Bogus Azerbaijani ‘Human Rights Group’ Goes to Washington

Back in July, Ken Silverstein wrote an interesting article for Harpers about the how big PR firms in Washington acquire and serve foreign governmental clients. He posed as an agent for a shadowy company that wanted to hire a firm to improve Turkmenistan's image in DC. Under the ruse, he collected proposals and price sheets from the biggest, most well-connected firms.

Although I don't think the article provided a whole lot of new information about how DC firms work ($50,000 monthly retainers! Shocker!), it was interesting to see the whole package and sit in on the pitches. It is definitely worth the read.

Recently, Silverstein was invited to a press event in Washington featuring the Association for Civil Society Development in Azerbaijan (ACSDA) by a firm called Bob Lawrence and Associates. Since Silverstein pointed out in his article that "independent press events" are among the tools used by Washington firms to improve their clients' images, he posted a follow-up on Harpers' website (you have to wonder who thought it was a good idea to invite him in the first place).

Who is ACSDA? It's an "NGO coalition" backed by the Government of Azerbaijan designed showcase Azerbaijan's vibrant civil society to outsiders who don't know any better. Bob Lawrence and Associates also coordinated President Aliyev's 2006 trip to Washington to meet with Bush, Aliyev's reward for not killing any election protesters after the 2005 election.

Silverstein outlined the close relationship between ACSDA, PR firms and the GovAZ:

Bob Lawrence & Associates, a Washington-area firm, put together the press release and is organizing the visit. “It’s a group of human rights activists and free advocates,” Patrice Courtney, a senior associate at Bob Lawrence, told me when I called to ask about the event and the ACSDA. “The people on the delegation are scholars and intellectuals.” According to Courtney, the group “operates independently of the government.

In reality, the whole affair appears to be a government propaganda mission and delegation members are hardly as exalted a bunch as Courtney claimed. Let’s start with Bob Lawrence, which, it turns out, promotes the interests of President Ilham Aliyev but is paid by a cut-out: Renaissance Associates, a pro-government business group based in Baku, the Azeri capital.

ACSDA operates independently of GovAz if by "independently" you mean a "wholly owned subsidiary." ACSDA's coalition members are a collection of (not illegitimate) NGOs that, at best, do nothing that would upset the government and at worst, act as its shills. They operate at the pleasure of the government, which is sort of the opposite of what a "Non-Governmental Organization" is. You won't see any coalition members that legitimately monitor elections, defend the rights of anyone who challenges the government or work to create a genuine free media. The quality English website provides additional evidence the group is a facade as well; most Azerbaijani NGOs are too poorly-funded to have a website, much less a good one in English. ACSDA's site is for external consumption.

The GovAz is savvy enough to know that "civil society" is a key indicator of democratic development and is important to Washington. Because genuine NGOs represent citizens' interests and advocate for change in government policies in every sphere, effective ones might pose a threat. GovAZ's response has been not only to tightly restrict the ability of legitimate groups to operate (not granting them legal status, making it difficult for them to rent office space, harassing or punishing their leaders), but also to create obedient groups, like ACSDA and NGOForum. You'd be surprised how often people who should know better encourage these actions.

This isn't the first time ACSDA has acted as a front group. During the 2005 Parliamentary election (in which I was actively involved), several exit polls were conducted. Of the "legitimate ones," (the term is hard to bestow here, since conducting an exit poll in a place like Azerbaijan is a highly questionable strategy, period) one was conducted by USAID and one by the well-known pollster Warren Mitofsky*. Despite the fact ACSDA is a government-affiliated NGO and not a professional data collection firm, Mitofksy brought the group on to administer his exit poll.

Whether Mitofsky admits it or not, he and ACSDA were there to muddy the waters and dilute the impact of the results of USAID's poll (little did they know how unnecessary their efforts were, but that's another story). In violation of standard procedure for publicly released exit polls, Mitofsky clumsily refused to say who his client was, only that he was getting a lot of money for his efforts.

Daria Vaisman writing in the New Republic was the only one who covered the sordid story. Her article, called Poll Stir, is only online for subscribers but I've made it available here. She followed the tortured, twisted dots of ASCDA's history as a data collector, and pointed out how Mitofsky's Azerbaijan operation violated his own methodologies and common political sense. The methodological and strategic flaws the program aside, ACSDA's data collecting performance was consistent with its past record. I have photographs of ACSDA interviewers filling out questionnaires and their empty tables at mid-day in the constituency where I was an election monitor.

Dictators hiring PR firms in Washington to improve their image is hardly news. That's what they do. But Azerbaijan being the backwater it is, with no domestic free media and only a few western freelancers and wire stringers, there's no competition to the narrative being created by the Azerbaijani and US governments and the oil-industrial complex. Managed democracy is being instituted in oil-rich Azerbaijan on a grand scale and there are a whole lot of people whose views are not being heard. The story Washington hears -- all about oil supplies and stability in the region -- is one-sided. By design.

The idea of managed democracy is one I want to explore more on this blog because of its relevant to what's happening in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan (though Russia doesn't really even pretend anymore, does it?). There are lots of interesting facets to this idea, particularly the degree to which the US encourages it in places with friendly dictators.

*Mitofsky, who was the father of modern exit polling, became embroiled in controversy in the U.S. after the 2004 presidential election. That controversy is beyond the scope of this blog. After the TNR article came out about Azerbaijan in late 2005, Mitofsky tried damage control. The attempt was so feeble, I was embarrassed for him. Either he was incredibly naive -- genuinely not knowing who hired him and why--, or he thought his reputation could withstand helping a dictator steal an election for a large amount of money. Sadly, Mitofsky died in 2006.