Azerbaijan lobbying against Ruben Vardanyan abroad, POLITICO reveals

Azerbaijan is lobbying against Ruben Vardanyan abroad, POLITICO has revealed.

“Eyebrows were raised after POLITICO — and no doubt other media outlets — last week received an email from a PR firm about what it described as Russian influence operations in Europe. While this sounded very juicy, it focused exclusively on one man, my colleague Gabriel Gavin spotted: Russian-Armenian oligarch Ruben Vardanyan,” Elisa Braun writes in an article titled “The spies are coming.”

The article reads, in part:

Vested interests: Vardanyan is currently behind bars in Azerbaijan after the country launched an offensive to conquer Nagorno-Karabakh, sparking the mass exodus of its Armenian residents. While the 56-year-old made his money in Moscow and has been sanctioned by Ukraine for his involvement in Russian infrastructure businesses, he gave up his Russian citizenship in order to go into politics and become the Karabakh Armenian prime minister. There has been speculation he maintained ties with the Kremlin, but Russian peacekeepers stationed in Nagorno-Karabakh ultimately left Vardanyan and other local leaders to be detained by the Azerbaijanis.

Friends in high places in the West: Former Unilever boss Paul Polman and pharmaceutical company Moderna co-founder Noubar Afeyan are among those actively campaigning for Vardanyan’s release. His office also claims he’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize — even if the chances of him winning the coveted prize with his chequered past are virtually zero.

A Russian agent? Nevertheless, Azerbaijan is furious about the nomination, as per several reports from local outlets. That’s where the PR campaign comes in, as it claimed that MEPs had backed a motion calling on the Nobel Prize Committee to recognize Vardanyan as a Russian agent and rule him out as a potential recipient of the award.

So what? Well, according to a press release sent out by a PR company working on behalf of the Center for Analysis and Strategies, Ukraine, MEPs Viola von Cramon-Taubadel and Karen Melchior supported calls for Vardanyan to be blacklisted from the prestigious prize. There’s only one problem: the pair of lawmakers told POLITICO they had done no such thing, suggesting their words had been deliberately taken out of context to support Azerbaijan’s talking points.

Flat-out denial: “I took part in this event on the basis it was about Russian disinformation,” said von Cramon-Taubadel, a German MEP. “It’s shameful it seems to be being used for Azerbaijani disinformation. I did not support any joint declaration, and I wouldn’t have participated if it had any links to the Azerbaijani embassy.” Denmark’s Melchior also told POLITICO she hadn’t signed up to the statement, nor would she.

We just make the sandwiches: A spokesperson for the Brussels Press Club denied it had any involvement in lending credibility to such a lobbying event. “Anyone can book our venue, like any hotel in Brussels, and we have hundreds of events a year,” said a staffer who answered the phone when POLITICO put in a query. “But we aren’t the organizers of these events, we just host them.”

So what is the Center for Analysis and Strategies, Ukraine? Well, it’s not entirely clear. The organization doesn’t seem to have a functioning website in English or Ukrainian, has 88 likes on its Facebook page, and four out of the only five references to the think tank on Google are pro-Azerbaijani articles written by its founder, Ihor Chalenko.

Country of concern: Azerbaijan is already facing criticism over its championing of fossil fuels and its network of influence in the West — but outwardly misrepresenting MEPs’ stances would mark a new rift between the country and the Parliament. POLITICO has reached out to the country’s ambassador to the EU, Vaqif Sadiqov.

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