Azerbaijan falls foul of one of the golden rules of journalism, which is that no one cares about a country with a z in its name. This may be why we are not reading more about what could develop into a first-class scandal, complete with dirty money, luxury goods and shady kleptocrats.
In December, the National Crime Agency froze a bank account linked to a scheme that laundered billions of pounds out of Azerbaijan, an ex-Soviet republic, having already made the UK property of an Azeri banker’s wife the target of its first ever Unexplained Wealth Order (UWO). That same month, a solicitor was fined £45,000 for trying to help the daughters of Azerbaijan’s president buy luxury property in London, and failing to do the appropriate checks on the origin of their wealth.
By the low standards of law enforcement in the UK, where allegations of laundering the proceeds of grand corruption tend to be greeted with something between a shrug and a grin, this is big. Rumours are rife that other wealthy Azeris are being considered for UWOs of their own, up to and including members of the ruling Aliyev family. If these three steps become the start of a journey into the heart of all Azeri-owned wealth in the UK, it could prove uncomfortable, and not just for lawyers and estate agents.
London and Baku have a close relationship thanks to BP, which opened an office in Azerbaijan within six months of its independence from the Soviet Union. The oil revenue has gradually allowed the Aliyev family – first Heydar, the former head of Azerbaijan’s KGB, and then, following his death in 2003, his son Ilham – to turn the country into a hereditary kleptocracy. Heydar is commemorated by a vast swooping museum in central Baku, designed by Zaha Hadid and set among magnificent fountains. This glorious building houses various bits of ephemera from his life – a train ticket, a school report from the KGB academy, various of his limousines – like the grave goods of a pharaoh.
Under the rule of the Aliyevs, their friends and relations have become enormously wealthy, and used the global banking system to launder much of their money into the West (as revealed by the “Azerbaijani Laundromat” leak of financial documents). “Azerbaijan’s economy is largely dominated by monopolistic interests,” wrote the US embassy in a 2010 cable released by wikileaks. The cable was part of a series in which American diplomats explained to Washington which families were most powerful in Azerbaijan, and they provide a fascinating insight into a system where bribes, influence, and abuse of power control everything.
This particular cable dealt with the business activities of Emergencies Minister Kamaladdin Heydarov (of “the second most powerful commercial family in Azerbaijan”, according to the State Department officials). The kind of behaviour described in the cable was beginning to get Azerbaijan a bad reputation and it was to improve the country’s image that, in 2008, Heydarov’s two sons Nijat and Tale created a London-based lobby group: The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS).
TEAS specialised in promoting Azerbaijan, and acted as secretary for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the country. It flew MPs out to Baku, where it showed them around, and tried to persuade them that the country was a reliable source of energy, the wronged party in its long-running dispute with Armenia, and a generally lovely place for all its citizens. “Such visits have great effectiveness, because to read about Azerbaijan is one thing, witnessing the development of the country is another thing,” Tale Heydarov boasted at a lobbying conference in Baku in March 2012.
Jim Sheridan, then the Labour MP for Paisley, accepted a three-day £3,100 trip to Azerbaijan in March 2013, and came back full of praise. “We discovered that the trade unions there enjoyed better relationships and more employment rights than we do here in the UK. Azerbaijan is a young democracy and we are the oldest, yet we are still fighting for employment rights,” he told the House of Commons later that year. (The International Trade Union Confederation is less sanguine, saying that in Azerbaijan many labour rights exist only on paper.)
Over on the Government benches, Mark Field, Tory MP for Westminster and recipient of a five-day £3,500 trip in May 2011, told the Commons in the month after he got back that Azerbaijan “has made tremendous strides forward both politically and economically in recent years. That should be recognised and rewarded.” At the time he was on TEAS’ payroll, as a member of its advisory board.
I asked Heydarov about the source of TEAS’ funding, when I met him on the sidelines of a business forum that TEAS organised in Mayfair. He said the money came from members’ subscriptions, but refused to be drawn on their identities or the amount they contributed. These members have certainly been very generous, whoever they are. TEAS and other Azeri lobbying groups spent more than £70,000 on MPs alone. Most of it went on 23 trips to Azerbaijan, although Slough’s Labour MP Fiona McTaggart received £1,000 of hospitality in Britain, at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, and TEAS even got into publishing.
When Liam Fox wrote a meditation on globalisation called Rising Tides it failed to trouble either the charts or the reviewers on either side of the Atlantic (sales figures show it has sold just over 3,000 copies in English worldwide), but TEAS bought the Azeri translation rights for an astonishing £11,400, paid in two instalments in 2014, and then flew him to Istanbul to promote it at the cost of another £3,579.94.
One book industry source described this as barely believable: “Azeri rights for something like Malala, or Michelle Obama, or Dan Brown might go for £11,000, but it would need to be a big name. This does not look like a wise investment”.
Of course, the nature of an investment depends on the return you are looking for. If TEAS was seeking friends, rather than profits, perhaps the investment was a wise one, particularly since Fox has risen to be the minister in charge of negotiating our post-Brexit trade deals.
“MPs have a history of accepting funding from Azerbaijan’s lobbyists and keeping quiet about gross and systemic human rights violations, including some now in senior governmental positions,” said Rebecca Vincent, a former US diplomat in Baku and now head of the UK Bureau of Reporters without Borders.
She was particularly critical about the fact that so few British politicians had supported journalists who have revealed the extent of the wealth of Azerbaijan’s ruling family, and been harassed or jailed as a result. “As the source of the largest foreign direct investment in Azerbaijan, the UK has a responsibility to speak out. As long as our politicians turn a blind eye to this repression, courageous individuals like Mehman Huseynov and Khadija Ismayilova will continue to pay the price.”
This is not to say that TEAS was an organisation packed with ruthless and sinister geniuses, since it was at times almost hilariously incompetent. In 2010, it hired the 1980s two–hit-wonder Smiley Culture to produce propaganda music in the mistaken belief he could persuade Lady Gaga to do the singing, which he could not. This and other pratfalls notwithstanding, the budding scandal over Azeri money in London does raise questions over whether MPs should have been quite so willing to accept the organisation’s money.
Goran Lindblad, a Swedish ex-MEP who worked for TEAS in Brussels, told me his pay cheques came from a Marshall Islands company via Danske Bank’s branch in Tallinn, the same branch that is now at the centre of perhaps the biggest money laundering scandal of all time: the movement of €200 billion through non-resident accounts in 2007-15.
We have become accustomed to hearing stories of kleptocratic cash pouring into UK property, which is what the NCA is (belatedly) beginning to investigate, but perhaps the scandal will turn out to be not how much dirty cash was spent in Knightsbridge, but how much ended up in Westminster. Because Azerbaijan is not the only country that has sought to buy friends in this way.
Ukrainian oligarch Dymtro Firtash ran a similar lobbying group, as did the Bahraini ruling family. Bashar al-Assad’s father-in-law ran the British Syrian Society, which took MPs to Damascus. Even the Russians tried to get into the game, with a group called the Conservative Friends of Russia, though Kremlin money eventually proved too hot even for our MPs to handle.
There are many urgent issues being ignored by politicians thanks to the Brexit gridlock, but perhaps this is the most important: who exactly has been paying their wages? In a democracy, voters have to know who their elected representatives are working for. Once trust in their integrity has been lost, it will be all but impossible to restore.