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British MPs Taken On "Caviar Trail" By Lobbyists Close To Azerbaijan's Corrupt Dictatorship

The country's government wants influence in Britain.

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Twelve British MPs have accepted tens of thousands of pounds of hospitality since the last election from pro-Azerbaijan lobbyists with close connections to the dictatorship's ruling elite, despite the regime's history of human rights abuses.

The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS), which has paid for ten of the MPs to go on all-expenses paid trips to the country, funded a £300-an-hour paid advisor role, and even gave one MP a selection of gifts including a "Queen's Diamond Jubilee pageant woollen commemorative scarf".

Some of the MPs have asked questions in parliament about trade with the country, including one directed at the Prime Minister. This has led to concerns that the country could be buying influence on the British government.

"Azerbaijan are probably more active than any other country at the moment in pushing a very strong, very well financed public relations agenda that comes out in the Houses of Parliament by taking a group of MPs on a caviar trail," says Labour MP Paul Flynn, a long-time critic of the country's authoritarian government.

The European Azerbaijan Society claims to be an independent advocacy organisation, but a leaked 2010 US embassy cable stated in no uncertain terms that its interests were aligned with those of the country's super-rich elite, and that it lobbied on the regime's talking points.

Azerbaijan's most energetic advocate in the House of Commons is the Christopher Pincher, the Conservative MP for Tamworth, who chairs Azerbaijan's All Party Parliamentary Group. The European Azerbaijan Society paid for him to visit the country in 2012 and again in 2013, at a cost of over £7,000.

Earlier this month Pincher asked David Cameron to extend a trade deal on oil and gas from the country. He has previously lobbied the Foreign Secretary to visit Azerbaijan and also intervened in parliamentary debates on human rights abuses by its government. Always open about his chairing of the country's APPG, Pincher also sits on parliament's Energy Committee, whose remit includes scrutinising oil and gas supply to the UK. BuzzFeed tried to contact Pincher for comment but he was not available.

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Conservative MP Christopher Pincher asks David Cameron about extending a trade deal with Azerbaijan.

Meanwhile Mark Field, Conservative MP for the City of London, was paid £312-an-hour by the European Azerbaijan Society for eight hours work as an advisor. While in this post, which he relinquished in summer 2012, he questioned ministers in parliament on whether the UK was investing enough in Azerbaijan. He also tabled an Early Day Motion arguing that the country was a "valuable alternative source of oil and gas".

Field told BuzzFeed it was important for MPs to build relationship with pariah states, and that he had given an even-handed account of Azerbaijan.

"I think you either take a view that MPs should have nothing to do with any of these countries – and then you're essentially writing off two thirds of the globe on that basis – or let's try and build up a relationship there, and I think there's a positive case to be made for Azerbaijan," he said. Field notes that he declared his financial interest in the country, and argues that foreign governments paying for trips is "part and parcel of what goes on".

But Paul Flynn says there is "absolutely no reason" for MPs to accept paid-for trips from foreign countries when they have access to official services like the International Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which are maintained by parliament.

Flynn recounts a debate in Westminster Hall about Azerbaijan, following a funded trip to the country. "The only people who spoke in favour of Azerbaijan were the people who've been on the trip," he says. "And the ones who spoke against? They were the people who hadn't been on the trip."

"We are, in parliament, trying to rebuild the trust of the country. There's a lot of reasons why we've largely lost that trust, and there are things going on in parliament like the parliamentary groups where they more and more have become accepted as part of parliamentary life. People outside of parliament would be aghast if they realised what was happening."

The 10 MPs who declared trips paid for by the European Azerbaijan Society since 2010 were former defence secretary Liam Fox, and fellow Conservative MPs Mark Menzies, Christopher Pincher, Jason McCartney, Andrew Stephenson, Craig Whittaker, Bob Blackman, and Nick de Bois. Angus MacNeil of the SNP and Stephen Hepburn of Labour also received trips. One MP, Jeremy Lefroy, had his trip paid for by the Association of Civil Society Development in Azerbaijan, which has also been accused of promoting the country's regime.

In 2012 Labour MP Fiona MacTaggart accepted a £1,000 gift in kind from the group, which included hospitality in a box in the Royal Enclosure at the Royal Windsor Horse show and Queen's Diamond Jubilee pageant. Attendees were treated to a buffet lunch, drinks, dinner, a souvenir book and woollen commemorative scarf.

The society's founding chair is Tale Heydarov, whose father Kamaladdin Heydarov runs one of the most powerful government ministries in Azerbaijan, the Ministry of Emergency Situations. The family also owns and operates the Caspian Fish Company, which controls the country's lucrative beluga caviar industry. The society did not respond to requests for comment.

Azerbaijan is notoriously corrupt, and a dictatorship in all but name. The Washington Post reports that the country's elections commission accidentally released the election results of last year's presidential election through a mobile app before voting had even begun, giving president Ilham Aliyev a landslide. Alyev took over from his father in 2003, who had himself been president since 1993. International election observers noted "significant problems" at "all stages" on election day.

Azerbaijan also has a highly developed lobbying operation in the US, investigated by BuzzFeed earlier this month.

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