Saturday, 3 December 2011

Ambassador Bryza on his way out?

Observers could be forgiven for thinking the long-running saga over Matt Bryza’s tenure as US ambassador to Azerbaijan had finished.

The seasoned Caucasus hand has been in the ambassador’s residence since February, after President Obama bypassed a block on his appointment which was imposed by two pro-Armenian Senators (Barbara Boxer  (D-CA) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) questioned whether Bryza’s close links to Turkish and Azerbaijani officials compromised his judgment). Now, the appointment is back in the news, and the possibility has been raised that Bryza will be dragged back from Baku.

Obama's recess appointment was made on December 29th 2010, and lasts until the end of the next Senate session, after which the Senate must confirm or deny it. Bryza says that the Senate will decide on his nomination before it adjourns for the holidays (no date has been set: last year it was December 22nd), but the decision has not yet been scheduled. Anonymous sources assured Azerbaijani media that the lack of a discussion date was totally routine.

Providing a nomination hearing is held before Christmas, Bryza and the White House will probably be in for a tough fight. The Obama nominee for ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul – another recess appointee - has recently been blocked by a Republican Senator who disapproves of the Administration’s ‘reset’ policy with Moscow.

Azerbaijan is less of a straight-up partisan issue than Russia in Congress; most Republicans reflexively support Baku as an ally in the war on terror and a crucial bulwark against Iran. But the poisonous partisan atmosphere in the legislature, and Republican eagerness to avoid granting Obama even the smallest victory, could lead to a block on Bryza’s nomination for any number of fairly flimsy reasons.

A more likely problem will be the threat of a block by pro-Armenian Senators. Boxer and Menendez represent constituencies with significant and influential Armenian-American communities, and both Menendez and Boxer’s co-Senator Dianne Feinstein are running for re-election in November. Upsetting such a crucial segment of the electorate eleven months before a poll would be an enormous political risk and it seems unlikely that Menendez and Feinstein would risk it by acquiescing in Bryza’s nomination.

So the stage is set for another drawn-out nomination battle. If Bryza is blocked, the Administration will have to scramble another appointee who will be more palatable to pro-Armenian Senators and the Republicans. Not an easy task in an election year, and one likely to create more tensions between Washington and Baku.

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