WASHINGTON, DC – Matt Bryza, President Obama’s nominee to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, raised more questions than he answered during a tense appearance yesterday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, reported the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).
The hearing, chaired by Senator Jean Shaheen (D-NH), featured thorough lines of questioning from Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) about Mr. Bryza’s diplomatic track record, and a specific inquiry from the chairwoman herself regarding a Washington Times report on potential conflict of interest with his wife’s professional advocacy for U.S. policy impacting the Caspian region while she worked for an institute that has received money from Azerbaijani, Turkish, and energy corporate interests.
The questions addressed to Bryza reflected concerns that his actions reflect a tilt toward Azerbaijani over Armenian positions, and that the perception that he has not been even-handed would hinder his ability to effectively advance U.S. interests and American values in the region. Special areas of focus included his close ties into oil-rich and corrupt Azerbaijani officials, potential conflict of interest issues, his silence in the face of Baku’s threats of war, and his slow and weak response to the Azerbaijani military’s videotaped destruction, in 2005, of a 1,300-year old Armenian cemetery in Djulfa.
The Bryza nomination is opposed by the ANCA and other Armenian American groups and energetically backed by Azerbaijani American organizations.
Senator Boxer opened her line of questioning by asking why the U.S. State Department had not offered to clear condemnation of Azerbaijan’s recent attack against Nagorno Karabakh defense positions. Bryza responded that “what transpired that day remains not entirely clear to us but we do know that there were several people who were killed. There was an Azerbaijani movement across the line of contact, Armenia responded, resulting in deaths.” He incorrectly attributed Nagorno Karabagh defense forces response to Armenia and failed to explicitly condemn Azerbaijan’s aggression, a point noted by Senator Boxer, who stated: “I agree with you, and that is why I was looking for a more forceful answer in the condemnation of Azerbaijan and that is why I would like to re-ask this question:. . . In your opinion, is the government of Azerbaijan actively trying to escalate the conflict with Armenia?” Bryza again responded in generalities, saying: “The administration believes that the government of Azerbaijan is committed to the Minsk Group process, which is to create this peaceful settlement. And if confirmed, what I would do would be to continue to reiterate to President Aliyev and his team, again, there is no military solution and to urge them to remain committed to the Minsk Group process.”
Senator Menendez followed up, asking, “I’ve heard your comments that there’s no military solution, but by the same token, sometimes I think we need to be stronger than that even with our friends. Can you respond to that?” Bryza responded: “Absolutely, and I couldn’t agree with you more in raising these concerns and in response to your question, I absolutely do understand why people would worry in this way,” but once again fell short of explicitly condemning the most recent Azerbaijani attacks on Nagorno Karabakh.
Both Senators Boxer and Menendez expressed concern about Bryza’s long silence in the face of the government of Azerbaijan’s destruction of the Armenian cemetery in Djulfa. Bryza, three months after this act of desecration, eventually called the destruction “a tragedy”. When pressed by Senators to about his delayed response, he blamed the quality of the video footage stating it “was very foggy, it’s grainy” then noted that he had privately expressed concern to the Azerbaijani leadership on this matter. Both Senators noted that the first documented public statement from Bryza came in response to Armenian press inquiries months later, and asked for documentation of other statements made in the interim.
In response to Chairwoman Shaheen’s reference to the Washington Times article regarding conflict of interest, Bryza explained that: “Zeyno has undertaken a pledge to refrain from bringing any issue related to the Hudson Institute before the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the State Department or before the Embassy of the United States in Baku if I am confirmed. And I, of course, would maintain the highest ethical standards as I have throughout my career and would not take up any issue related to the Hudson Institute, without proper authorization of course, if there is some reason for doing that, but I would have to be authorized from Washington.”
“Matt Bryza’s testimony unfortunately raised more questions than it answered, underscoring our longstanding concern that he is not the right person to represent the United States in Azerbaijan,” said ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian. “Yesterday’s hearing shed long overdue sunshine on a number of serious shortcomings in Mr. Bryza’s diplomatic activities, starting with his consistent failure to challenge Azerbaijan’s belligerence, the dramatic under-spending of Congressional allocations for Nagorno Karabagh, and including, of course, his unwillingness to forcefully confront Baku’s video-taped destruction of the Djulfa Armenian cemetery. In terms of addressing conflict of interest issues, his responses also fell short. His announcement that his wife, who professionally advocates on Caspian energy policy and works at the Hudson Institute, whose supporters include Azerbaijani, Turkish, and energy corporate interests, has now pledged to steer clear of State Department policymakers dealing with Azerbaijan is too little, too late, coming, as it does, ten years into his service in a series of senior and sensitive posts dealing directly with Baku and the Caspian energy industry.”
“We want to share our special appreciation with Senators Boxer and Menendez for their continued leadership in ensuring that the Senate approves a diplomat to Baku who can most effectively advance U.S. interests and American values in the Caucasus region, and offer thanks to Chairwoman Shaheen for raising relevant concerns regarding a possible conflict of interest,” concluded Hamparian.