A diplomatic cable dispatched by the US Embassy in Azerbaijan, part of the cache of documents obtained by the WikiLeaks website, compares Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to two iconic mafia dons from “The Godfather” movie trilogy -- impulsive Sonny Corleone and his brother, the coldly calculating Michael. The cable goes on to suggest that the dual-nature of the Azerbaijani leader often places “US interests” in opposition to “US values.”
It would seem that few heads of state would welcome a public comparison to criminals, whether real or imagined. But so far, the US cable -- purportedly written in September 2009 by Washington’s then senior diplomat in Baku, former deputy chief of mission Donald Lu -- has largely passed unnoticed. The document, classified as secret, was posted on WikiLeaks’ Cable Viewer site on December 1.
Citing “some observers,” the cable states that Aliyev’s foreign policies show his “Michael Corleone” side; they are marked by “pragmatism, restraint and a helpful bias toward integration with the West,” the document reads. His domestic policies, however, particularly on the 2009 imprisonment of bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, illustrate his inner “Sonny Corleone,” the dispatch claims --“increasingly authoritarian and hostile to diversity of political views.”
“[T]his Michael/Sonny dichotomy complicates our approach to Baku and has the unfortunate effect of framing what should be a strategically valuable relationship as a choice between US interests and US values,” the alleged cable reports.
“The dissonance between Aliyev's sensible approach to foreign affairs, manifested by the cosmopolitan image he presents to Western visitors, with his tailored suits and flawless English, and the unpleasant reality of his approach to domestic issues raises the obvious question of how these two realities coexist,” the document continues.
Azerbaijani media do not appear eager to seek answers to that question. Pro-opposition media are still focusing on earlier releases about Aliyev’s alleged remarks about Turkey, Iran and Russia. Pro-government media outlets, meanwhile, are keeping silent, focusing their attention on another alleged US dispatch that threatens sanctions against Armenia for reportedly shipping arms to Iran.
After issuing a statement November 30 that dismissed the WikiLeaks disclosures as “a clear provocation aimed at damaging Azerbaijan’s relations with neighboring countries,” the presidential press office has not commented. Similarly, the US Embassy to Baku has declined to “comment on documents which pretend to contain classified information.”
Even so, “The Godfather” analogy “does not promise anything positive for US-Azerbaijani relations,” one local analyst believes.
“Such comments by a high-ranking US diplomat are, of course, offending, and will not go unnoticed by Baku," commented Elhan Shahinoglu, head of the Atlas think-tank. “Baku could … demand apologies in the future.”
Cables leaked earlier by WikiLeaks have touched on another sensitive spot for US-Azerbaijani relations – Iranian business activities and suspected money laundering in Azerbaijan.
One of the published dispatches, allegedly sent in March 2009 by former US Ambassador Anne Derse, lists 12 Iranians who allegedly have wide business interests in Azerbaijan as well as links to Iran’s political elite. The dispatch names them as suspected of laundering large amounts of money in Azerbaijan and violating international sanctions against Iran.
The dispatch mentions one Iranian bank, Bank Melli, and some large Azerbaijani banks -- Bank of Baku, Xalq Bank and Royal Bank – as involved in the illicit activities. Azerbaijani Transportation Minister Ziya Mammadov, Education Minister Misir Mardanov and the chief of the president’s security service, Vagif Akhundov, are also listed as possibly cooperating with the Iranians in question.
So far, only the Bank of Baku has denied the allegations. “The Bank of Baku has nothing to do with illegal money transfers,” it declared in a November 30 statement. “All bank clients’ operations are executed in strict correspondence with Azerbaijani legislation.”
The Bank goes on to state that one of the named Iranians, Adil Sharabiani, is not a client; a second, Jamsheed "Jushkar" Mahmudoglu, is not a shareholder.
The Bank of Baku confirms, though, that the ethnic Iranian Oromi family named in the dispatch is a bank founder, and a shareholder via the Turkish holding Nab Dis Ticaret.
A senior manager at one of the largest Azerbaijani commercial banks who did not want to be named told EurasiaNet.org that the Central Bank of Azerbaijan (CBA) actually tightly monitors any possible financial operations involving Iranian money laundering. “As early as this summer, the CBA unofficially banned commercial banks from opening accounts and providing services for Iranian nationals,” the source said.
The Central Bank of Azerbaijan declined to comment.
Meanwhile, pro-opposition Azerbaijani media outlets continue to focus attention on one of the most scandalous WikiLeaks dispatches – a February 2010 cable that repeats President Aliyev’s alleged opinions about Ankara’s “unconstructive” position on gas cooperation with Azerbaijan, the “failures” of Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East, Iran’s “provocations” against Azerbaijan, and the “feelings of strong confrontation” between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The cable on December 2 disappeared from the WikiLeaks’ Cable Viewer site. No explanation was provided for the removal.
In its November 30 statement, the presidential press office commented that the “jargon, sharp and emotional comments published by [WikiLeaks] are absent from the President’s vocabulary.”
Commenting on the alleged cable, experts differed in their assessment of what influence the information could have on Azerbaijani foreign policy.
Eldar Namazov, who worked in the 1990s as a senior foreign policy aide to the late president Heydar Aliyev, said he did not find anything new or surprising in the information. “I do not know what else WikiLeaks promised to disclose, but for now I do not see any sensation,” Namazov said. “These materials will have zero impact on Azerbaijan’s relations with other countries.”
The information could have its most serious impact on Washington’s relations with Azerbaijan and other countries in the region, believes Atlas’ Shahinoglu. “From now on, leaders of all countries will be very careful in their wording, even at closed meetings with US officials, which, of course, will make it difficult getting objective information,” said Shahinoglu.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Foundation-Azerbaijan.