“As long as you’re going to be thinking anyway, think big,” goes an old line from headline-grabbing US presidential candidate Donald Trump. And in Azerbaijan, Trump, the mega-real-estate mogul, has done just that, in terms of both project and partner.
But the deal also raises big questions about how well he grasps the lay of the land in Azerbaijan.
Trump lent his name and management know-how to an upcoming, sail-shaped skyscraper in Baku that is owned by billionaire Anar Mammadov, Mother Jones magazine reported on July 29. Mammadov is a son of the country’s powerful transportation minister, Ziya Mammadov, a man whose family has been long accused of battening on privileged access to government contracts for infrastructure development.
The deal and Mammadov’s role as a champion of Azerbaijani interests in the US — he heads the Azerbaijan America Alliance — exemplify the two parallel worlds of US-Azerbaijani relations. Baku now bitterly rebukes Washington’s criticism of its dismal human rights records, even as its insiders actively lobby and sweet-talk US politicians.
And, apparently, investors like Trump.
So far, Trump, who thinks he would “get on very well with Putin,” has not addressed any aspect of the South Caucasus in his campaign speeches. He is not known to have visited Baku, although his daughter, Ivanka, who manages the overseas expansion of Trump luxury hotels, dropped in last fall.
Energy-rich Azerbaijan is not Trump’s first move in the South Caucasus, however. Before Azerbaijan was its comparatively poorer northern neighbor, Georgia.
In 2010, Georgia’s then president and builder-in-chief, Mikheil Saakashvili, visited Trump to pump up the mogul’s interest in Georgian real estate development, and later welcomed him to Georgia to sign a letter of intent with the Silk Road Group, a development company. Plans to set up two Trump-titled buildings in the Black Sea port of Batumi and the capital, Tbilisi, never materialized, however.
How Trump subsequently came across Azerbaijan, a close Georgian ally, is not known, but Baku has developed an international reputation for flashy, Trump-style real estate.
And at its core stand operations that have been linked to both the family of President Ilham Aliyev and the presidential in-laws, the Pashayevs. The Mammadovs complete the trio.
All three families stand accused of abusing Azerbaijan’s hydrocarbon wealth. RFE/RL reported that the Mammadov family companies “have taken large shares or even monopolized certain transportation sectors like bus transport, taxis, road construction, and cargo-transportation services in the country.”
In a 2014 profile of Anar Mammadov, Meydan TV described an allegedly elaborate and shady business empire and persistent scandals, including a supposed $1-million offer to make a kebab out of a bear kept in an Azerbaijani restaurant for entertainment. Mammadov ardently denied this last accusation and successfully sued local newspapers that reported it.
Winning a lawsuit against a newspaper in Azerbaijan is a walkover for the rich and influential. Few independent journalists remain in action, rights organizations repeatedly complain.
Even at a distance from Baku, there is no safety for Berlin-based Meydan TV, whose founder and director Emin Milli reported receiving threats from officials in Baku for the site’s criticism of the Azerbaijani regime. His brother-in-law was recently arrested on drug-peddling charges in what Milli described as an attempt to pressure him.
Pressure tactics, however, can backfire. RFE/RL investigative reporter Khadija Ismayilova, in prison for almost half a year, went on trial last week on criminal charges widely seen as linked to her investigations into the business investments of President Aliyev’s family.* On July 29, she received in absentia the latest in a string of international tributes — a prestigious press freedom award from the Washington, DC-based National Press Club.
Baku angrily reacts to whatever moderately worded criticism it gets from Washington or international NGOs for its treatment of dissent and free speech. Responding to recent expressions of concern by the State Department, Azerbaijani foreign ministry spokesperson Hikmat Hadjiyev bluntly said on July 30 that Washington should concern itself with increased police violence in the US, torture in Guantanamo prison and racial discrimination, and stop acting as a global policeman.
Running under the slogan “Make America great again!,” Trump has not commented.
*Khadija Ismayilova has also worked as a reporter for EurasiaNet.org.