In response to a recent string of corruption allegations and international criticism, Azerbaijan’s authorities have identified a scapegoat: billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
Last week, investigative reporting by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) revealed a secret $2.9 billion slush fund linked to Azerbaijan’s ruling family. The fund was reportedly used from 2012 to 2014 as a means of bribing European politicians for political leverage.
The investigation has sparked severe backlash from Azerbaijan’s authorities, and they are blaming a traditional enemy – an ill-defined “Armenian lobby” – along with a relatively new bugaboo, Soros.
In a remarkable statement from the press service of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, Soros is alleged to have worked in collusion with Armenian activists to smear Baku’s government:
We know that it is George Soros and his henchmen – who have an international reputation of cheaters, tricksters, frauds and liars in relation to Azerbaijan and its leadership – that are behind the campaign. The Armenian lobby, which acts in concert with him, carries out a dirty campaign against the President of Azerbaijan and his family.
Aliyev's chief aide for foreign affairs, Novruz Mammadov, took to social media to criticize the philanthropist. “George Soros has gone so mad that he acts as a major actor in international relations,” he wrote on Facebook. “Let Soros answer, why did nearly 140,000 people sign a White House petition aimed at declaring him a terrorist and the organizations which he finances illegal?” he added.
The state's tightly controlled state press was also quick to join the fray. On September 6, Azerbaijan’s Trend News Agency released an article headlined: “Who Are You Mr. Soros: Anti-Azerbaijan Campaign and Muslim Genocide in Myanmar.” The piece calls the ongoing catastrophe in Myanmar “his [Soros's] recent terrible creation,” and continues: “It is obvious that after Soros got his hands in blood, he knows no moral principles and feels no tortures of conscience.”
A member of parliament, Siyavush Novruzov, called Soros a terrorist: “This man is accused of committing economic and financial terror in the US, as well as damaging the economic interests of the state by creating an atmosphere of unfair competition. The fact of cooperation between this kind of man and Armenians is not surprising, because they share common terrorist features.”'
These responses, though relatively novel in their intensity, are not altogether unexpected. Soros’ Open Society Foundation (OSF) is active in 100 countries, actively supporting civil groups in Azerbaijan's neighborhood, and has provided grant money to the OCCRP in the past. It also provides funding for EurasiaNet, which until recently was part of OSF. (EurasiaNet is now hosted by the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.)
Azerbaijan appears to be riding the coattails of the worldwide Soros backlash, which has been particularly strong among the growing illiberal movements in the former communist world. Soros-blaming also has achieved new prominence in the United States, with the Trump administration's house organ, Breitbart, also frequently using Soros as a scapegoat. Much of Azerbaijan's recent anti-Trump rhetoric invokes Trump and Trumpian terms. “Soros funded #fakenews,” tweeted Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hikmet Hajjiyev.
The billionaire’s relationship with Caspian state was not always so contentious, with his foundation establishing itself there in 1999 to improve transparency in the oil and gas sector. In May 2003, Soros spoke glowingly of Azerbaijan, arguing that it had the potential to join the world leaders in oil production thanks to its “commitment to transparency.”
Soros had taken a more critical stance by 2005. Writing in the Financial Times shortly before Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections, the financial expert called on Azerbaijan to reverse its ban on foreign funding for local election observers and strive for real electoral democracy.
The relationship continued to sour; OSF reduced its activity and technical functions of its Baku office in 2010 and formally closed shop on December 11, 2014.
One week earlier, Ramiz Mehdiyev, head of Azerbaijan’s presidential administration published a book titled: “The world order of double standards and modern Azerbaijan.” Mehdiyev lambasted foreign funded NGOs and warned of a coming “color revolution” in Azerbaijan – one of its prime instigators was said to be the OSF.
Nevertheless Soros's operations continued outside the country and in January 2015, the Open Society Foundation Institute issued a statement on the intensifying campaign against civil society in Azerbaijan. Just prior to this Soros met with President Ilham Aliyev in Davos, Switzerland, urging him to end his brutal crackdown on civil society.
The following year, in summer 2016, Soros said that the West was “making a big mistake” by supporting the government in Azerbaijan.