Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

EU-spin campaign blows up in Azerbaijan's face

  • Bill Laurance on a research trip in Malaysia in 2010 (Photo: Bill Laurance)
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A distinguished Australian scientist says he was duped into doing Azerbaijan propaganda, in a PR fiasco that sheds light on shady spin tactics in Brussels and further afield.

Professor Bill Laurance from James Cook University in Cairns told EUobserver that a London-based PR firm called BTP+Advisers tricked him into signing an inflammatory op-ed paid for by Azerbaijan's government.

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BTP+Advisers then pitched it to EUobserver in Brussels and to the National Interest magazine in Washington, on grounds of ecological concern.

We rejected it, but National Interest was due to publish it when Laurance found out about Azerbaijan, pulled his signature, and publicly denounced the British PR firm.

"I asked if they [BTP+Advisers] had any vested financial interest in the matter and they told me they were working for the government of Azerbaijan," Laurance said by phone on Monday (16 January).

"It [the op-ed] won't go out, at least not in my name," Laurance said.

And he would never again work with BTP+Advisers, whom he now described as "radioactive", he added.

The proposed op-ed in question rehearsed Azeri propaganda that eco-protesters had blocked a mountain pass to stop pollution by Armenian mines.

"It takes real bravery to stand up for what is right ... these protestors deserve our support," it said.

But the full story is that Azerbaijan's state-endorsed blockade of the Lachin pass in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan over the past month has cut off 120,000 ethnic Armenians living there, causing a humanitarian emergency.

The "inhumane siege" amounts to forced displacement, Armenian diplomats say.

The EU is also urging Azerbaijan to show mercy.

"Azerbaijan could take measures that are within its jurisdiction to ensure freedom and security of movement along the [Lachin] corridor," the EU foreign service told EUobserver. Baku's blockade was causing "significant distress" to local people, it added.

But the proposed op-ed didn't mention any of that, while depicting Azerbaijan, a draconian petro-dictatorship, as a haven for grass-roots eco-movements.

Azerbaijan president Ilham Aliyev has crushed genuine civil society at home.

His regime is also known by real environmental campaigners, such as Greenpeace, for pools of oil left floating on the sea, heaps of burning garbage in Baku, and undrinkable water.

But BTP+Advisers made it look as if Laurance, an eminently neutral "environmental scientist and campaigner who is distinguished research professor and Australian Laureate at James Cook University in Cairns", was independently weighing in on Aliyev's side over the Lachin crisis.

It made it look like scientific truth had taken sides in an ugly ethnic conflict.

Brussels is no stranger to shady influence campaigns, one of which exploded into a global scandal in the Qatargate bribery affair in the EU Parliament last year.

Lobbyists routinely hire former EU officials or other VIPs to gain insider clout and PR firms seek out big names to speak for their clients in op-eds that were largely drafted by the PR company's own staff.

The tobacco industry first involved serious scientists in lobby campaigns in the 1960s, in tactics later copied by oil and pharmaceutical industries.

But for all that, it's highly unusual to try to make a real academic into an unwitting glove-puppet for a dictator.

And pro-transparency campaigners struggled to think of a precedent when asked by this website, making BTP+Advisers and Laurance a novel case.

In one parallel, high-profile scientists were tricked by a climate-change denying group called Creative Society into appearing in pro-denial online events last April, Greenpeace noted.

But science-washing typically involved dishonest scientists acting in bad faith, Greenpeace said, giving its investigation into US fossil-fuel lobbying in 2015 as an example.

In an insight into PR modus operandi, Laurance said he had worked with BTP+Advisers on problem-free op-eds in the past.

He was never offered money, he said.

And BTP+Advisers had assured him they were acting out of genuine ecological concern and had privileged information about facts on the ground in Nagorno-Karabakh, the professor said.

Transparency

EUobserver has, in good faith, also published four op-eds sent by the firm over the past four years, in the name of people ranging from the prime minister of Montenegro to a New York rabbi.

We also once published a — clearly labelled — stakeholder piece by Azerbaijan's environment minister.

BTP+Advisers has offices in Belgrade, Kampala, London, Paris, and Washington.

There is no suggestion that it broke any laws or formal registration requirements.

Its CEO, Mark Pursey, also told EUobserver that it didn't mean to deceive anyone.

The Laurance imbroglio was a one-off human error, he said.

"We should have told professor Laurance up front that we work for the government of Azerbaijan", Pursey said. "You may not choose to believe me, but this was a genuine mistake," he said.

In all other cases, BTP+Advisers openly declared it worked for Azerbaijan, Pursey claimed.

But it didn't say so when it pitched the "Laurance" op-ed to EUobserver.

It doesn't mention Azerbaijan on its website or list it as a client in open-source lobbyist registries around the world.

And Pursey's comments to this website were his first public ones on his new Baku contract.

Pursey took the job in 2020 "because they [Azerbaijan] needed help when the war started," he told EUobserver, referring to Azerbaijan's reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenians, which cost thousands of lives.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has, in recent years, already earned itself a bad name for dirty lobbying tricks, such as lavish trips and gifts for European politicians, in a practice dubbed "caviar diplomacy".

Its obfuscating answers to EUobserver's questions about BTP+Advisers also showed a less than transparent face.

"Azerbaijan does not pay any lobbyist companies in Brussels," Ramil Taghiyev, Azerbaijan's EU embassy spokesman, told EUobserver when asked if his government worked with the London spin doctors.

He implied our story was empty muck-raking in the wake of the Qatargate affair.

"It is clear that topics related to certain European institutions that are mired in corruption are popular now and your interest seems to emerge from this," Taghiyev said.

Azerbaijan's embassy in the UK didn't reply to questions.

Mess

"It's not great, I agree with you ... it's a mess", BTP+Advisers' Pursey said, referring to the optics of the Laurance incident for him and his client.

But for Armenians, there are bigger issues at stake.

"Historically, Azerbaijan's caviar diplomacy has wielded them favourable and imbalanced media coverage," Armenia's foreign ministry spokesman Vahan Hunanyan said.

"Regardless of the unlimited lobbying budgets deployed by Azerbaijan, it has become difficult for anyone to justify their ongoing violations of international humanitarian law," he added.

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