The new UK secretary of state for international trade has enjoyed many benefits from his close relations with the regime in Baku, Nick Cohen says in an opinion article titles “How Liam Fox got into bed with Azerbaijan’s kleptocrats” published by The Guardian.
The article reads:
In 2013, Dr Liam Fox – he insists on the “Doctor” – published a book on the challenges of globalisation, which read as if he had dictated into his phone between meetings. Rising Tides was a meandering work. It took a long time to say little and did as abysmally as you would expect. Nielsen International, which monitors book sales, told me the English edition had sold a mere 1,723 copies in the UK and 1,876 copies in the English-speaking foreign markets it watches. (Most were probably in the US, where Dr Fox has a small following in America’s raging right wing.)
In 2014, Dr Fox received news that he was the beneficiary of a stroke of good fortune. Our new secretary for international trade may be hopelessly unqualified to deal with the dangerous pass he helped bring Britain to by agitating for Brexit, but he can trade on his own account.
The register of MPs interests shows that the oil-rich dictatorship of Azerbaijan, via its London lobbyists, paid Dr Fox £5,700 for the right to translate Rising Tides into an Azerbaijani Turkish edition. The generosity of Azerbaijan’s rulers did not stop there. On 1 February 2015, the regime flew him and an aide to Istanbul to launch the book and put them up in a luxury hotel. . The cost of the four-day trip was £3,579.94.
It wasn’t his first overseas promotion. The Azerbaijani press reported that Dr Fox was in Baku in September 2014, where he was received by no less a magnifico than President Ilham Aliyev, the son of President Heydar Aliyev, who seized power in 1993, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and passed control of the state down through the family.
The Panama Papers showed that the Aliyevs and their accomplices controlled assets worth $490m via offshore accounts. Any citizen who wonders where the money has gone runs a risk. The regime has jailed critics, frozen the bank accounts of opposition groups and strangled free expression. I could go on about Dr Fox’s grotesque hypocrisy. He urged the British to leave the EU so we would “be able, through the ballot box, to throw out the lawmakers”. The people of Azerbaijan enjoy no such liberty. In Rising Tides, he sought to defend “the freedom we too often take for granted”. There is no freedom in Azerbaijan, unless it is the freedom of the ruling gangsters to rob and menace with impunity.
But there is a more pressing question, which once would not have mattered and now goes to the heart of this country’s crisis. Until a few months ago, Dr Fox was “disgraced former defence minister Liam Fox”, a nobody who had been forced to resign after claims he had broken the ministerial code to deliver favours to his friend and a self-styled adviser Adam Werritty. Brexit has brought him back into government. Theresa May has charged him with cutting trade deals with democracies and dictatorships the world over, including dictatorships as corrupt as Azerbaijan.
Here’s the problem for him and us. Dr Fox wrote a book, whose readers could not fill a non-league football ground. No one else felt the need to translate it into French, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi or any of the world’s other major languages. Only Azerbaijan wanted to give Dr Fox money and buy the rights. Buying books and papers is an old Soviet method of giving support to sympathisers abroad. The Kremlin used to order 6,000 copies a day of the British communist daily, the Morning Star. It was hard in the Cold War to imagine anyone in Moscow wanting to read it, but Moscow found the bulk order a useful way to funnel cash to the dictatorship’s friends.
By his sins of commission and omission, Fox show himself to be the Azerbaijani dictatorship’s friend. He had a telling exchange with David Lidington, in January 2016, when Lidington was still Cameron’s Europe minister. There was safety and strength in numbers, Lidington told MPs. The 28 states of the EU could “speak together” to promote freedom of expression and the right of “civil society organisations [to] operate free from threats or intimidation”, both of which are noticeable by their absence in Fox’s Azerbaijan. The EU had opposed executions in Saudi Arabia, Lidington continued, and condemned human rights abuses in Azerbaijan.
Dr Fox spoke up. He dismissed talk of democratic freedoms. He wanted to concentrate on how EU human rights campaigns were wasting “our taxpayers’ money”. We might be able to use it “better ourselves were we not encumbered by this excessive bureaucratic EU cost”.
I asked Dr Fox whether the money he received was a “reward for your support for the president of Azerbaijan or a normal publishing deal. If the latter, how many copies has the translation sold in Azerbaijan?”A spokesperson for Dr Fox replied: “This was a publishing deal arranged by the publisher for a licence for the translation rights to Dr Fox’s Rising Tides book.”
He did not say it but this quite clearly was not a normal “publishing deal”. The publishers were not an established company. Rising Tide was the first book published by the European Azerbaijan Society, which purports to be independent. It also paid for his flights and hotels. The regime’s overseas lobbying and propaganda arm is based in expensive offices in Westminster from where it pumps freebies to pliable publishers, PR men and politicians. Nor did the spokesman say how many Azerbaijanis had bought copies of a book that the British reading public had so sensibly ignored.
Every promise the Brexiters made has proved to be false. The jobs market is in freefall and the Bank of England is taking emergency measures. Far from being the breeze they promised, the difficulties facing Britain in renegotiating its trade relationship with every country in the world appear beyond Whitehall’s capacity to manage. Dr Fox has become a laughing stock for his ignorance of the basic fact that he cannot start arranging trade deals until we have left the EU. But Dr Fox isn’t a joke and this isn’t funny.
On its own and without the safety of numbers, a Britain desperate for deals will not dare raise human rights concerns with Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, China or anyone else. Dr Fox is a man for our debased times because his record with Azerbaijan shows the international trade secretary would not want to raise them even if he could. Our future is not going to be proud and independent, but grubby and murky and filled with bad deals with worse governments; a future, in short, where the foxes will rule the henhouse.