Former prime minister Joseph Muscat was back in Baku, Azerbaijan last week for the second time in three months – this time once again in his capacity as a member of the dictator Ilham Aliyev’s Nizami Ganjavi International Centre (NGIC).
It could also be considered as a case of going back to the scene of the crime as Baku was where one of the most corruption-laden deals Muscat’s administration had been struck.
Muscat has been a member of the NGIC since 2020 joining after his protracted December 2019 resignation from the office of the prime minister.
The think tank was founded by Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev and is funded by the Azerbaijani government, with which Muscat fostered a cosy relationship while in power.
Broadly entitled ‘Reconstruction, Reconciliation, and Integration: Energy, Economy, Environment and Equity’, the event included panel discussions on energy, economy, the environment and cultural heritage.
Its opening ceremony included a video about Azerbaijani lands ‘liberated’ from occupation. Ostensibly, these lands would be those contested as part of the protracted Armenia-Azerbaijan war which has seen tens of thousands killed.
As part of the planned events, members visited the mausoleum of Nizami Ganjavi, the 12th-century poet to which the NGIC is dedicated.
Following this, members attended a meeting that studied and promoted Ganjavi’s values.
Established on 30 September 2012 by Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev, the Centre 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”.
In practice, the centre aims to expand Azerbaijani culture and soft influence through lobbying efforts and ‘caviar diplomacy’. According to Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings in the US, it is mainly funded by the Azerbaijani government.
Muscat was in Baku just last March where he spoke at the 10th edition of the Baku Global Forum, the Nizami Ganjavi International Center’s annual flagship event.
That was Muscat’s second participation and follows his participation as prime minister in the third edition in 2015 when the now well-known machinations of the ElectroGas deal were in full swing.
Muscat had become a member of the Azerbaijani government-funded political think tank and lobby group in 2020 following his resignation from office over the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, which was in turn linked to the corruption revelations associated with the ElectroGas power station in which SOCAR is a shareholder and its LNG supply agreement.
The Baku Global Forum, which aims to put an internationally respectable face on the oil- and gas-rich nation with an extremely dubious human rights record.
As prime minister, Muscat – accompanied by his then-chief of staff Keith Schembri and former energy minister Konrad Mizzi – in an unannounced visit in December 2014 met Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and signed a dubious ‘memorandum of understanding on energy cooperation’, the genesis of the rot behind the ElectroGas power station deal.
That agreement led to the government binding Malta to acquire its liquefied natural gas (LNG) for the new power station from SOCAR for 18 years.
Just a few months after signing the energy deal on the secret December 2014 trip to Baku with Mizzi and Schembri – which was only made known in Malta after it was reported in the Azerbaijani press – Muscat was back in Azerbaijan addressing the Baku Global Forum’s third edition in April 2015.
There he gave a keynote address, where he was only one of four then-current leaders present – along with Aliyev himself, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov and Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev.
Muscat’s murky relationship with Azerbaijan can be traced back to 2007 when he was an MEP. It wasn’t, however, until Muscat’s election in 2013 that this cosy relationship became too close for comfort.
In 2017, it was reported members of the Azerbaijani president’s family held bank accounts with Pilatus Bank, a bank mired in controversy and connections to the Muscat administration that was later shut down for alleged money laundering.
Aliyev’s daughters were found to have transferred €14.9 million from their Pilatus bank account to the Dubai-based Palma Consulting DMCC across three separate transactions between September 2015 and March 2016.
The year before, in February 2014 – 10 months before Joseph Muscat’s covert trip to Baku – one of the daughters, Leyla Aliyeva, was hosted by Muscat’s wife, Michelle, at Girgenti Palace.
Aliyeva runs the Heydar Aliyev Foundation – a charity organisation named after her grandfather, the former Azerbaijani president.