The saga came to a head shortly after May 10, which Coss had declared “Heydar Aliyev Day” in Santa Fe.
Aliyev is the late ruler of Azerbaijan, a post-Soviet country of 9 million on the Caspian Sea. A former high-ranking Soviet intelligence official, he took power in 1993, after a military coup against the newly independent state’s first elected leader. Today, Aliyev’s son, Ilham, holds power.
The Pentagon relies on Azerbaijan as a wartime supply route. But the US State Department’s annual human rights report scolds Aliyev’s government for torture and persecution of dissidents. A European Commission study says “the country’s television networks [are] largely devoted to promoting President Aliyev, his government, and the ruling party.”
So while Coss’ proclamation went unnoticed in Santa Fe, it was big news in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital. Elmar Chakhtakhtinski, chairman of the Virginia-based opposition group Azerbaijani-Americans for Democracy, tells SFR Coss got duped into aiding a totalitarian effort.
“Obviously, having Heydar Aliyev Day is not taken seriously here [in the US]. But back in Azerbaijan, this type of news is part of what I’d call brainwash propaganda, where they try to convince the local populace that their leader is respected all over the world,” Chakhtakhtinski says.
Email records show a lobbyist for the Azerbaijani government sent Councilor Chris Calvert a proclamation request on April 14. Calvert—who met with Azerbaijani officials last year in Coss’ absence—passed it on to the mayor. Coss informed his assistant, who prepared a proclamation using the lobbyists’ exact language.
Calvert tells SFR he’s not sure why the Azerbaijani government targeted Santa Fe. “Basically, I had dinner with them,” Calvert says.
The meeting with Calvert was arranged by Jason Katz, a consultant to the Azerbaijani consulate in Los Angeles. Disclosures filed with the US Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration Unit show the Azerbaijani government has paid Katz at least $84,000 since the beginning of last year to place friendly articles in the media and arrange meetings with politicians.
Katz could not be reached. In columns for The Huffington Post, he praises Aliyev’s “progressive, cosmopolitan” society, one friendly to his “fellow Jews.” In a June 15 blog post, Harper’s Magazine journalist Ken Silverstein attacked Arianna Huffington’s popular website for publishing Katz’ “blow job” to dictators.
Katz arranged a meeting between Consul General Elin Suleymanov and Gov. Bill Richardson on April 2, 2009, Justice Department records show.
A few months later, a consular press release quoted Richardson praising “America’s reliable friend in the strategically important Caspian region.” Richardson also reportedly sent a “message of congratulations” to Azerbaijan this year.
Unlike Coss and Calvert, Richardson has a history with Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet rulers. In 1998, then-US Energy Secretary Richardson helped negotiate a 1,000-mile pipeline through Azerbaijan from the offshore oil fields in the Caspian Sea to a Mediterranean port in Turkey. BP is the chief owner and operator of the pipeline, but several US oil companies have a stake.
Chakhtakhtinski, the opposition leader, says Richardson’s office has been unresponsive to his inquiries. Richardson’s Deputy Chief of Staff Gilbert Gallegos did not respond to SFR’s emailed questions.
After Coss’ proclamation made the state-run media, Azerbaijani-Americans for Democracy asked the mayor to reconsider. After learning of AZAD’s contact with Coss, the consulate requested to meet with the mayor again.
Coss tells SFR he has no plans to retract the May 10 proclamation. However, he says, he won’t sign another pro-Aliyev proclamation next year.
“We’re always just trying to be friendly and supportive of groups in our community,” Coss says. “Sometimes you find out you’ve gone into a controversy that you never intended to be part of.”