Scrutinising government

Questions over MPs’ all-expense-paid trip to Azerbaijan

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Liam Fox and TEAS

Defence Secretary Liam Fox MP talks at a TEAS-sponsored meeting.

Azerbaijan’s Eurovision Song Contest win has put the country’s human rights record in the spotlight. British MPs should expect similar scrutiny of the all-expenses-paid trips they’ve accepted from a group linked to an Azeri politician about whom concerns over corruption were raised in a US diplomatic cable.

The European Azerbaijan Society  (TEAS), which was launched in the House of Lords in 2008, acts as the secretariat to the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group for Azerbaijan and the Conservative Friends of Azerbaijan. The group has been sponsoring MPs and journalists on visits to Azerbaijan since its inception. TEAS is run by Tale and Nijat Heydarov, members of one of the country’s most powerful families and sons of Azerbaijan’s Minister for Emergency Situations, Kamaladdin Heydarov.

A US diplomatic cable leaked to the Wikileaks site last year referred to TEAS as purporting to be an independent advocacy group, but said: ‘its talking points very much reflect the goals and objectives of the GOAJ [government of Azerbaijan]‘.

The cable, written in 2010 by Charge d’Affairs Don Lu, also reported concerns that Colonel-General Heydarov, father of the men who head TEAS, had obtained ‘massive wealth’ as an alleged result of illicit payments while chairman of the State Customs Committee.

In 2010, Azerbaijan was listed as ranking 134 out of 178 in the World Corruption Index by Transparency International.

There is no evidence that Tale and Nijat Heydarov were involved in or benefited from this alleged corruption.  And Colonel-General Heydarov has never been found guilty by a court of law of any such accusations.

But with details lacking on who exactly is funding TEAS British politicians have still been ready to accept its hospitality. The Society has been particularly generous in 2011.

In May a delegation of parliamentarians including Bob Blackman, Stephen Hammond, Gerry Sutcliffe, Lord Kilclooney, Lord Rogan and Mark Field and his assistant, Julia Dockerill, enjoyed a five day visit to Azerbaijan, paid for by TEAS.  This trip was estimated  as costing £3,500 each in flights, accommodation and internal travel expenses.  According to the register of MPs’ interests the purpose of the trip was to ‘meet senior Azeri political and business figures, British diplomats and visit some of the regions’.

In a Commons debate on Azerbaijan in June this year, Mr Blackman, Mr Sutcliffe, Mr Hammond and Mr Field had only good things to say about the country.  It was left to others to raise the issue of Azerbaijan’s human rights record and repressive laws.

Some of these reticent politicians have visited the country at TEAS’ expense on several occasions. As well as the May visit, Mr Field received a trip worth £2,500 in July 2010 to ‘speak at a Nato conference and meet senior Azerbaijani political and business figures’.  In addition, Mr Field, who is the Conservative MP for Cities of London and Westminster and chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Azerbaijan, is paid as a member of TEAS’ advisory board and received £1,000 for six hours’ work done in April and May 2011.

The Bureau asked Mr Field whether he had looked into the sources of TEAS’ funding.  He was unavailable for comment.

Five members of the Conservative Friends of Azerbaijan, all Parliamentarians, also visited the country on 28 July this year. Lord Laird, chairman of the EAS advisory board, appears to have enjoyed two trips to Azerbaijan funded by TEAS within a few months of each other in 2010, in June and October. He was accompanied on the June trip by Lord Kilclooney, though there is no mention of this in the latter’s entry on the Lords register of interests for that year.

The Bureau made several attempts to contact Lord Kilclooney for comment.  He too was unavailable.

And in March this year ConservativeHome thanked  TEAS, the ‘generous sponsors’ of a party at the Tory Spring meeting. The event, which featured Liam Fox as guest speaker, was apparently the hit of the conference. TEAS is set to sponsor further drinks receptions at all three Party Conferences this autumn as well as managing its new office in Brussels, which opened there last November.

Who’s funding the funders?
A spokesman for TEAS said it receives funding from individual and corporate membership fees and donations and ‘complies with all statutes and regulations’.

TEAS advisory board member Nigel Peters, a director at British Expertise, told the Bureau his understanding was that TEAS is partly funded by company subscriptions with the balance coming from the Heydarov family in Azerbaijan. ‘That’s always been my understanding. I can’t see where else the money would be coming from,’ he said, though he stated he had not seen the organisation’s accounts. ‘My role on the advisory council is partly to help TEAS recruit company members. I believe they now have 30-40 members paying subscriptions – a big increase over the last year.’

‘Platinum’ membership of TEAS costs £10,000, while gold membership is £4,000 and ordinary corporate membership £750-1,500. But TEAS’ accounts report that it was £1,849,087 in the red in March 2010, with assets of just £168,273. The abbreviated, unaudited accounts filed with Companies House do not reveal the size of TEAS’ income.

Its outgoings, though, are large.  The Society is supporting at least ten staff in London as well as having to meet its hospitality bills.

TEAS’ directors, Tale and Nijat Heydarov, are also directors of  United Enterprises International Limited, whose December 2010 accounts – also abbreviated and unaudited – record a debt of some £23,000. TEAS is listed as an affiliate on the company’s website, and UEI and TEAS share an address at 2 Queen Anne’s Gate, London SW1.

UEI promotes Jala Juice, which the UEI website says has been the market leading pomegranate juice in Azerbaijan for 10 years. Jala Juice is also a ‘gold sponsor’ of TEAS’ business forum.

This fruit juice was also referred to in the Wikileaks cable, which said: ‘The Heydarovs have largely cornered the fruit juice market in Azerbaijan, maintaining extremely high prices for locally
 produced juices and watered-down juice drinks, while making life difficult – 
with the help of state customs – for cheaper competitors from Turkey, Ukraine
 and Russia. When USAID tried to support the production and distribution of
 pomegranate products in Azerbaijan, they quickly learned that no one sells
 pomegranate juice, concentrate, or derivatives from Azerbaijan without Heydarov’s
 permission.’

UEI denies that Jala Juice is the beneficiary of a monopoly based on Heydarov family influence.

The cables also allege that many of the Heydarov family operations are part of the ‘Gilan’, ‘Qabala’, ‘Jala’, or ‘United Enterprises International’ family of companies.  Gilan Holding is listed as an ‘affiliate’ on the UEIholding.com website.  Gilan Holding, a major conglomerate in Azerbaijan, has the same Baku telephone number on its website as UEI Holding. The Gilan conglomerate includes AFB Bank, which is another ‘gold sponsor’ of the TEAS business forum.

UEI declined to expand on the nature of its links with Gilan.

A spokesman for TEAS said: ‘Both TEAS and the Azerbaijani Government want to see a peaceful resolution to the conflict with Armenia, which is slowing economic and political progress across the entire South Caucasus region.’

He added: ‘Our activities are geared towards raising awareness about the conflict and the humanitarian plight of the almost one million refugees and Internally Displaced Persons living in camps in Azerbaijan. We have no problem highlighting the fact that four UN Security Council Resolutions and one UN General Assembly Resolution remain unimplemented, verifying Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity regarding Nagorno-Karabakh.’

TEAS also said it had a policy of not commenting on leaked US cables ‘of doubtful provenance.’

None of the Parliamentarians who went on the TEAS trips was available for comment.

Labour MP for Newport West Paul Flynn, who has previously criticised Prince Andrew for his activities as trade envoy in Azerbaijan, said he was worried by apparent Parliamentary links with the Azeri regime, which he said had a ‘dreadful record of corruption and jailing opponents’.