Obama Confidant Plans To Meet Azerbaijani Leader

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 9, 2009

David Plouffe, who managed Barack Obama's presidential campaign and was cited by Obama as the "unsung hero" in his ascendancy to the White House, is expected to meet this week with Azerbaijan's president, who has been accused of undermining democracy in that oil-rich country.

Plouffe does not work for the White House, but he remains close to top White House officials. His outreach to Democrats, particularly through new-media ventures, was credited with propelling Obama to victory, and he continues to play an integral role with President Obama's grass-roots political operation, Organizing for America. Last week, he e-mailed that group's 13 million addresses with a video from Obama that urged support for the economic stimulus plan.

His trip to Azerbaijan is scheduled to include a speech today at Gerb University in the capital of Baku, followed by a meeting with President Ilham Aliyev and the speaker of the parliament, Oktay Asadov, according to Radio Free Europe, which first reported on the trip.

"Plouffe is coming as a private citizen," Terry Davidson, a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan, told Radio Free Europe. "The embassy is not in charge of his schedule."

Aliyev has been president of Azerbaijan since 2003, when he replaced his ailing father, Heydar, in a vote that the State Department said last year suffered from "numerous, serious irregularities." Parliamentary elections two years later also failed to meet democratic standards, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said.

That record prompted protests when President George W. Bush welcomed Aliyev to the White House in April 2006.

Aliyev was reelected last October to a second term, and Plouffe's trip comes at a time when the Azerbaijani parliament is considering a plan to eliminate presidential term limits. Without such a measure, Aliyev would be required to leave office in 2013.

In December, the United States criticized Aliyev's government for banning international radio broadcasts.

"These media organizations play a crucial role in supporting democratic debate and the free exchange of ideas and information," State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid told the Associated Press. "This decision, if carried out, will represent a serious setback to freedom of speech and retard democratic reform in Azerbaijan."

Radio Free Europe reported that Plouffe declined an interview. The Embassy of Azerbaijan in Washington did not respond to a request for comment yesterday, and the White House did not immediately respond to such a request. A call to Plouffe's consulting firm, AKPD Message and Media, was not returned.

Plouffe recently sold the lucrative rights to a book about the inside workings of the Obama campaign.

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