openDemocracyUK: News

Revealed: Tory MP was ‘fed’ propaganda by Azerbaijani embassy for parliamentary debates

Bob Blackman boasted: ‘On a regular basis I put down positions on behalf of our good friends in Azerbaijan’

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James Dowsett Thomas Rowley
4 February 2022, 4.30pm
Conservative MP Bob Blackman boasted of being ‘fed’ propaganda by Azerbaijan
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Zefrog / Alamy Stock Photo

A senior Tory MP boasted that he was “fed” propaganda by the Azerbaijani embassy and used it to lobby the UK government, openDemocracy can reveal.

The admission came in a podcast where Bob Blackman, the MP for Harrow East and chair of the Azerbaijan All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), also said: “On a regular basis I put down positions on behalf of our good friends in Azerbaijan.”

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Blackman – an executive secretary of the Conservatives’ influential backbench 1922 Committee – has taken seven free trips, worth tens of thousands of pounds, to oil-rich Azerbaijan since 2011. The three most recent trips were paid for by either the Azerbaijani parliament or its London embassy.

In 2020, he urged the then foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, to take Azerbaijan’s side in its bloody territorial dispute with Armenia over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in which thousands of people are believed to have died. Both sides have been accused of carrying out war crimes.

Blackman has received a series of briefings from high-level Azerbaijani figures, including Azerbaijani MP Javanshir Feyziyev – who was at the centre of a high-profile court case that saw £5.6m of laundered cash ordered to be seized from his family’s bank accounts this week.

As well as writing to Raab, Blackman has tabled four pro-regime motions in the Commons since July 2020 and written to Raab’s successor, Liz Truss, urging her to strengthen ties with Azerbaijan. Apart from in one instance, the MP did not mention that he had accepted hospitality connected to the state within the preceding year.

Blackman told the student-run ‘Eye To Eye’ podcast in July 2020: “One of the things that happens, I’m afraid, in these types of conflicts is that [...] whoever gets the best propaganda tends to grab the attention of the listeners and the viewers.

“And in this regard I’ve been fed the information through the Azerbaijan embassy in the UK – so they’ve been very, very helpful, very, very proactive from the word go when the hostilities began.”

Blackman, an MP since 2010, even hosted Feyziyev in the House of Commons at a time when suspicions had already been raised that the Azerbaijani MP was linked to suspect funds.

On Monday, Westminster Magistrates’ Court found that £5.6m held in UK bank accounts by Feyziyev’s family members could be traced back to the ‘Azerbaijani Laundromat’, a $2.9bn money-laundering scheme run by Azerbaijan’s ruling class, and ordered it to be seized.

Feyziyev and his family were not implicated in any personal wrongdoing. But the judge found that “there have been unhealthy, corrupt links between the ‘ruling elite’ of Azerbaijan and those at the helm of Avromed LLC”, a company founded by Feyziyev.

Steve Goodrich from anti-corruption group Transparency International UK told openDemocracy: “Allowing MPs and Lords to have all-expenses-paid trips by foreign governments is a recipe for disaster and should be stopped.

“The proximity with which corrupt and repressive regimes can work alongside UK parliamentarians with the view of laundering their reputations is deeply disturbing.”

Blackman did not respond to repeated requests for comment from openDemocracy.

Feyziyev told openDemocracy this week: “I reiterate in the strongest terms that neither I nor my family members have ever been involved in any illegal acts in any country – a point emphasised by the NCA [National Crime Agency] during the first day of the hearing and by [District Judge John Zani] in his ruling.” Feyziyev added that the funds in his family’s UK bank accounts had come from a “completely legitimate source”.

Trips to Azerbaijan

Blackman and his staff have taken trips to Azerbaijan worth more than £23,000 since 2011, including one in November 2021 and one in February 2020.

The MP spoke candidly about his work as chair of the Azerbaijan APPG when he appeared on the ‘Eye To Eye’ podcast to discuss violent clashes that had broken out on the Azerbaijan-Armenia border. Both sides blamed each other for violating the ceasefire.

He told the hosts that, when hostilities began on 12 July: “I was getting information straight away, and that’s why I tabled the early day motion and why we did as much media as we could.”

The Azerbaijani regime, which has long been accused of elite corruption and authoritarian rule, has sought to promote its legitimacy abroad, including its claim to Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory located between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which both sides have claimed since the 1990s.

Between September and November 2020, Azerbaijani military forces seized control over key parts of Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh in a bloody 44-day war.

Parliamentary friendship

Javanshir Feyziyev heads up a UK-Azerbaijan inter-parliamentary friendship group in Azerbaijan’s parliament and has worked closely with Blackman for years. An independent MP, Feyziyev is believed to be a ‘trusted associate’ of Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev.

A Foreign Office minister later criticised Blackman’s motion for “apportioning blame” in the 2020 conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

“The fact that you’ve got such a close relationship between an APPG and someone at the centre of a UK asset recovery case speaks volumes,” said Goodrich. “It’s pretty shocking if you’ve got MPs essentially being briefed by foreign embassies and then making contributions in the House based on what they’ve been advised to say.”

Letter

openDemocracy has also obtained a letter Bob Blackman sent to the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, about a visit he made to Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh in November 2021.

In the December-dated letter, released to openDemocracy after a Freedom of Information request, the MP urged Truss to update the Azerbaijan APPG “on what steps the government is taking to strengthen trade, economic and political ties with Azerbaijan”.

Blackman expressed his belief “that intensified senior ministerial, parliamentary, and business exchanges between the UK and Azerbaijan will [...] serve the objective of getting our two countries even closer”. He also wrote about the prospect of “speeding up talks” on a future UK-Azerbaijan trade deal.

The MP did not mention in the letter that the recent trip had been paid for and organised by the Azerbaijani parliament.

Working relationship

Blackman’s working relationship with Javanshir Feyziyev goes back at least as far as 2016, when the MP welcomed the Azerbaijani politician to the Commons, together with the then Azerbaijani ambassador, for an APPG meeting to discuss Nagorno-Karabakh.

The following year, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project published two articles that Feyziyev claimed wrongly implicated him in illegal money laundering and the bribery of European politicians.

He brought a libel claim to London’s High Court in 2018 and the case was finally settled on agreed terms in 2020.

In a signed witness statement filed in 2019 as part of the proceedings, Feyziyev claimed he had “built up considerable connections” with UK parliamentarians.

Feyziyev told openDemocracy this week that the relationship between the Azerbaijani and British parliaments was “friendly and mutually beneficial” and that inter-parliamentary groups have played a “major role championing Azerbaijan abroad and learning parliamentary best practice from more mature democracies”.

“I met with British parliamentarians on a regular basis to discuss issues of mutual interest,” he added. “All of my interactions and engagements with UK politicians have been, and will be, conducted in accordance with all relevant transparency rules.” He did not respond to questions about his relationship with Blackman.

The Tory MP hosted Feyziyev at a second APPG meeting in February 2019. By this time, the NCA had already successfully secured freezing orders for bank accounts held by the Azerbaijani MP’s son and nephew following an extensive investigation.

Feyziyev then took part in multiple briefings with Blackman and the Azerbaijan APPG, during a period of intensified hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia that culminated in a six-week war in autumn 2020.

On 13 July 2020, Blackman chaired a virtual meeting of the Azerbaijan APPG. The APPG heard a briefing on the border clashes from Feyziyev, together with Azerbaijan’s then ambassador to the UK, Tahir Taghizadeh, who joined the call.

Blackman’s motion in Parliament on the same day noted “acts of aggression by Armenia” and called on the UK government to “condemn [Armenia’s] recent actions” and “urge for the withdrawal of Armenian military forces from the occupied territories of Azerbaijan as stated in UN Security Council resolutions adopted in 1993”.

Blackman tabled the motion five months after Azerbaijan had paid for him to visit the country to observe the February 2020 parliamentary elections, in which president Ilham Aliyev’s ruling party retained its large majority.

At a press conference held the day after the polls closed, Blackman reportedly said: “There was nothing untoward that I could see during the voting process.”

But the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, now the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), later issued a statement expressing disappointment that “Azerbaijan’s parliamentary elections did not meet international democratic standards” after the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe reported that “the restrictive legislation and political environment prevented genuine competition”.

In June 2020, the EU-funded European Platform for Democratic Elections wrote to the Speaker of the House of Commons accusing Blackman of aiming at “misinforming the Azerbaijan audience about the real international perception of the electoral process” due to his “overwhelmingly positive public assessments of the elections”.

Blackman tabled a second motion in Parliament in October 2020. The motion urged the UK government “to condemn Armenia for blatantly violating the ceasefire regime”. The MP asked a question about Nagorno-Karabakh in the Commons on the same day.

The following week, Blackman wrote to Raab, requesting that he meet with the APPG to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In the letter, Blackman repeated – word for word – several paragraphs of a statement issued weeks earlier by Aliyev’s foreign policy advisor, Hikmat Hajiyev.

“The responsibility for the present situation and future developments lie squarely with Armenia’s political-military leadership,” Blackman wrote, repeating verbatim what Aliyev’s aide had said.

Blackman does not appear to have made Raab aware of the source of his claims.

During this period, the MP continued to maintain close contact with Azerbaijan’s London embassy, which held regular press conferences as well as briefings for MPs and peers. Azerbaijan’s then ambassador Tahir Taghizadeh, whose tenure has since come to an end, later told Russian news agency Interfax that his embassy had maintained a “permanent regime of telephone and video consultations” with UK parliamentarians during the six-week war.

Feyziyev appears to have played a key role in the embassy’s outreach efforts.

This included an online briefing held for Blackman on the Russian-brokered peace deal that ended the conflict in early November. Nobody else appears to have been present in the 10 November call besides Blackman, Feyziyev, Taghizadeh and an Azerbaijani embassy official.

The next day, Blackman tabled a third early day motion welcoming the signing of the peace agreement and expressing a wish “to show solidarity with the Azerbaijani people who have been resilient by publicly demonstrating in such huge numbers in support of their right to live in peace in their historical lands”.

The Azerbaijan APPG was scheduled to meet with the FCDO the following day, although it is unclear whether this meeting went ahead or not.

In February 2021, Bob Blackman chaired the Azerbaijan APPG’s annual general meeting. The APPG members were joined in an online call by the then Azerbaijani ambassador as well as Feyziyev and a third Azerbaijani official.

According to an official Azerbaijani press release, Feyziyev invited the APPG to pay a visit to the country, promising “first-hand information about the state of affairs in the freed territories” – a reference to areas of Nagorno-Karabakh that the Azerbaijani military took control of in autumn 2020.

In November of last year, Blackman led a delegation of UK parliamentarians on a trip to Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, where they met Aliyev and other senior officials.

The delegation, which included Scottish Conservative MP David Duguid and crossbench peer Lord Kilclooney, were also able to visit Nagorno-Karabakh itself, where they took a tour of the city of Shusha, which saw fierce fighting during last year’s conflict.

According to Blackman’s official register of interests, Azerbaijan paid for him and his staffer to visit the country. Azerbaijan also paid for Duguid and Kilclooney’s trip.

Several weeks later, Blackman tabled a further early day motion on Azerbaijan and Armenia relations that included a line expressing “support for the British companies that are involved in the reconstruction of the liberated lands in the Nagorno-Karabakh region”.

Court case

This week’s case at Westminster Magistrates’ Court was a partial victory for the National Crime Agency, which had initially hoped to seize over £15m it had linked to Javanshir Feyziyev through his family.

District Judge John Zani found that Feyziyev had received criminal cash derived from UK shell companies that had in turn received sums in circumstances related to money laundering. No personal wrongdoing was found on the part of the Azerbaijani MP or his family members.

Approached for comment by openDemocracy, Feyziyev claimed: “All the funds held in UK bank accounts come from a completely legitimate source. As a shareholder in one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in Azerbaijan, I earned these funds as dividends.

“The money transfer mechanism used to withdraw these legitimate funds from the country – which neither I nor my family had anything to do with and had no control over – was the subject of the NCA’s investigation and ultimately the court’s forfeiture order.”

openDemocracy contacted the Azerbaijani Embassy in the UK for comment, but did not receive a response.

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