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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Azerbaijan Lobby Goes to Washington

WASHINGTON -- Standing in a light rain under the watchful eye of police, the protesters waved signs and shouted at the top of their lungs: "Aliyev is a murderer! Aliyev is a dictator! Aliyev, go home!"

But inside a lecture hall in Washington last month, Heydar Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, could not hear a word of it. Showing multicolored maps on an overhead projector to demonstrate what he called Armenia's aggressive ways, Aliyev, a former Soviet deputy prime minister and leader of the local KGB, held court over an assembly of influential foreign policy experts. Without a doubt, he seemed to have the upper hand over his opponents outside.

In reality, however, it was the band of protesters who had the political muscle behind them, frustrating Aliyev's recent attempts to end a congressional ban on U.S. government aid to Azerbaijan that was passed to punish the country for its blockade of Armenia.

Pro-Armenian activists have kept Azerbaijan on a U.S. government blacklist since 1992 - the only former Soviet republic to be punished in this way - thanks to a well-coordinated lobbying effort by Armenian-Americans and a strong coalition of Armenia supporters in the U.S. Congress.

But the Azeris are pushing back. Aliyev himself has engaged in face-to-face lobbying, and some high-powered hired professionals are doing the same behind the scenes. Adding to the effort, some of the most powerful U.S. oil companies have been acting quietly on Azerbaijan's behalf.

Most American big oil companies have an interest in the energy-rich region. Three U.S. companies, Exxon Mobil, Unocal and Pennzoil-Quaker State, are part of the Azeri International Operating Co. Other companies, such as Chevron and Texaco, are active in other parts of the Caspian Sea region.

One U.S. oil company executive, who spoke only on the condition that he not be identified, said the restrictions on government aid to Azerbaijan were interfering with the efforts of U.S. companies to develop oil there. At the same time, the oil companies have sought to avoid becoming involved in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, he said.

The U.S.-Azerbaijan Business Council, a group that promotes business ties between the two countries, has worked to overturn the restrictions. Jayhun Mollazade, president of the council, said the restrictions were a "political irritant between Azerbaijan and the United States" and they also interfered with business.

Despite these efforts on Azerbaijan's behalf, the restrictions on aid remain in place. The Armenian-American community, which numbers about 1 million people, is well organized in its support for the restrictions. Bound together by remembrances of the 1915 massacre of 1 million Armenians by the Turks, Armenian-Americans are wise to the ways of grass-roots activism: letters to lawmakers, campaign contributions and even protests in the rain.

Aliyev made his case directly to President Bill Clinton last month during a 45-minute meeting at the White House that included both Aliyev's entourage and Clinton's top foreign policy advisers.

If Clinton's view had been the only one that mattered, Aliyev would have accomplished his mission. The White House contends that the ban on U.S. assistance to Azerbaijan is counterproductive and ought to be lifted. But despite entreaties from administration officials, the majority of Congress has a different view.

The ban on U.S. assistance stems from the bitter conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh. The two sides reached a cease-fire in 1994 and despite flare-ups continue to engage in peace talks.

Armen Kharazyan, deputy chief of mission at the Armenian Embassy, argued that lifting the aid restrictions would send the wrong message to Azerbaijan. The two neighboring countries have no trade or diplomatic relations, Kharazyan said.

In the White House meeting, Clinton repeated his opposition to the restrictions on aid, known as Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act. But Clinton also let his counterpart know that his hands were tied.

Clinton could waive the restrictions if he made a finding that Azerbaijan had made progress toward ending the blockade. But mindful of the strong opposition among Armenian-Americans, he has left it to Congress to lift the ban.

The standoff leaves Aliyev, who came to power in 1993 after a military coup and won election in 1998 in a contest the State Department says was "marred by irregularities," with an up-close look at democracy in action. In the interview, Aliyev expressed both an understanding of, and an annoyance with, Congress.

But after his White House visit, Aliyev showed an understanding of how U.S. lawmaking operates. Azerbaijan also has hired two lobbying firms to press its case on Capitol Hill.