Strange Bedfellows: Clooney And Armenia Versus Azerbaijan

Ali El Husseini Senior Director, o.co
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We Lebanese can be such perfectionists, and like many, we adore the culture of celebrity. Ironically, we are so keen on perfection that we are still looking for a perfect president even if it means a dysfunctional government. Pursuing perfection often takes on an absurdly comical quality.

Take Amal Clooney, widely celebrated first as a fashion icon then as a political and human rights activist and lawyer, Clooney is everywhere. Her husband, actor George Clooney, and her haute couture dresses and shoes help her flirt innocently with aging members of U.S. Congress, who then practically stumble over each other to tweet about meeting her.

The façade of adoration is misleading. Last year, Clooney joined a team paid by and arguing for Armenia in the European Court of Human Rights – a suspicious choice for a human rights lawyer. Armenia is Russia’s most loyal, dependent vassal with a repressive, corrupt government that did not hesitate, for example, to shoot election protestors at point blank range in 2008. Clooney was hired, as courts mulled whether Switzerland could prohibit any questioning about the validity of Armenian genocide claims – challenged by a Turkish citizen.

Switzerland’s motive for restricting speech remains unclear. One should remember Switzerland’s own ambiguous stand vis-à-vis Nazi Germany and the Swiss banks’ appropriation of savings of Jewish victims – all of which happened after the Armenian tragedy of 1915, but long before the first legal mention of the concept of genocide and crimes against humanity in the international courts of law. Thus, Switzerland’s obsession with restricting Turkish denials is perplexing, as is Clooney arguing, in effect, against the concept of freedom of speech. Her trial argument that Turkey itself has restricted speech held no sway and Switzerland and Armenia lost this obscure, contradictory case. Nevertheless, the Armenian government reaped what it paid for, even if the case was doomed from the outset. Maximizing celebrity status is sufficient currency on its own.

More recently, Amal Clooney has publicized the case of journalist Khadija Ismayilova, currently on probation in Azerbaijan. Whatever the reasons that led to the arrest and initial conviction on tax evasion and financial mismanagement charges, everybody, including the Azerbaijani authorities, are better off with her release.

However, Clooney’s rush to Ismayilova’s rescue is not helpful. In her perfect world, Clooney does not seem to acknowledge the obvious problem with a lawyer hired by the Armenian government arguing against Azerbaijan. Furthermore, she seemed more intent on advancing her peculiar brand of court communication, media appearances and political lobbying. Just as another major round of violent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan erupted, Clooney launched her publicity campaign for Ismayilova. Add her husband’s coinciding high-profile visit to Armenia and there is plenty of fodder for the region’s conspiracy theorists.

George Clooney’s visit to Armenia is telling, as it helped to soften the blow of the near-total international isolation of Armenia’s former warlord and current president Serj Sarkissian. It also distracted attention from the police violently breaking up another protest in the streets, while Clooney and Sarkissian discussed history and human rights.

Clooney led a torch-lit march which culminated in the public burning of Azerbaijani and Turkish flags. At this point, not seeing a more serious problem would require an alternative conspiracy theory explanation.

Also take note of Clooney’s hand-picked co-chair for his 100 Lives Foundation – Ruben Vardanyan, an ethnic Armenian and a Russian oligarch with close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin. The irony is that in the Panama Papers revelations, one easily sees the direct connection between Putin and Vardanyan, her husband’s friend and foundation benefactor. As Armenia’s financial difficulties and severe monetary shortages are well known, one might be curious if Amal Clooney’s legal fees on behalf of Armenia were paid indirectly by Vardanyan, a mutual friend of her husband and Putin.

We return to Lebanon. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, head of the predominantly Sunni Future Movement, met Putin earlier this year along with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Lebanon’s pundit class lit up when Hariri said regarding Putin, “We value the large role played by Russia in the region, and we look for you to have a role in Lebanon, too.” Some speculated Hariri hoped to secure Russian support for his declared presidential candidate, Sleiman Franjieh.

As Putin eyes the Middle East for expanding his influence, Lebanon is appealing for many reasons. These include its access to the Mediterranean Sea and the recently found abundant reserves of offshore natural gas. Many Lebanese factions hesitate about ever inviting the Russians to helping resolve the country’s long-standing political stalemate.

Yes, we Lebanese are perfect and the Clooney examples should alert us to avoiding alliances that mask the real aims of so-called new friends.

The author is a noted political scientist, specializing in Middle Eastern studies. He is a frequent adviser to the Lebanese government on foreign policy issues and has guest lectured for several top-tier universities.