An organization headed by the well-connected son of a powerful Azerbaijani cabinet minister appears to be among the donors to Pennsylvania’s newly opened 9/11 memorial.
The Azerbaijan America Alliance, a Washington, DC-based group chaired by a former Indiana congressman that describes its mission as “[p]romoting a lasting partnership between Azerbaijan and America," played an unspecified role in making contributions, whether in money or in kind, to the $60-million memorial to United Flight 93.
The organization was founded by 36-year-old Anar Mammadov, the son of Azerbaijani Transportation Minister Ziya Mammadov; its board is chaired by Dan Burton, the former longtime Indiana Republican
congressman and chairperson of the House of Representatives’
Subcommittee for Europe and Eurasia Affairs.
Neither the Alliance’s website nor the National Park Service website detail the Alliance's contribution to the project. The memorial , located outside Stoystown, Pennsylvia, features a 6,800-foot visitor’s center and a so-called Tower of Voices with 40 wind chimes to represent the 40 people killed in the flight's 2001 crash.
But whatever the contribution, it prompted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to express “special thanks” at the September 10 opening to the Alliance, Mammadov, and “the nation of Azerbaijan” for their “tremendous support to this project and to its construction . . .”
“It shows us that this story is not one just about Pennsylvania and not just about America, but it's really a worldwide story for anyone who is touched by the story of Flight 93 and who cares about freedom and liberty and that this place will always stand for that,” an Alliance press release quoted Jewell as saying.
And, indeed, it is more than a story about Pennsylvania or the US. Or even Flight 93.
Energy-rich Baku recently has stepped up its campaign to make friends and influence people by financing charitable projects the world over – from musical performances in Canada to the restoration of the Château de Versailles and medieval churches in France.
The sources of the financing are not always crystal clear, but the people behind the projects are well known to Azerbaijanis.
When reports of the Flight 93 memorial hit, many assumed that, given Mammadov's background, the Azerbaijan America Alliance simply had shelled out most, if not all, of the $40 million in private donations for the memorial.
Mammadov is not only a son of Transportation Minister Mammadov, but also owner and president of the large, multi-functional Garant Holding (formerly ZQAN Holding) and other business entities reported to hold government contracts in transportation projects controlled and financed by the Ministry of Transportation.
Such alleged conflicts of interest have been the subject of several Azerbaijani media investigations, but to no avail.
(On a lighter note, Mammadov also is known for his protracted litigation against the opposition Azadlig and Yeni Musavat newspapers for stories alleging that he had ordered a restaurant in Azerbaijan’s Gabala region to kill and cook a baby bear. He denied the claims. Ultimately, the papers were fined for libel.)
Why, however, Mammadov personally felt compelled to set up the Azerbaijan America Alliance, which was founded just a few years ago, is not clear. Predictably, he named the US war on terror and a desire for better ties with the US as the reasons for the Alliance's unnamed contribution to the Flight 93 memorial.
But Mammadov is not the only “golden youth” actively involved in PR campaigns for Azerbaijan abroad.
In London, Tale Heydarov, son of another powerful cabinet member, Emergency Situations Minister Kamaladdin Heydarov, founded The European Azerbaijan Society, which also spends millions of dollars on promotion for Azerbaijan in the United Kingdom and continental Europe.
In the US, Mammadov’s Azerbaijan America Alliance made its mark in 2012 by decorating city buses in large US metropolitan areas with banners to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Khojaly massacre of ethnic Azeris in breakaway Nagorno Karabakh.
Such a go-local approach has become typical for Azerbaijani PR campaigns in the US. Pennsylvania, one of the US' largest energy-producing states (mostly coal), is among 12 states which have issued resolutions commemorating the Khojaly massacre.
Azerbaijan appears to be picking its allies here carefully. The Congressional Azerbaijan Caucasus features three Pennsylvania congresspeople, at least one of whom, Bill Shuster, Republican chairperson for the House of Representatives’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, shares similar interests with Mammadov.
Joseph R. Pitts, a Republican member of the House’s Energy and Commerce Sub-Committee, and Democratic congresswoman Allyson Y. Schwartz, a member of the House Budget and Ways and Means Committees, complete the roster.
Elizabeth Owen, EurasiaNet.org's Caucasus and Turkey editor, added reporting to this blog.