Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – There’s nearly 7,000 miles between New Mexico and the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.
But the distance between the two belies an increasing political coziness – one cultivated by dinner receptions at the Roundhouse and state lawmakers’ trips to Azerbaijan – that has prompted at least isolated criticism and landed New Mexico in the midst of a long-running regional feud.
A top-ranking state lawmaker who was one of numerous legislators to travel to Azerbaijan in recent years as part of official delegations insists the paid-for trips have been educational and says they have not been pressured to provide something in return.
“I just think we really have a friendship that has developed between us,” Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, said in a recent interview. “I personally have never felt there was any obligation (for payback).”
But during each of the past three years, New Mexico legislators have approved nonbinding memorials extolling the virtues of Azerbaijan and the ties between the secular Muslim majority country and the Land of Enchantment. Most of those memorials – including ones approved this year in both the House and Senate – received unanimous backing and little debate.
The memorials approved during this year’s 60-day legislative session described the government of Azerbaijan as having fostered an “environment of tolerance, mutual acceptance and respect” and commended the country’s efforts to counter regional unrest.
“Azerbaijan offers an environment where Muslims, Jews and Christians enjoy peaceful coexistence and live in dignity and harmony and with respect for one another,” reads Senate Memorial 99, which passed 31-0. The House version contains similar language.
Although the memorials do not carry legal weight, copies of them were sent to President Barack Obama, the U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and other elected and appointed officials.
However, Azerbaijan has plenty of critics.
It was recently listed as one of the 10 most censored countries in the world by the Committee to Protect Journalists, along with North Korea, Saudi Arabia, China, Iran and others.
“Several critical journalists fled the country in 2014, and those remaining faced attacks and harassment, were banned from traveling, or were prosecuted on fabricated charges,” the group said in its report.
Amnesty International said in its report on Azerbaijan that authorities there had imprisoned government critics, journalists and political activists. The organization also cited reports of torture and other “ill-treatment” of protesters and opposition leaders.
Papen said Friday that she is aware of the outside criticism but that she did not think it a reason to cut ties with Azerbaijan.
“If we have countries out there that are trying to be democracies and are friends with the United States, should we kick them in the teeth?” Papen told the Journal. “We need to be building better relationships and friendships, not tearing them down.”
Other states courted
New Mexico isn’t alone in receiving attention from Azerbaijan, which has pushed for similar resolutions or memorials in more than 30 states around the nation.
In fact, a 2014 BuzzFeed report found that Azerbaijan was one of the top 10 foreign spenders on lobbying in the United States in 2013, having spent more than $2 million on such efforts.
But policymakers here appear to be particularly interested in reciprocating that attention.
New Mexico sent 25 delegates, more than any other state, to a 2013 conference titled “U.S.-Azerbaijan Convention: Vision for the Future” held in the country’s capital, Baku, according to a report in the monthly newspaper The Washington Diplomat.
Papen said “quite a few” state legislators, from both political parties, have traveled to Azerbaijan in recent years. She said lawmakers have been invited into homes and returned with a greater understanding about global relations.
The Legislature does not have a list of lawmakers who have made trips to Azerbaijan, partly because legislators are not required to obtain permission for such trips and do not have to file reports for their travel if they are not seeking reimbursement.
Legislators from other states have also been invited on the 10-day trips, which are paid for by the Azerbaijan government and touted as opportunities to build relationships and trade partnerships, according to a recent Arizona Capitol Times report.
In New Mexico, legislators are barred from receiving gifts worth more than $250 from certain “restricted donors,” but there have been no allegations that the Azerbaijani government meets that definition. Azerbaijani-affiliated groups do not appear in the state’s index of registered lobbyists, and a Journal review of campaign finance reports did not show any contributions to state lawmakers from Azerbaijani officials.
However, the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan reported that about 25 legislators attended a Roundhouse dinner reception held to honor the anniversary of the 1992 Khojaly tragedy, which Azerbaijan describes as genocide.
In addition, Nasimi Aghayev, Azerbaijan’s consul general in Los Angeles, posted a picture of himself and Papen in the Senate gallery with the caption, “With Senator Mary Kay Papen of New Mexico – great friend of Azerbaijan and all other freedom-loving nations.”
In New Mexico, the pro-Azerbaijani memorials have largely flown under the radar in recent years.
Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat, told BuzzFeed that a memorial approved in 2013 at the state Capitol was met with “mostly blank stares” by legislators who had not visited Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, Rep. Nora Espinoza, R-Roswell, told a reporter during the 2013 trip to Azerbaijan that communism was still fresh in the minds of people there, saying, “We in America have forgotten what our forefathers fought for. But they have lived it.”
Espinoza and Ortiz y Pino are among the lawmakers who have sponsored Azerbaijan-related memorials in Santa Fe, with Papen and Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, the others. Papen was the only one of the lawmakers who returned a phone call seeking comment for this story.
However, the pro-Azerbaijan memorials have met with resistance in some other states. Hawaii lawmakers, for instance, rejected a similar resolution in 2014 amidst opposition from members of the state’s Armenian community.
Armenia and Azerbaijan, which are neighboring countries, have been at odds for years, due in large part to territorial squabbles and ethnic tension between Muslim Azeris and Christian Armenians. The conflict has at times flared – as evidenced by the 1992 Khojaly massacre – and is still simmering.
Ken Gleria, a member of the Armenian Cultural Association of New Mexico and church council member of the Armenian Church of Albuquerque, blasted the Legislature’s recent memorials as misleading and said his attempts to present opposing viewpoints during this year’s session were ignored by leading lawmakers.
“Azerbaijani lobbyists are introducing absurd resolutions throughout the nation, not because of their veracity or because of deep ties between Americans and Azerbaijanis, but rather due the well-financed and influential lobby which has emerged in light of Azerbaijan’s growth as an oil-producing nation,” Gleria wrote in a letter to the Journal.
Phone calls and an email to the Houston-based president of the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan were not returned.
Lujan Grisham trip
The 2013 convention in Azerbaijan has already caused problems for one New Mexico elected official who attended the event.
U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., was named in a Washington Post report earlier this year as one of 10 members of Congress who traveled to the country for the conference, which was secretly paid for by the country’s state-owned oil company.
The Albuquerque Democrat reportedly told investigators she thought the trip was being paid for by nonprofit groups and did not think Azerbaijani rugs she received as gifts on the trip were valuable or attractive. In addition, she received approval for the trip from the House Ethics Committee before she left, a spokesman said in May.
Lujan Grisham and some of her colleagues – a bipartisan group – did not report the gifted rugs on disclosure forms after returning home.
Other examples of New Mexico’s burgeoning alliance with Azerbaijan also exist.
New Mexico State University President Garrey Carruthers, former governor of New Mexico, signed an affiliation agreement with the Association of the Friends of Azerbaijan earlier this year.
The agreement calls for scholarship for NMSU students to participate in the Baku Summer Energy School, sponsored by Exxon Mobil and other groups. University of New Mexico and New Mexico Tech students will also be eligible to take part in the summer school, according to an announcement of the pact.