Saturday, June 18, 2016

Trump's Name Is Even Too Toxic For Azerbaijan, One Of The World's Most Corrupt Nations


I just got back from my first visit to Azerbaijan. I never expected to find such a wonderful place but it reminded me of a wealthier and more modern/Western Turkey. It's a little smaller than Maine and a little bigger than South Carolina with just over ten million inhabitants, more than New Jersey or Michigan and just about the same number as North Carolina. The rap on the country is that it's very wealthy but that all the wealth is concentrated in a few families' hands, cronies of the forever president, Ilham Aliyev, who first came to power in 2003 when his pop, Heydar Aliyev, died. The elder Aliyev had been a former First Secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party, a member of the Soviet Politburo and of the KGB before deposing Azerbaijan's first democratically-elected president Abulfaz Elchibey, and taking over.

Before that unpleasantness, Azerbaijan was the world's first Muslim-majority secular state and parliamentary democracy. That was before being overrun by the Soviets in 1920, Lenin saying he was sorry but the Soviets needed the oil. Azerbaijan lived under the Soviet yoke until it declared independence in 1991, as the Soviet Union was crumbling. Now it's a rich little country and Baku, the modern, bustling capital, looks-- architecturally-- like a cross between Paris and Dubai. And into this mix waddled Donald Trump a couple years ago.He smelled the opportunities inherent in one of the world's most corrupt countries a hemisphere away.

One of the mainstays of the kleptocratic regime, Transportation Minister, Ziya Mammadov, who went from a lowly railway worker to a billionaire/Mafioso, owns a lot of Azerbaijan. His son, Anar, is a shady character and a perfect fit for The Donald. It was only a matter of time before they found each other, which they did when Anar decided to rent Trump's name for his glitzy new hotel. He paid Trump between $2.5 and $2.8 million for the right to slap "Trump Tower" on his building and to get some "consultations" from Ivanka. In November, 2014, the Trump Organization announced that Trump Tower Baku was part of it's hotel empire and The Donald himself boasted that "Trump International Hotel & Tower Baku represents the unwavering standard of excellence of The Trump Organization and our involvement in only the best global development projects. When we open in 2015, visitors and residents will experience a luxurious property unlike anything else in Baku-- it will be among the finest in the world." Ivanka added that "This incredible building reflects the highest level of luxury and refinement, with extraordinary architecture inspired by the Caspian Sea and sophisticated interiors that seamlessly blend contemporary style with timeless appeal. We are looking forward to bringing our unparalleled Trump services and amenities to Azerbaijan.”

It sort of opened. Trump's partner, Anar, has been described by U.S. diplomats as "notoriously corrupt" and as working to launder money for the Iranian military. The hotel hired a full staff and started renting rooms but never had a promised grand opening. Everyone in the Baku hotel industry knows someone who worked there... briefly.
Trump often talks of hiring the best people and surrounding himself with people he can trust. In practice, however, he and his executives have at times appeared to overlook details about the background of people he has chosen as business partners, such as whether they had dubious associations, had been convicted of crimes, faced extradition or inflated their resumes.

...In the Azerbaijani case, Garten said the Trump Organization had performed meticulous due diligence on the company's partners, but hadn't researched the allegations against the Baku partner's father because he wasn't a party to the deal.

"I've never heard that before," Garten said, when first asked about allegations of Iranian money laundering by the partner's father, which appeared in U.S. diplomatic cables widely available since they were leaked in 2010.

Garten subsequently said he was confident the minister alleged to be laundering Iranian funds, Ziya Mammadov, had no involvement in his son's holding company, even though some of the son's major businesses regularly partnered with the transportation ministry and were founded while the son was in college overseas. Ziya Mammadov did not respond to a telephone message the AP left with his ministry in Baku or to emails to the Azerbaijan Embassy in Washington.

Garten told the AP that Trump's company uses a third-party investigative firm, which he did not identify, that specializes in background intelligence gathering and searches global watch lists, warrant lists and sanctions lists maintained by the United Nations, Interpol and others.

...Any American contemplating a business venture in Azerbaijan faces a risk: "endemic public corruption," as the State Department puts it. Much of that money flows from the oil and gas industries, but the State Department also considers the country to be a waypoint for terrorist financiers, Iranian sanctions-busters and Afghan drug lords.

The environment is a risky one for any business venture seeking to avoid violating U.S. penalties imposed against Iran or anti-bribery laws under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

...Garten said the Trump Organization had performed background screening on all those involved in the deal and was confident Mammadov's father played no role in the project.

Experts on Azerbaijan were mystified that Trump or anyone else could reach that conclusion.

Anar Mammadov is widely viewed by diplomats and nongovernmental organizations as a transparent stand-in for the business interests of his father. Anar's business has boomed with regular help from his father's ministry, receiving exclusive government contracts, a near monopoly on Baku's taxi business and even a free fleet of autobuses.

"These are not business people acting on their own-- you're dealing with daddy," said Richard Kauzlarich, a U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s who went on to work under the Director of National Intelligence during the George W. Bush administration.

"Whatever the Trump people thought they were doing, that wasn't reality," Kauzlarich said.

Anar Mammadov, who is believed to be 35, has said in a series of interviews that he founded Garant Holdings' predecessor-- which has arms in transportation, construction, banking, telecommunications and manufacturing-- in 2000, when he would have been 19. Anar received his bachelor's degree in 2003 and a master's in business administration in 2005-- both from a university in London.

Mammadov's statement that he founded the business in 2000 appeared in a magazine produced by a research firm in partnership with the Azerbaijani government. In other forums, he has said he started the business in 2005, though several of its key subsidiaries predate that period.

Now all the employees have been laid off and everyone around Baku says the Mammadovs want to wait a little while for people to forget the Trump taint before they re-brand the building and re-open it as something else-- anything else... even a Motel 6 would be a better bet than something related to Donald Trump at this moment. The stench attached to his name and his brand isn't going to wash off quickly, especially not in a highly educated, secular Muslim-majority country like Azerbaijan. Want to help save America from Trump and Trumpism? Tap the thermometer:
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