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Warring Caucasus parties take their fight to Washington

Azerbaijan is stepping up its Washington lobbying as its frozen conflict with Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh once again grows hot.

The Caucasus country’s government is currently negotiating a written contract with the Livingston Group for lobbying and “perception management,” according to a new filing with the Justice Department. The firm has registered two agents on the account: the firm’s founder, former congressman Robert Livingston, Republican of Louisiana, and partner John Bernard Robinson, a former chief of staff to Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.). They have already begun lobbying Congress.

The stepped-up influence campaign comes as skirmishes broke out earlier this month over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly ethnically Armenian breakaway region of Azerbaijan. The fighting has claimed more than a dozen lives in the worst violence since their four-day war in 2016. Each side blames the other for starting the fighting.

Legislative battles

According to Livingston’s filing, its lobbyists contacted McGovern and House Rules Committee ranking member Tom Cole (R-Okla.) two weeks ago as the panel was teeing up the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The panel ended up blocking two amendments backed by Armenian-American advocates. One from Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) sought to block the transfer of US defense articles that strengthen Azerbaijan’s offensive airstrike capabilities; another from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) would have restored military aid parity between the two countries after the Pentagon allocated more than $100 million in security assistance in 2018 and 2019.

The panel and later the full House did approve a separate amendment from Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) that requires a report on human rights violations by countries that received funding under the security assistance program. While the amendment does not mention Azerbaijan by name, Pallone made clear who it was aimed at in a press release last week.

“This amendment is especially important now as Azerbaijan threatens Armenia’s safety and sovereignty with offensive attacks staged by Azeri armed forces in Armenia’s Tavush region,” Pallone said.

The two sides have also been fighting over the provision of demining assistance for Nagorno-Karabakh. This year the effort came under increased threat after US Ambassador to Armenia Lynne Tracy announced in May that US support was ending after an “extremely successful” investment of $17 million over 20 years.

During consideration of the House foreign aid spending bill last week, Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus Co-chairman Steve Cohen (R-Tenn.) sought to block US funding for demining in Nagorno-Karabakh. The effort failed. Instead, the House passed a bill that directs the State Department and the US Agency for International Development to continue funding the effort.

Lobbying shake-up

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said the heightened lobbying could be a sign of a more aggressive posture by Azerbaijan in line with the firing of longtime Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov earlier this month. The Livingston Group did not respond to a request for comment.

“I think they’re carefully reviewing how they’re represented abroad, both diplomatically and in terms of their lobbying,” Hamparian told Foreign Lobby Report. “And I think they’re moving in the direction of a more incendiary approach.”

The Livingston Group is no stranger to Azerbaijan, having represented the embassy in Washington from 2005 to 2009. The firm joins BGR Government Affairs and Stellar Jay Communications on the account, along with BGR subcontractor Baker Donelson.

“I think they’re moving in the direction of a more incendiary approach.”

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America

In recent weeks, Stellar Jay has pitched interviews with ambassador Elin Suleymanov to conservative outlets while framing Armenia as pro-Iran, despite Azerbaijan’s own energy ties to Tehran. On July 14, for example, Stellar Jay chief Jacob Kamaras pitched Suleymanov to the right-wing Washington Free Beacon with “a few angles below that could help you provide broader context in any story.”

“Although Iran — which shares borders with both Armenia and Azerbaijan — claims a neutral position toward this conflict, Iranian trucks in April delivered fuel to Nagorno-Karabakh in what Azerbaijan described as a breach of that neutral stance,” Kamaras wrote. “There is also the matter of the deep ties between Iran and Armenia both economically and diplomatically, including Armenia’s role in helping Iran circumvent US and international sanctions.”

The ambassador has been making the rounds: He was interviewed in a July 17 article by the Jewish News Syndicate, where Kamaras used to be editor-in-chief. And on July 20, he appeared on the John Batchelor Show alongside Brenda Shaffer, a senior energy adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

BGR for its part has drawn Washington’s attention to Armenia’s December vote against a UN resolution condemning Russia’s occupation of Crimea (Russia has a military base in Armenia). The firm has also shared an article raising alarm bells that Armenia “does not plan to limit its occupation to the already occupied territories of Azerbaijan.”

That article concludes with a call on international institutions and states to pressure Armenia into “immediate substantive talks.” Otherwise, it warns, “the world will likely have to experience another humanitarian tragedy amidst the already troubled challenges posed by other interstate conflicts, economic crises and the global pandemic.”

Update: This story was updated at 2 p.m. on Aug. 6 to reflect that Robert Livingston has registered to lobby for Azerbaijan. The Livingston Group said an earlier registration for J. Allen Martin was in error.