real Soviet styled hardball with political dissidents:
“Torture and ill-treatment are well-documented, persistent problems in Azerbaijan, and are perpetrated with near impunity,” according to a report by Human Rights Watch. “In the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, the detainees complained to their lawyers, family members or in court that they have been beaten or abusively harassed to force them to sign incriminating confessions or letters of repentance, suffered physical or psychological pressure in prison, or been denied appropriate medical treatment.
“The government has been locking up human rights defenders one after another and then denying their reports of ill treatment,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “The UN Committee Against Torture made clear that the government needs to free the human rights defenders and stop turning a blind eye to their ill treatment in prison.”
Complaints about how elections are run in Azerbaijan are longstanding. Despite years of U.S. State Department handwringing, American officials still write statements like the one they did last month, lamenting the country’s decision to block outside election monitors. The language is carefully crafted, calling for an end to the country’s “restrictive political environment” and urging the dictatorship to “respect the freedom to assembly” and of a free press to operate.
As with Donald Trump’s family, strongman Ilham Aliyev’s kids have proven to be incredibly successful early on in life, making great multimillion dollar real estate plays. Consider the 2010 Washington Post report that in just two weeks, an 11 year old boy, with the same name and birthday as the Azerbaijani President’s son, became the proud owner of nine waterfront villas in Dubai valued at $42 million.
But perhaps the greatest coup pulled off by the Aliyev regime and its stateside boosters has been their successful lobbying both in Europe and here in the U.S. that helped them attract an A-list crowd from both sides of the Atlantic to attend their promotional events. In October of 2012 pop-singer Rihanna took a public relations hit for her appearance as a musical headliner in Baku on the occasion of the FIFA’s under 17 Women’s World Cup. Talk about promotional synergy!
In 2013, Politico reported on an event sponsored by a pro-Azerbaijani group based in Houston that drew dozens of members of the U.S. House, state legislators, and former top officials from the Obama White House to Baku. Reportedly, former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs, former deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, and Obama political advisor David Plouffe each got paid five figures to make a speech during the two day conference that was also sponsored by the world’s biggest oil companies. And for Plouffe it was a return engagement. Back in 2009, Plouffe was compensated to the tune of $50,000 for a speech, although he ultimately decided to donate the proceeds to pro-democracy groups. At the time, the White House responded to reporters questions by saying Plouffe was just traveling as a private citizen.
Writing in the October of 2014 for Foreign Policy, Michael Weiss describes a multi-million dollar Azerbaijani charm offensive that includes getting advice from the Podesta Group, a beltway-based lobbying shop established by Tony Podesta, brother of John Podesta, a long time senior advisor to President Obama. But like any successful effort inside the self-dealing beltway, in order to fly under the radar, both sides of the aisle have to profit. And so Weiss recounts how Fabiani & Company, established by James Fabiani, the former Republican staff director of the House Committee on Appropriations, helped the Azerbaijan American Alliance execute its winning strategy.
AAA was founded a few years ago by Anar Mammadov, Trump’s partner in the Baku hotel project. The chairman of the AAA board since 2013 is long time former Congressman Dan Burton, (R-Ind). Burton was chairman of the House Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats.
AAA’s efforts even extended down to the U.S. state capitals, where they were successful in getting several state legislative bodies to pass resolutions and proclamations declaring that, as in the case of the Illinois State Senate, the authoritarian regime “shares America’s values.”
Luckily for candidate Trump, most Americans can’t find Azerbaijan, much less its capital Baku, on a map. Trump thinks our big vulnerability is from foreigners looking to come into the U.S. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to our fellow Americans, who we entrust with high office, who can’t wait to leave public service so they can enrich themselves steering our foreign policy for their clients.