Azerbaijan is more than 8,000 miles away from the islands. This small country was once part of the Soviet Union deep in the Caucus Mountains and right up against the Caspian Sea. It's also pretty wealthy with oil resources and its government has plenty of spending money. In other words, it's safe to presume that most folks here don't think about Azerbaijan all that much.
So why did two of our legislators take an Azerbaijani holiday last summer? A few weeks ago, Civil Beat, an online news organization in Honolulu, broke the story about how Reps. Rida Cabanilla and Mark Takai traveled to the distant country on a tour paid for by that government. The price tag? $8,000.
Reporters came across the summer trip after spotting it among the representatives' disclosure statements filed with the Hawaii Ethics Commission. Cabanilla and Takai said that they went to Azerbaijan to attend a convention sponsored by oil companies and find opportunities to promote Hawaii.
Cabanilla explained to reporters that Azerbaijani lobbyists promoted the trip to improve relations with the United States. Cabanilla apparently told Civil Beat that as a retired U.S. Army officer, she feels it is important to foster a good relationship with Azerbaijan because of its resources and its strategic place between the East and West.
The trip has got me thinking. A good relationship between the United States and the former Soviet republic may be a positive diplomatic step, but does that mean our state legislators ought to get involved?
And what about an oil-company-sponsored holiday? Is that an ethical problem? No way, says Takai. Civil Beat reported that Takai explained to its reporters that at the time of the trip, the Hawaii Legislature had not addressed any relevant issues that directly would benefit Azerbaijan so there was no ethical problem in going on the trip.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. "The State of Aloha" alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis' "Neighbors."
But that may not be the case for the future. Takai and Cabanilla introduced in the House this session two resolutions addressing a very touchy subject in that part of the world.
House Resolution 13 states a number of facts that you would not expect to find floating around our Legislature. It addresses an armed conflict that broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia as the Soviet Union collapsed. The countries have been locked in a territorial dispute for some time.
According to the resolution, the town of Khojaly in Azerbaijan was the site of a massacre on Feb. 25 and 26, 1992. The resolution states that 600 men, women and children were killed there, and thousands were wounded and captured by Armenian and Russian forces. The resolution marks the 22nd anniversary of the "Khojaly tragedy." The other resolution urges the United States to strengthen ties to Azerbaijan in coming up with some kind of settlement with Armenia over this disputed region.
The factual claims in the resolutions have been hotly disputed by our local Armenian-American community and the greater Armenian population. The strange resolutions were defeated when subcommittees shelved them indefinitely. The local Armenian community has declared it a victory.
But the question remains: Why do it?
Why would these legislators come back from an all-expenses trip to an exotic country and then officially stake out controversial positions that at best have a tenuous nexus to our islands?
Also, Takai doesn't seem to have a problem with taking sides. Last year he, along with other American legislators, signed off on a birthday note to the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. Takai congratulated Aliyev for his efforts to reduce crime within the country and promote allegiances abroad.
Aliyev has been criticized by many diplomats and those who follow international relations as an autocrat. After taking office in 2003, he eliminated term limits for himself from the constitution. He's been accused of running a corrupt government, clamping down on a free press and rigging elections. The infamous WikiLeaks website released a cache of diplomatic cables in 2012 that compare him to a mafia crime boss. Surely, Takai was aware of this before congratulating him on reducing crime in his country eight time zones away, right?
Takai hasn't talked about the birthday note recently, but perhaps his views on foreign policy will be examined soon. After all, he is among the seven candidates running for Congress in the 1st District. What exactly does Takai think about Azerbaijan?
There surely must be other places our legislators can visit without causing all of this heat. Honolulu and the Azerbaijani capital city of Baku may have been sister cities since 1988, but then again, Honolulu has 22 "sisters," including far-off cities in Kenya, Morocco, Venezuela and France. Perhaps legislators should promote Hawaii in places with less controversy. I hear France is nice.