"To Trump the Tower or Not", that is the question: How Trump tower almost opened in Azerbaijan | Den norske Helsingforskomité

"To Trump the Tower or Not", that is the question: How Trump tower almost opened in Azerbaijan

"To Trump the Tower or Not", that is the question: How Trump tower almost opened in Azerbaijan

The images of Ivanka Trump, posing in a sleek black dress and her signature stilettos at a construction sight of yet another Trump tower in the capital of Baku did not surprise many. After all the Trump Tower business is known to invest all around the world. The Trump Baku was her latest project with The Trump Organization. The company’s website features Istanbul, Panama City, Seoul, Vancouver, and Toronto among its international real estate investment destinations. -Article researched and written by Arzu Geybullayeva, with the support from the Norwegian Helsinki Committee

In photo: Anar Mammadov, head of Garant Holding. Source RFER/RL.
Shortly after her arrival in Baku in October 2014, she shared this video on her Facebook page showing her viewers (it has been viewed at the time of writing this piece 170,294 times) a glimpse of Baku from her room at the Four Seasons hotel. A month later, it was official- Donald Trump announced plans for a new luxury hotel in Azerbaijan featuring 72 luxury residences, 30 suites, 40 serviced apartments and 119 guest rooms. Trump’s Baku based partners in development were listed as Garant Holding.

The opening was scheduled for June 2015, right in time for the inaugural European Games. But the envisioned upscale development never did open. And Baku is no longer featured on Trump’s hotel collection portfolio.  

Azerbaijan America Alliance

Enter the Azerbaijan American Alliance (AAA) into the picture. AAA, which was founded in May 2011 aims “to develop closer Azeri-American bonds” by engaging, encouraging, and educating American public, businesses, policy makers and industry leaders “about critical and complex issues needed to foster diverse relations between Azerbaijan and United States.” 

The founder of AAA is Anar Mammadov, 34-year-old son of Azerbaijan’s Transport Minister Ziya Mammadov. Mammadov is the Chairman and the CEO of Garant Holding, formerly known as Zqan Holding. According to the information listed on Garant Holding’s website the company has interests in finance, logistics, agriculture, construction, hotels and real estate as well as services. Over the past years, a number of investigations revealed Mammadov’s lucrative business deals including but not limited to Baghlan Group’s taxi and bus companies. The company “is one the leading holdings operating in oil and gas, construction and transportation sectors” and owns “the country’s largest taxi company, the sole operator of over 1000 traditional London black cabs[which were important during Eurovision song contest in 2012 costing $28,000 per piece]” as well as “fleet of hundreds of buses meeting over 20% of all passenger demand for bus services within the city”.    

Mammadov is also the head of the country’s golf federation.  

"To Trump the Tower or Not", that is the question: How Trump tower almost opened in Azerbaijan
Mammadovs network of companies

The Azerbaijan American Alliance describes Mammadov junior as “independent Azerbaijani businessman and entrepreneur” and “generational leader of a prominent Azeri family”. His personal website also adds “Maecenas” to his title, which for those of you who don’t know means statesman and/or patron of literature.

Mammadov’s international fame however began to surface in 2013 when Mammadov’s name appeared in a scandal of "one mighty bear", he wanted to eat and allegedly ordered the restaurant owner to cook in exchange for 1million USD. Surely Mammadov denied the accusations and sued the papers [in a 500,000AZN defamation lawsuit], which circulated the story.

Mammadovs family is mentioned among top three families that control international lobbying machine according to this piece featured in Foreign Policy.

The office of the alliance  (AAA) is located inside Evening Star Building on 1101 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC. The elegant marble lobby tells you little of its tenants –there are no signs with names of companies or businesses.

On my first visit the security personnel had a difficult time finding AAA in the building’s registry. But even finding it did not lead to anything. I was informed I just missed the person who is taking care of the office.

My second visit was more successful. After being given a sticker with my name printed on it and directed to the elevators I arrived on the 6th floor of the Evening Star. To my greatest disappointment I was not greeted with flags of Azerbaijan and pictures of Haydar Aliyev and his son Ilham Aliyev. Instead, I walked through another set of glass doors, and met with another receptionist. As it turns out, AAA is just one of the many other tenants. Baffled by the name of AAA, she first told me there was nothing here but a mailbox and a phone number. A few minutes later, she sent me up a floor, which to much less of a surprise was the office that belonged to Fabiani & Company.

Fabiani & Company is a Washington based “government affairs and strategy consulting firm founded with the primary goal to provide creative and innovative solutions to help a select group of clients represent their interests before the United States Federal Government”, reads the description on the company’s website. In more simple terms, they are a lobby firm. And according to Washington Representative Directory 2015, Azerbaijan America Alliance was its client. The directory lists agreements from the onset of AAA’s coming to life, starting 2011.

One of the many filed documents available on the Foreign Registration Act (FARA) archive indicate AAA contracted Fabiani &Company in May 2011 “to encourage research and advocacy about the Azeri people and provide information broadly about such people, including issues related to their country, culture and international relations”.

At the time, no services were provided yet, so Fabiani &Co anticipated it “may provide written information or materials to elected or appointed government individuals, private American citizens, members of the media, university professors, university administrations, and commercial organizations; or may in conversations provide information or data to support a point of view or explain a particular issue, idea, concern or policy, as they may relate to the culture, society, people, government policies, private or public organizations such as businesses and institutions of higher education.”

And this is what the company did provide for the AAA. Over the course of next four years, up until 2015, AAA paid in total a lump sum of $8,070,000 to Fabiani for services ranging from “educating the administration and members of congress about the Azeri people and issues related to their country, culture, and international relations; planning and execution of effective strategies to encourage research and advocacy about the Azeri people and issues related to the country, culture and international relations; and notifying Azerbaijan America Alliance of any action, in the Executive Branch or in Congress on issues of importance to Azerbaijan America Alliance in Azerbaijan”.

It looked like it was necessary to repeat the activities and meetings over and over again as a reminder to what Azerbaijan really meant for the United States.

In total, between 2011 and 2015, AAA spent $12,558,000 on lobbying and consultancy according to opensecrets.org.

But this partnership is no news. In 2015, the following story on Mother Jones revealed that Donald Trump received $2,5million “for his work on the Baku hotel, which will be operated as part of Trump’s chain of luxury hotels”.   

It looked like Mammadov had it all and it was going well for his wide-ranging businesses, but then Azerbaijan’s economy collapsed. Two devaluations hit Azerbaijan’s booming family businesses including that of Mammadov.

One of many who were affected by Azerbaijan’s economic crisis outside of Azerbaijan was Dan Burton, who acted as the Chairman of the Board at AAA. The official website featured Burton’s name up until January 2016. Today, if you navigate to the organization’s website you can only find Anar Mammadov’s name under the “Leadership” tab.

In March of this year Burton said he was officially resigning as a chairman of the board saying he has not been paid for the services in over than a year. As a chairman Burton represented AAA and wrote things like “Azerbaijan, after a mere 23 years of independence, stands out as a friend to America and a stabilizing force in the region”.

Not surprising no one answered the phone indicated on AAA’s website to get further comments, because “the person who represents the company is not always here and visits rarely” I was told by one of the Fabiani and Company employees during my recent visit.

Somewhere between the economic crisis and the downgrading of the Transport Ministry’s broad powers, AAA parted with glitz and glamor of lobby world. Gone were the days of gala dinners and culture events to promote Azerbaijan (Fara documents indicate alliance spent over $400,000 for Gala dinner “to provide information broadly about the culture, society, industry and history of the Azeri people”).

And despite reports that the AAA “continues its activity as usual and even in a larger scale”, there is not much activity going on. Their office on Pennsylvania Avenue is empty. Their website shows little “activity” let alone “on a larger scale”. The last update of “In the News” section for instance dates as far back as November 2015. While under “Current Activities”, the last update was from July 20, 2015.

Then there is Mammadov’s personal Facebook page and Twitter account- both of which have not been updated since September and August respectively. Surely one may say, in between the Alliance work, his responsibilities as a CEO and as honorary consul of Macedonia in Azerbaijan, Mammadov simply no longer has the time to keep his social media presence up to date but sadly that is likely not be true.

At the peak of his career, Mammadov also launched the official National Geographic Azerbaijan project. The official National Geographic page said, “Garant Media Holding partnered with the National Geographic Society to launch the local language edition of NG magazine in Azerbaijan”. The magazine debuted in September 2014 with an announcement at the Four Seasons Hotel in Baku and the grand presentation at the Haydar Aliyev Culture Center. But looks like the souring in business had its toll on the magazine too. The magazine’s Facebook page was updated last in December 2015 and my attempt to speak to the National Geographic Society failed too. The contact email for Azerbaijan bounced back.

The fate of the Trump tower

In March of 2016, after several calls to the Trump towers in Baku I spoke to a young man whose phone number appeared on one of the websites associated with the Trump Baku tower. He told me the building is closed and it won’t open any time soon given the recent debacle between the regime and the family involved in the construction, namely the Mammadovs. “I cannot say anything more over the phone, but it won’t be operating any time soon”, the young man said. As to the question of his involvement with the towers, he said, “I have no idea how my number ended up on the website. I applied for the receptionist job at the towers and now you are not the first person calling me about the status of the building”.

I then wrote to the Trump Company hoping they might answer some of the questions I had about the status of the building as well as the partners on the ground. After a long e-mail exchange, I finally got the following response: “Due to the developer falling behind on certain construction milestones, the project is currently held in abeyance and not being actively marketed”. My attempts to get further failed. “We will have no further comment or the background to give”, said the spokesperson.

The Baku tower did feature on the Trumphotelcollection.com until September 2015.  

A screen shot of the official cached trumphotelcollection.com on July 2015, two months before the project is removed from the website.

Following her visit to Baku to inspect the stages of construction Ivanka was quoted saying, “this incredible building reflects the highest level of luxury and refinement, with extraordinary architecture inspired by the Caspian Sea and sophisticated interior that seamlessly blend the contemporary style with timeless appeal”.

It looks like aside from having an office just blocks away from the White House and across the street from currently under construction Trump Hotel DC, the Trump Tower Baku will simply remain part of a failed investment and waste of millions by Mammadovs’ crumbling empire.

This article is written by freelance writer Arzu Geybullayeva in the framework of a cooperation with the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. The facts and views expressed in the article remains the responsibility of the author. Addendum: After this article was written, but before its publication, the website of Azerbaijan-America Alliance has become inaccessible. However, the Alliance’s Facebook page is still active, although not being updated.