Saturday, February 14, 2009

Pay to Stay: Obama's Man in Azerbaijan

"I'm here as a private citizen, so all I'm doing is talking about elections, and the Internet and democracy, and to talk about our election," [Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe] told a reporter from Radio Free Europe who wasn't admitted to the $peech" [about democracy].--Wall Street Journal (2-10-09)

["RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, Radio Azadliq, broke the news on Friday that former Barack Obama campaign manager David Plouffe was headed to Baku at the invitation of an organization associated with Azeri President Ilham Aliyev."--See stories here.]

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (2-9-09) reports:

David Plouffe, the former campaign manager of U.S. President Barack Obama, spoke to some 50 people at a university in Baku on February 9 in a meeting closed to the press.

Journalists were told to leave the auditorium at Gerb (Western) University before Plouffe gave a speech on the 2008 U.S. presidential election and "the power of democracy."

Plouffe is employed by AKPD Media and Messaging, a political-consulting firm that works for Democratic candidates and causes. The firm's founder is David Axelrod, who was the chief strategist on Obama's presidential campaign.

Local media say the invitation is from the Association for Development of Civil Society in Azerbaijan, which acts as a mouthpiece of Aliyev's presidential office. The organization told local media that Plouffe will also meet with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

But, after his speech, an RFE/RL reporter asked Plouffe whether he planned to raise human rights issues with President Aliyev.

"I'm here as a private citizen, so all I'm doing is talking about elections, and the Internet and democracy, and to talk about our [U.S.] election, and how great it was that so many people participated in it, and that's a lesson I think people can learn."

Plouffe's visit comes little more than a month before a referendum that seeks to remove the two-term limit on any individual serving in the office of president.

Azerbaijani opposition figures say that if the referendum succeeds, Aliyev will become president for life, thus confirming the dynastic rule of the Aliyev family started by his father Heidar...

They note the arrest on January 22 of Fakhreddin Abbasli, a senior official of the Musavat opposition party, which was planning a protest against the referendum. Other Azerbaijani activists say they have been intimidated and arrested when asking people to sign a petition against the referendum.

Isa Qambar, the head of the opposition Musavat party, told RFE/RL that he doesn't know much about Plouffe's visit.

"If he is here to meet the members of the government and to talk about the promotion of civil society, then it would be useful for him also to meet the representatives of the civil groups and political parties, too," Qambar said. [Full text]

Perhaps what David Plouffe did in Azerbaijan should be called "pay to stay," because Obama's "Man in Azerbaijan" accepted a $50,000 speaking fee for his closed speech from an organization that is a mouthpiece for Azerbaijan's President Aliyev, who is repressing his opposition and backing a referendum on term limits that his opposition claims will allow Aliyev to become "President for Life." I don't believe that Mr. Plouffe didn't know that an Aliyev mouthpiece was paying him $50,000 for his secret speech about elections. Mr. Plouffe is a partner in the AKPD. According to the AKPD, Mr. Plouffe "maintained discipline over communications in the [Obama] campaign, including controlling leaks and releasing information..."

The Wall Street Journal (2-10-09) writes:

Azerbaijan is a key U.S. ally but the State Department has also criticized the country for its poor record on human rights and free elections.

Mr. Plouffe holds no U.S. government positions but controls the remnants of Mr. Obama's 2008 campaign organization, which he built and oversaw. His speech at a local university was sponsored by a local nongovernmental organization with ties to the Azerbaijan government.

"I'm here as a private citizen, so all I'm doing is talking about elections, and the Internet and democracy, and to talk about our election," Mr. Plouffe told a reporter from Radio Free Europe who wasn't admitted to the speech.

Mr. Plouffe's appearance in Azerbaijan was arranged by a Washington-based lobbying firm called Bob Lawrence & Associates [here], according to records and interviews. The company lists Azerbaijan among its clients [here] on its Web site. People with knowledge of the speech said the appearance was arranged by the Lawrence firm through Mr. Plouffe's agent, the Washington Speakers Bureau. A person answering the phone at the Lawrence firm said no one was available for comment. A spokesman for the Washington Speakers Bureau couldn't be reached.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Mr. Plouffe's visit was entirely private. "He's not there at the behest of, and not delivering a message on behalf of, the president of the United States," he said. "If the president had a message for Azerbaijan, he'd pick up the phone." [Full text]

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (2-10-09) reports:

David Plouffe, the manager for President Barack Obama's election campaign, has been quoted as saying he was not in possession of the full facts when he undertook a paid speaking engagement in Azerbaijan.

"The Wall Street Journal" reported on its website that Plouffe intends to give away his speaking fee of approximately $50,000 to groups that advocate democratization.

A close associate of Plouffe was quoted as saying that he only learned that the speaking engagement was at the invitation of a pro-Aliyev organization after he had already embarked for the Caspian Sea state.

RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service says the organization in question is the Association for Development of Civil Society in Azerbaijan, which acts as a mouthpiece of Aliyev's presidential office. The trip was arranged through a Washington-based lobby group that lists Azerbaijan as a client.

The White House says Plouffe is not representing President Barack Obama or the U.S. administration in any way.

Spokesman Robert Gibbs confirmed Plouffe's statement that he is in Azerbaijan strictly as a private citizen...

His trip to Azerbaijan comes at a politically sensitive moment, as Aliyev is set to hold a referendum on March 18 freeing him from constitutional term limits.

Opposition parties oppose the referendum, which they say will allow Aliyev to remain president for life.

Azerbaijani activists have complained of being intimidated and arrested when asking people to sign a petition against the referendum. [Full text]

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