Disgraced former Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has become a member of the Nizami Ganjavi International Center, an Azerbaijani government-funded political think tank and lobby group.
Ever since Muscat’s protracted resignation in December 2019, speculation has been rife as to Muscat’s post-Malta plans in politics. This latest development, Muscat’s inclusion as a member of the Azerbaijani think tank, as the group says, marks what can only be described as a low in Muscat’s previously high-flying political career.
It was a badly-kept secret that Muscat had long harboured ambitions for appointment as Head of the European Council or some other top post in Europe. Yet, allegations of corruption and money laundering that hounded his administration, and linked to the high-profile assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017, swiftly put paid to those plans.
If Muscat still had a shred of a chance of landing some form of compromise post, his chances were well and truly dashed with revelations in late 2019 that the assassination of Caruana Galizia had incontrovertible links to the Office of the Prime Minister, which links ultimately resulted in Muscat’s resignation.
What is the Nizami Ganjavi International Center?
Established on 30 September 2012 by Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev, the Nizami Ganjavi IC describes itself as a “cultural, non-profit, non-political organisation dedicated to the memory of Azerbaijani poet, Nizami Ganjavi and to the study and dissemination of his works”.
The International Center’s stated mission is to promote “learning, tolerance, dialogue and understanding” in what it describes as an ever changing world. Boasting a significant number of former, typically Balkan, leaders as members, the International Center’s activities range from organising conferences and forums to sponsoring events.
In practice, the International Center appears to be intent on expanding Azerbaijani culture and soft influence including through lobbying efforts and ‘caviar diplomacy’. The International Center is mainly funded by the Azerbaijani government, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings in the US,
Back in 2018, it was reported that former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi’s name had popped up on the International Center’s website as a member, however, both the International Center and Gonzi had pointed out this was an error.
Muscat’s links with both Azerbaijan and the International Center, on the other hand, are well documented. Muscat’s membership of the Nizami Ganjavi IC is not only confirmed through the International Center’s online activities but also videos featuring Muscat and letters including to the UN as well as to Aliyev signed by, among others, Muscat as a member of the Center.
Muscat’s sordid love affair with Azerbaijan
Muscat’s murky relationship with Azerbaijan can be traced back to 2007, when Muscat was an MEP. It wasn’t, however, until Muscat’s election in 2013 that this cosy relationship became somewhat incestuous.
In 2014, under the cover of an electoral promise to “reduce electricity prices”, the Maltese government led by Muscat bound Malta to acquire liquid natural gas (LNG) from SOCAR for 18 years.
Described by international energy market analysts as a deal where Malta is “losing money hand over fist”, the LNG power station sell-off featured in headlines from Azerbaijan to New York as an egregiously corrupt deal potentially linked to Caruana Galizia’s assassination.
In 2017, Caruana Galizia had reported that the Azerbaijani President’s family held bank accounts with Pilatus Bank, a bank mired in controversy later shut down for alleged money laundering. Its owner was found guilty in a US court of fraud and breaching sanctions against Iran.
Frequently a speaker at Nizami Ganjavi conferences, Muscat had even indicated in 2016 that Malta would host a “high level meeting” of the Center. It is not known whether this meeting ever took place given developments in the years that followed.