From Baku to Nashville, with Love

Nashville, Tennessee has apparently become another unlikely proxy battleground for a war going on a world away -- between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which both are busy building strategic alliances in the United States.

If he had known what precarious territory he was wading into, state lawmaker Joe Towns would have probably thought twice before pushing a resolution in support of energy-rich Azerbaijan into Tennessee's House of Representatives. The Memphis Democrat's mission, however, did not go unnoticed by the ever-alert Diaspora-Armenian community and eventually resulted in a scathing exposé by Nashville-based News Channel 5.

In an investigative piece, the CBS-affiliate claimed that Towns, a Memphis Democrat, allegedly had accepted $10,000 in campaign donations from seven supposedly Azerbaijan-linked sources. When confronted by the station's chief investigative reporter, Phil Williams, Towns could not coherently explain what motivated him to lobby for Baku-Nashville friendship or who were the alleged campaign contributors.

Williams implied that Representative Towns’ story was a case of Azerbaijan buying lawmakers in Tennessee to promote questionable policies.

The reporter's sole commentator, Barry Barsoumian, identified as an Armenian immigrant and activist, pointed at the suspicious link between the “strange” resolution, which eventually flopped, and the murky donors. The concerned Barsoumian also presented the channel with the Armenian version of the decades-long confrontation between the Caucasus nations over the breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh.             

Hot on the topic, the News Channel 5 reporter then began asking questions about a re-election valentine sent to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev from the Tennessee governor’s office. “Congratulations on your re-election!” enthused Tennessee State Commissioner of Safety and Homeland Security Bill Gibbons in a message to Aliyev in 2013, when the Azerbaijani leader got himself a controversial third consecutive presidential term, reported News Channel 5. The station did not hesitate to provide the chorus for international criticism of the vote, quipping in its headline “Congratulations on your rigged re-election!”

It's unclear how much of this story the good people of Tennessee were able to grasp, but it's clear to viewers by now that some countries with exotic names and exotic interests are up to something in the Music City.

But this is not the first time that Tennessee politicians have heard tell of the Caspian-Sea country.

Last March, following the example of other state legislatures, the House of Representatives adopted a resolution commemorating the 1992 massacre of ethnic Azeris at Khojaly in Nagorno Karabakh. The primary sponsor? Legislator Towns.

Interest in Azerbaijan also has surfaced among the state's nine congressional representatives. Namely, Rep. Steve Cohen (D) , who co-chairs the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus, and, like Towns, hails from Memphis. Rep. Cohen has signed onto the Congressional Caucuses on Turkey and on US-Turkey Relations and Turkish Americans as well. Azerbaijani and Turkic activist publications also name Tennessee Rep. John J. Duncan, Jr. ( R ), as a member of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus, although the congressman's site does not identify him as such. 

But, as in its home region, Azerbaijan, a relative latecomer to the US lobbying scene, has its match in this game of influence.

Earlier in May, California, the main population center for Diaspora Armenians in the US, passed a resolution calling for independence of ethnic-Armenian-dominated Karabakh, which Azerbaijan is struggling to reclaim.

Attempts to pass rival resolutions on Karabakh or Khojaly look likely to continue to pop up in various states. Azerbaijan is trying translate its growing oil-and-gas wealth into lobbying fodder, while Diaspora-Armenian communities are committed to keeping Azerbaijani influence over US politics at bay.

Meanwhile, ordinary US voters are left struggling to make sense of it all.

-- Elizabeth Owen added reporting to this post.

From Baku to Nashville, with Love

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