Former prime minister Joseph Muscat has played down his links to a think tank that receives most of its funding from the Azerbaijan government.

The Nizami Ganjavi International Centre, named after a medieval poet, has recently started promoting Muscat as a “member” of the organisation, The Shift News reported.

It has since described him as a “friend” of the centre in comments to Times of Malta.

Muscat has long been accused of cosying up to top officials from Azerbaijan, whose state-owned oil company Socar owns one-third of the new Electrogas power station, around which corruption claims swirl to this day.

Shortly before his resignation, which was spurred by the arrest of power station director Yorgen Fenech for complicity to murder and the interrogation of his chief of staff Keith Schembri, Muscat was voted as the 2019 man of the year in organised crime and corruption by OCCRP, an anti-graft investigative outlet.

The think tank’s stated aim is to promote “learning, tolerance, dialogue and understanding”.

Human Rights Watch, an international NGO, has described Azerbaijan’s human rights record as “appalling”.

Replying to questions by Times of Malta, a spokesman for Muscat said he was contacted by the centre to give his opinion about COVID-19.

He was also asked to co-sign a letter, through the think tank, addressed to G7 leaders.

“The think tank also includes former presidents and prime ministers of Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, Greece and Latvia, among others,” the spokesman said.

The spokesman insisted there is no conflict with his role as an MP and he was not paid by the centre. He also later denied that Muscat is a member of the think tank.

Azerbaijan’s costly lobbying strategy among foreign politicians dubbed caviar diplomacy

In 2015, Muscat addressed a conference organised by the think tank during a visit to Azerbaijan.

Muscat again came into contact with the centre the following year, during a meeting in New York while the former prime minister was attending the UN General Assembly.

Following the meeting, Azeri press reports said the think tank’s next high-level meeting would be held in Malta.

During another visit to New York in 2018, Muscat again addressed a conference organised by the think-tank about equality.

In answer to questions by the Times of Malta, a spokesperson for the think tank described Joseph Muscat as a “friend” of the centre.

The spokesperson said the think tank does not pay its members or friends for participating in forums or other activities it organises.

“The activities are by invitation only and include most eminent and influential individuals. We have worked recently with Dr Muscat on the joint declaration of former prime minister Gordon Brown, the call for free vaccination as well as Nobel Laureate Dr Kailash Satyarthi’s call for protecting vulnerable children,” the spokesperson said.

Azerbaijan’s costly lobbying strategy among foreign politicians has been dubbed “caviar diplomacy”.

A report by the Council of Europe in 2018 concluded that current and former parliamentary assembly members may have been bribed to soften the body’s criticism of human rights violations in Azerbaijan.

A 2017 OCCRP investigation found members of Azerbaijan’s ruling elite used a slush fund to pay off European politicians and other influencers who spoke favourably about Azerbaijan.

Just last week, Muscat’s name featured as a signatory to a letter sent by the think tank to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, expressing hope that Azerbaijan may continue on “its path to prosperity, peace and development despite these difficult days”.

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