Baku and Washington Joust Over NDI
There is a war going on in ex-Soviet parts between governments and non-government organizations. While Russia already has started on an office search of hundreds of NGOs suspected of being "foreign agents," Azerbaijan now is writing a chapter of its own in this epic struggle by picking a bone with the local chapter of the Washington, DC-based National Democratic Institute (NDI).
Already reported to be pushing for a rethink about the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's status in Azerbaijan, Baku now is taking issue with NDI's alleged bookkeeping practices. Officials claim that the US-government-funded democracy-development group turned a blind eye to Azerbaijan's financial disclosure rules and was paying contractors in wads of cash.
NDI’s chief of party Alex Grigorievs denied the accusations, but General Prosecutor Zakir Garalov last week sent a letter to US Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Morningstar laying out the government's grievances with the group.
But they could lie deeper than finances. The group has been accused of sponsoring youth activists' protests, which already have become a pain in the neck for the Azerbaijani establishment. Particularly during this presidential election year.
The accusations, first laid out in a local newspaper Haqqin, and then picked up by other outlets, sound the old alarm bell about foreign-funded, covert operations. Haqqin's story, penned by onetime jailed journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, suggested that NDI is part of a US-government-sponsored, secret-services-operated mechanism meant to sow the seeds of public unrest.
In subsequent comments to Turan news agency, NDI's Eurasia Director Laura Jewett insisted that NDI is completely transparent about its operations, and that claims that it is fomenting "color revolutions" do "more to discredit the professionalism of the authors than their intended targets."
In 2011, the group was forced to shut down in Azerbaijan in 2011 over a registration dispute.
The US government, conceivably, could afford to let its discontent known to Baku about any perceived NDI-bashing. But, so far, Washington has refrained from any strong reactions in public.
Questioned about NDI at an April 1 briefing, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said that US government-sponsored programs always comply with host countries' laws. She added that she is not familiar with the Azerbaijani accusations, but would look into them.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.
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