After criticism from President-elect Donald Trump, congressional Republicans backed down from their decision Tuesday to silence and subjugate the quasi-independent Office of Congressional Ethics.
Assuming they stick to the reversal, that’s fortunate – even if not for the reasons Trump had in mind when he tweeted his dismay at the original plan. The OCE was a rare entity that exposed the goings-on in the Washington “swamp” that Trump promised to drain – including the inner workings of some shady alliances that have undermined America’s moral authority and standing as a global values arbiter.
One of the OCE’s most high-profile investigations concerned Azerbaijan, a small, oil-rich, post-Soviet nation that has more people recognized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International than Russia and Belarus combined.
Azerbaijan is a hereditary dictatorship: President Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father in 2003 and has been in power ever since despite periodic rigged elections. It doesn’t have a free press and its economy is state-dominated; it’s also involved in a festering conflict with neighboring Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh, a landlocked Armenian enclave handed to Azerbaijan by Josef Stalin in 1923 but made autonomous.
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Armenia won the territory in 1994 after a protracted war, and conflict has scarcely stopped since.
Azerbaijan is also a country that has a friendly relationship with the U.S. In 2014, it received more than $64 million in U.S. aid, both civilian and military. The aid kept coming steadily as Aliyev’s dictatorship thrived thanks to high oil prices.
In May and June 2013, a delegation of 11 U.S. Congress members and 32 congressional staff members visited Baku, the capital, to attend a conference called U.S.-Azerbaijan: Vision for the Future. It was ostensibly funded by two nonprofit groups, from which the U.S. legislators and their staffs were allowed to accept travel.
The OCE found, however, that the nonprofits received the money for the trip from the Azerbaijani state-owned oil company, Socar, and one of the groups – paid $750,000 by Socar – had been set up just one month before the conference. While in Baku, all the U.S. legislators received “rugs of various sizes and value” as gifts, and some legislators and staffers also got crystal tea sets and silk scarves.
It must have been clear to everyone concerned that the conference was a government-sponsored event. Aliyev even made an appearance. In July 2015, however, the congressional Committee on Ethics cleared all participants in the junket of any wrongdoing, noting that “either on their own initiative or at the committee’s recommendation, all members have voluntarily remedied, or committed to remedy, any impermissible gifts received.”
As for the travel expenses, the committee claimed the legislators and their aides couldn’t have known they’d come from the Azerbaijani government.
The U.S. has certain geopolitical reasons to be friendly with Azerbaijan. It is an alternative to Russia as a source of oil and gas for Turkey and Europe and, as a predominantly Muslim but secular state, an ally in the fight against terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.
It is, however, a tyranny in a permanent state of war with far more liberal Armenia – a country Freedom House ranks “partly free” compared with “not free” Azerbaijan.
But despite its large and vocal diaspora, Armenia is a Russian ally, part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pet economic project, the Eurasian Union free-trade area. Under recent U.S. administrations, that closeness to Moscow has been a bigger sin than Baku’s imprisonment of government critics.
Aliyev has paid generously to drive these advantages home to U.S. politicians. It employs the Podesta Group, led by the brother of key Democratic operative John Podesta, for $45,000 a month plus expenses, and it is unusually creative in its lobbying activities. It’s hard to tell whether it’s this creativity and generosity or any real strategic interest that makes the U.S. overlook the country’s brutal dictatorship.
When Trump tweeted Tuesday that Congress has more important things to do than to weaken the ethics watchdog, he was probably not thinking about the Azeribaijan investigation. Under Trump’s administration, the U.S. is probably going to drop the pretense of pursuing a values-based policy.
The Trump organization has done business in Azerbaijan, partnering with the son of the country’s transport minister to build a hotel in Baku. Trump canceled the Baku licensing deal after his election. But the ever-creative Azerbaijani embassy in Washington recently picked Trump’s D.C. hotel as the venue for one of its trademark events “celebrating religious freedom and diversity.”
If the Trump administration continues U.S. support of Aliyev, at least it will be seen as openly and perhaps cynically calculating. Trump has no declared problems with authoritarian regimes. But Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans in Congress, who profess to stand on values, will appreciate some quiet about accepting junkets from Aliyev.
The 2013 congressional delegation was a bipartisan group. The public wouldn’t have found out about the trip if not for the pesky OCE.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.