Azerbaijan made a double PR-play on December 14 that could have proven a winning ticket with the upcoming administration of US President-Elect Donald Trump. But, ultimately, it fumbled the ball.
In Washington, the embassy of the predominantly Shi’a Muslim country co-hosted a Hanukkah party at the Trump International Hotel with a prominent American Jewish organization. In Baku, the Azerbaijani government welcomed to town Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a declared Trump fan, and talked big and beautiful.
Everything was in place for showing the world Azerbaijan’s alleged religious tolerance and multiculturalism (two recurring official PR themes), but, then, Donald Trump had to get into the act.
Or, rather, his hotel.
Ahead of Wednesday’s party, over a hundred protesters from the Jewish American activist group If Not Now marched down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Trump International Hotel to denounce the Azerbaijani embassy and its co-host, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (COP), for celebrating Hanukkah at a venue owned by Trump.
“They are economically supporting Trump tonight and there is also a lot of symbolism around this,” one protester complained about the COP, a local ABC News affiliate reported.
The contract between the government and Trump’s company for use of the government-owned hotel site bans elected officials from holding the lease. Critics charge that the hotel could put Trump also at odds with the US Constitution’s emoluments clause. As yet, it is not clear how or whether Trump will separate himself from his business ownerships before becoming president.
Apparently wary of being tarred by the national controversy over Trump the Businessman versus Trump the President, some COP members had pulled out of the Hanukkah party.
But Azerbaijan’s Hanukkah was found not to be kosher for other reasons as well. Earlier on December 14, several human rights activists rallied in front of the hotel to condemn the country’s crackdown on free speech and political dissent.
Holding a menorah, Jared Genser, the founder of Freedom Now, a DC-based non-profit critical of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s policies, urged the US to speak to its friend, Azerbaijan, “truthfully, frankly and honestly” about its spotty religious-liberty record and for “imprisoning more than 150 political prisoners.”
As Genser spoke, yet another handful of demonstrators looked on. Holding a sign that declared “Jews Choose Trump,” these were from a pro-Trump Jewish group that was protesting the protest of the anti-Trump Jewish group.
Rewind back to Baku earlier the same day, though, and there was a completely protest-free environment. Azerbaijan does not suffer critics lightly, rights-observers say.
So, Aliyev and Netanyahu had all the time needed to discuss and praise their cooperation in defense, energy and agriculture.
Aliyev cited an alleged $4.8 billion in military contracts between Israel and Azerbaijan. Netanyahu touched on plans to import Azerbaijani gas. Aliyev focused on the construction of Jewish education centers.
And then the Israeli prime minister opted to put in a plug for Israeli cows – “the world’s most productive,” outperforming “French, Dutch and even American cows,” he declared.
The remark was not a random flight of fancy. Azerbaijan has, in years past, imported Austrian and German cows to try (reportedly unsuccessfully) to boost milk yields. With Baku’s interest in agricultural investment growing, Israeli cows, too, might have their chance, the thinking seems to go.
Mention was not made of the expressions of Azerbaijani-Jewish friendship to be made later that same day at the Trump Hotel in DC, but, apparently, there was no need.
“Together, we will do miracles,” said Netanyahu.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.
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