Azerbaijan Opposition Official 'Incensed' By Ex-Ambassador's New Oil Industry Job [UPDATED]

Azerbaijan Opposition Official 'Incensed' By Ex-Ambassador's New Oil Industry Job

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A top Azerbaijan opposition official said his group was "absolutely incensed" by the recent news that the latest U.S. ambassador to the Central Asian nation had taken a lucrative job at an oil company that has business dealings with the state.

Matthew Bryza, who until last December was President Barack Obama's appointed ambassador to Azerbaijan, took the job on the board of Turcas Petrol company, which has had several joint ventures with the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic.

Murad Gassanly, an Azeri opposition activist based in London, decried the move as the latest hint of a craven American foreign policy toward the oil-rich, but autocratic nation -- which also happens to be a major strategic partner to American interests in the region.

"We are absolutely incensed by Matthew Bryza's appointment," he told The Huffington Post by email.

Stanley Escudero, who was U.S. ambassador to the nation in the 1990s, remained in the country after leaving his post to run businesses there, Gassanly said. He now maintains Azeri citizenship.

And the currently nominated ambassador to the nation, which was repeatedly described as a repressive and restrictive nation in the latest State Department Country Report on Human Rights, is Richard Morningstar, the former State Department special envoy for Eurasian energy, and "one of the key promoters of energy projects in the region," Gassanly said.

"This shows that U.S.-Azerbaijan relations can only be described as oil-soaked," said Gassanly, who is the director of the Azerbaijan Democratic Association in the U.K. "Forget human rights and democracy."

Matthew Bryza could not be immediately reached, nor did State Department officials respond to a request for comment. Bryza was never confirmed in the Senate to serve as ambassador, and instead kept the post through a series of temporary assignments by the Obama administration.

There is nothing inherently illegal or improper about a former diplomat taking a job with a company that does business with the country in which he served, but opposition groups said they found the move unseemly, and fitting with a general sense that the administration does not take their concerns about human rights violations seriously.

During a recent visit to Azerbaijan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did meet with a popular, young pro-democracy activist, and encouraged him to continue advocating for democratic reform in the nation. Gassanly called the meeting a stunt designed "to deflect attention from the fact that [Clinton] refused to meet [more senior] opposition leaders and activists."

Land routes through Azerbaijan are expected to play a key role in the American exit from Afghanistan over the coming years, and the nation has also emerged as a crucial ally to Israel and the U.S. in their efforts to stymie a burgeoning nuclear program in Iran.

According to recent reports, Azerbaijan made some of its military air bases available to the Israeli military in advance of possible operations against Iran, a claim that Israeli officials later denied.

CORRECTION: June 19 -- This article has been updated to correct the relationship between Turcas Petrol company and the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR). Turcas is a private Turkish company, 30 percent of which is traded on the Turkish stock market, and the rest is in the hands of private Turkish investors, according to Batu Aksoy, the CEO of the company. It is not "state controlled," or even "partly controlled" by SOCAR, as the article originally stated, citing inaccurate Azerbaijani newspaper reports. The Huffington Post regrets the error.

Turcas and SOCAR have had several business ventures together, including a billion-dollar refinery project that Turcas divested from last December, and a jointly owned subsidiary (Turcas owns 18.5 percent of the shares) that is constructing the Star Refinery in Western Turkey. These deals predate Matthew Bryza's arrival as an executive board member at the company. Some Azeri activists, including one quoted in the story, say they still have concerns about the implications of a former U.S. ambassador taking a job with an oil company that does business with the state. For Bryza's perspective on the controversy, see this interview.

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