Good COP, bad COP: Azerbaijan’s climate charm offensive is backfiring

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Azerbaijan scored a major diplomatic victory when it won the right to host this year’s COP29 U.N. climate talks.

Now it’s experiencing the downside of this newfound prestige — heightened scrutiny of the regime’s murky foreign influence peddling, jailing of critics, political crackdowns and unrepentant fossil fuel dealmaking.

The most recent example came Friday, when the U.S. indicted Congressman Henry Cuellar on charges he took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from Azerbaijan to act as its “foreign agent” in Washington. According to the indictment, the Texas Democrat actively lobbied for Azerbaijan’s oil firm SOCAR while working with the country’s ambassador to advance the nation’s interests.

The charges by the Biden administration came months after Azerbaijan won the right to host and run the negotiations at this November’s massive global gathering. That was the capstone of the South Caucasus petrostate’s years-long effort to burnish its credentials with Western politicians and investors.

Yet experts say the allegations circling Cuellar — which he denies — are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Azerbaijani influence efforts abroad.

“This is not new, just in terms of their efforts in the U.S., because they’ve been doing the same thing in Europe,” said Richard Kauzlarich, a former ambassador to Azerbaijan during Bill Clinton’s 1990s administrations.

He cited the U.K. and Germany as two examples where Azerbaijan has tried to use influence and money to garner political support. In January, two former German lawmakers were even charged with taking bribes from the country.

“There’s a pattern of behavior here that the Azerbaijanis have been following,” said Kauzlarich, now a visiting professor at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government.

With the COP29 climate talks approaching, that pattern is getting more attention.

Behind closed doors

Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan as one of the least free countries in the world. Its vast oil and gas revenues “tend to benefit privileged elites rather than the general population” because of widespread corruption, the NGO said.

The country’s current president, Ilham Aliyev, has been in office since 2003, when he took over from his father. His wife is vice-president.

In February Aliyev declared victory in his most recent election, claiming 92 percent of the vote. Given the country’s growing role in global energy diplomacy, the election drew international opprobrium, with observers saying the vote had been rigged through political repression and a tightly controlled media.

In February, Ilham Aliyev declared victory in his most recent election, claiming 92 percent of the vote. | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The ballot came just months after Aliyev ordered Azerbaijani troops to launch an offensive to take control of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, inside its internationally-recognized borders in September, sparking a mass exodus of the enclave’s 100,000 ethnic Armenian inhabitants. The U.S., EU and many other countries condemned the violence, which left hundreds dead and sparked allegations of “ethnic cleansing.”

COP29 falls just weeks after the one-year anniversary of the humanitarian crisis, another reason the conference will be a lightning rod for NGOs, think tanks and reporters.

Conference clashes

Controversy at COP events is nothing new. Past hosts of the annual U.N. climate negotiations have also drawn scrutiny from green groups and human rights activists.

When Egypt hosted in 2022, activists used the event to highlight the government’s crackdown on political opponents. Last year saw widespread criticism when COP28 host the United Arab Emirates appointed the man tasked with expanding the country’s oil and gas output to lead the talks. Likewise, the incoming president of COP29 is a former Azerbaijani oil and gas industry executive — though he was later tapped to lead the country’s ecology ministry.

Still, Baku has been unapologetic about its intention to use the conference to promote its own economic interests. Aliyev used a speech as host of the talks to brand his country’s natural gas reserves “a gift of the gods” and to push for more investments in the fossil fuel industry, in addition to renewable projects — climate critics be damned.

Europe has increasingly turned to Azerbaijan in recent years as a replacement for the Russian fossil fuel it shunned after Moscow invaded Ukraine. | Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images

“As a head of the country, which is rich with fossil fuels, of course, we will defend the right of these countries to continue investments and to continue production,” he said.

“Petrostates are perfecting a sinister COP playbook,” said Patrick Galey, a fossil fuel investigator with Global Witness, a human rights NGO. “Just like the UAE, Azerbaijan is planning a massive increase in gas production. Just like the UAE, Azerbaijan plans to legitimize its authoritarian regime by hosting these global talks. And just like the UAE, Azerbaijan appears set to use COP to develop its international business ties.”

Fresh from its own military conflict, Azerbaijan intends to brand COP29 a “COP of peace,” focusing on the prevention of climate-fueled conflicts and championing green solutions to geopolitical problems. “This provides a big opportunity for Baku, often accused of pursuing a militaristic foreign policy, to showcase its peace plan,” said Murad Muradov, a researcher with Topchubashov Center in the Azerbaijani capital.

However, he added, Aliyev is unlikely to respond well to criticism of his own record.

“Baku has made it clear that it prefers relations based on purely pragmatic principles of mutually beneficial cooperation, rather than a value-based approach,” he said. “Non-interference into what Azerbaijan considers its internal affairs, has become an absolute red line.”

That red line will inevitably be crossed — repeatedly — as COP29 approaches.

While the talks in Dubai ended with a breakthrough agreement among nearly 200 countries to move away from fossil fuels, their UAE hosts had to navigate months of criticism. | AFPTV/AFP via Getty Images

The event is a major foray onto the world stage for a country with little track record of diplomacy outside its home region. That means opportunities, but also potential pitfalls.

“Did COP28 improve the image of the UAE? No,” said Kadri Tastan, a European affairs and climate specialist with the German Marshall Fund. “And the Emiratis are much better at dealing with international audiences, they have more money being spent on lobbying, they’re more used to working with the West and have much more experience than Azerbaijan.”

While the talks in Dubai ended with a breakthrough agreement among nearly 200 countries to move away from fossil fuels, their UAE hosts had to navigate months of criticism, culminating in a tense exchange with media just days before the summit’s close.

International fallout

If bad press is frustrating for Baku, it will also be uncomfortable for its Western partners, including the EU.

Europe has increasingly turned to Azerbaijan in recent years as a replacement for the Russian fossil fuel it shunned after Moscow invaded Ukraine. In 2022, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen landed in the country to sign a deal to boost gas imports, hailing the country as a “crucial energy partner” for the EU.

That came despite warnings that Azerbaijan was stepping up its own imports of Russian gas, at the same time as it was boosting supplies to the EU. Gubad Ibadoghlu, an energy markets expert at the London School of Economics, wrote shortly afterward that “the only viable way” Baku could fulfill its obligations to the EU under the agreement was to purchase supplies from Moscow.

Responding to the claims, EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson told POLITICO that Azerbaijan’s repackaging supplies as its own wouldn’t be against the bloc’s rules “because Russian gas is not sanctioned.”

Ibadoglu was detained last summer by Azerbaijani authorities and held behind bars until being released under house arrest last month. He is now facing trial for allegedly counterfeiting money and “religious extremism.”

Amnesty International says the case is based on “fabricated charges.”