Matthew Bryza, President Obama's controversial nominee to be the next American ambassador to Azerbaijan, had his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on July 22. He defended himself against allegations of bias in favor of Baku and asserted he would be an even-handed advocate of US policy in the Caucasus. His critics did not appear reassured, however.
Bryza, who as deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs has long been the United States’ most visible diplomat in the South Caucasus, was nominated in May to be Washington's ambassador to Baku. Baku has been without an American ambassador for more than a year, causing Azerbaijani officials to complain that they were being ignored by Washington. The White House attempted to rectify that by sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Azerbaijan in recent months.
Azerbaijan has welcomed Bryza's nomination, and Azerbaijani-American groups have supported it – two developments that enhanced his confirmation chances. But Armenian-American groups have remained vigorously opposed to the nomination, alleging that he is biased against Armenia in favor of Azerbaijan. Bryza, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, denied the accusation of bias.
“The only way to have any success pursuing these [U.S.] interests is to remain objective and fair to both parties,” he said. “Criticism ... has come from both sides, from both Azerbaijan and Armenia, and that's the cost of doing diplomatic business.”
Bryza faced more difficult questioning than most ambassadorial nominees, primarily from two senate Democrats who represent large Armenian-American constituencies -- Barbara Boxer of California and Robert Menendez of New Jersey. Menendez asked Bryza about a former US ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, who was fired for acknowledging that there was an Armenian genocide. Bryza said he had nothing to do with the episode: “I played absolutely no role in the firing of Ambassador Evans. I was not consulted and I only learned of the facts ex post facto. ... As hard as it is to believe, I was not part of the process whatsoever.”
He declined to answer a question by Boxer about Baku's bellicose rhetoric against Armenia, and whether such statements are “actively escalating the situation.” But he did acknowledge that a recent cease-fire violation in Nagorno-Karabakh, in which four Armenian soldiers and one Azerbaijani were killed, was initiated by the Azerbaijani side. “There was an Azerbaijani move across the line of contact, Armenia responded, resulting in deaths which, yes, Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton did condemn.”
“There is no military solution to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh,” he added. He said he supported US aid to Karabakh, and denied that he ignored the 2005 destruction of an ancient Armenian cemetery in Djulfa, Azerbaijan.
Asked about the imprisonment of two opposition political bloggers in Azerbaijan, Bryza said freedom of the press would be a “top priority” for him, if he were confirmed. He said Azerbaijan “has a long way to go” on democratization, but that it holds potential: “Ultimately, if Azerbaijan succeeds in blending democratization, prosperity, and elements of its own culture, it could become an example for transitional countries around the world.” [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
Much of the controversy around Bryza has related to his wife, Zeyno Baran, a Turkish-American scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington. At the hearing, he said that his marriage would present no conflict of interest, and that a thorough State Department vetting of his finances found nothing untoward. He said Baran would not influence his positions as ambassador, and that any common positions they held were the result of kindred spirits.
“It is, in fact, her sharp, brilliant mind, her commitment to the same sort of international values I'm committed to – peace, prosperity, democratization, compatibility of Islam and democracy – that brought us together in the first place. We have common ideas about the world, and perhaps that's how we fell in love originally. But we have also made a decision, 10 years ago, to separate our professional and private lives,” he said, adding that if he were confirmed, Baran would not bring up any issue “related to the Hudson Institute” before the State Department or the US Embassy in Baku, and that he also would decline to take up any issue related to the Institute, without prior authorization.
Bryza and Baran's wedding, in Istanbul, was attended by several top Azerbaijani government officials, which opponents have pointed to as evidence of his coziness with Baku. But Bryza said the couple invited a wide range of guests, and didn't know who would accept. “We invited a broad cross-section of all the people we've known through the course of our work for the last decade that we've known each other. For me, this included government officials, diplomats, civil society leaders, opposition leaders, religious leaders including His Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Istanbul, including the Armenian Partriarch Mesrob (now deceased) from, yes, Azerbaijan, but from Armenia, from Turkey, from Greece, from the Republic of Cyprus, and from other countries I've worked on throughout my career.” Bryza added that allegations that one Azerbaijani official had financed the wedding were “absolutely untrue” and that their family paid for the entire wedding.
Bryza also has come under criticism that he may have encouraged Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to believe that Washington supported Tbilisi unconditionally, and that that perception may have contributed to the Saakashvili administration’s decision to launch an attack South Ossetia in 2008. However, Bryza was not asked about this issue at the hearing.
Not all of the senators at the hearing were hostile. Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, took the unusual step of formally “introducing” Bryza to the committee. “Matthew Bryza is uniquely qualified to advance … US priorities,” he said. “His personal efforts have been fundamental to improved relations among nations in the Caucasus and to improved energy security.”
Bryza's performance at the hearing did little to mollify his critics. The Armenian National Committee of America, which has been the most outspoken voice in Washington against the nomination, said in a statement that his testimony “raised more questions than it answered.”
“In terms of addressing conflict-of-interest issues, his responses ... fell short. His announcement that his wife, who professionally advocates on Caspian energy policy and works at the Hudson Institute, whose supporters include Azerbaijani, Turkish, and energy corporate interests, has now pledged to steer clear of State Department policymakers dealing with Azerbaijan is too little, too late, coming, as it does, ten years into his service in a series of senior and sensitive posts dealing directly with Baku and the Caspian energy industry.”
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.