How a former Soviet republic at war found a friend at the Utah Legislature with help from essential oils

Critics say visit was timed to provide good press during humanitarian crisis.

(Azerbaijan State News Agency AZERTAC) From left, Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, Azerbaijani Ambassador to the United States Khazar Ibrahim and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, pose for a photograph at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City in January. The visit from Ibrahim, as well as a spiritual leader from Azerbaijan, was portrayed in Azeri state-run media as an endorsement by Utah leaders of the Caucasus nation's actions in the face in international scrutiny.

The following story was reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and The Salt Lake Tribune.

An innocent legislative proclamation saluting the government of a former Soviet republic — combined with an official visit from a foreign delegation to Utah’s Capitol Hill and LDS Church headquarters along with ties to one of the state’s most visible essential oil companies — has some wondering if Utah is being used in a propaganda campaign some 7,000 miles away.

The friendship between Utah lawmakers and the government of Azerbaijan is well advertised in the central Asian country.

But critics of the country’s regime say it’s something Azerbaijan uses to deflect criticism when facing harsh, international scrutiny. Azerbaijan has been locked in a long struggle for control of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region in the country that was once home to more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians.

At the beginning of the year, Azerbaijan ran a controversial blockade of a major supply route into the region. At the end of September, Azerbaijan then led a brutal offensive into the region and, according to the United Nations, now over 100,000 Armenian refugees have fled Nagorno-Karabakh and are in dire need of assistance.

(Nanna Heitmann | The New York Times) Families in Kornidzor, Armenia, after fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023.

But before Azerbaijan’s military campaign this fall, the government was campaigning for friendly media coverage wherever it could get it — including from the Utah Legislature.

A Jan. 21 post from the Azerbaijani state news agency, Azertac, proudly stated that “U.S. State of Utah adopts proclamation on Azerbaijan.”

“The Senate of the U.S. State of Utah has adopted a proclamation commending the high level of peaceful coexistence and interfaith harmony in Azerbaijan,” the article reads, underneath a photo of Azeri Ambassador Khazar Ibrahim posing with Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

So how is it that two Utah lawmakers had their photos plastered on a state news channel in the midst of a humanitarian crisis and in the lead-up to a major military offensive in the Caucasus?

According to documents obtained from a public records request, the organization that helped set up this photo-op, as well as recent high-profile visits from Azeri delegates, was a private Utah foundation formed by members of one of the state’s largest essential oil companies.

Stamp of approval

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Church President Russell M. Nelson gestures toward Allahshükür Pashazade, the Islamic spiritual leader of the Caucasus region, during a visit by the Grand Mufti to Salt Lake City in March.

In December 2022, members of the United Nations Security Council including the United States, France and Russia, called for an end to the controversial blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh. The government of Azerbaijan had blockaded the Lachin corridor, depriving the Armenian population there of food and medicine, even as inhabitants were still reeling from the brutal conflict of 2020, in which Azerbaijan reclaimed control over the territory.

Two days after McKell and Adams were featured on Azeri news feeds, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reached out to the country’s president, Ilham Aliyev, over the blockade. A news release from the State Department said “[Blinken] underscored that the risk of a humanitarian crisis in the Lachin corridor undermined prospects for peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan.”

Utah has received Azeri delegates on multiple occasions. This March another delegation from Azerbaijan came to the Beehive State, led by the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus Sheikh Ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, the Islamic spiritual leader for the region. The religious delegation, including representatives of Christian and Jewish congregations from the country, not only met with state lawmakers and the lieutenant governor but also had an audience with Russell Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Critics say the Azerbaijan government and the traveling spiritual delegation – which is closely regulated by the country’s government – often capitalize on a photo-op with a local U.S. government to burnish the nation’s image during moments of controversy.

“They use state legislators like a stamp of approval when they get bad press around the world,” said Elizabeth Chouldjian, spokesperson of the Armenian National Committee of America. Her organization advocates for ethnic Armenians who live in the contested region.

Chouldjian characterized it as an Azeri state propaganda maneuver — and “propaganda” is not even a term that seems to bother the government of Azerbaijan.

On the state news agency’s website, an ad appears next to articles with the title “Strategy of Victory.” In the image, the president of Azerbaijan is seen wearing camouflage fatigues with a triumphant fist in the air. The text under the image is attributed to the president and reads: “We must not defend, but attack politically, from a propaganda point of view.”

(Azerbaijan Presidential Press Office via AP) Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev gestures while speaking in front of a government building and an Azerbaijani National Flag in the background in the city of Khankendi, Azerbaijan, Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023, which is also known as Stepanakert to Armenians. Aliyev has raised his nation's flag over the capital of Karabakh in a ceremony reaffirming Baku's control of the disputed region.

When asked about the coverage in Azerbaijan, Franz Kolb, director of international trade and diplomacy at the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, said the state can’t control how a country “may portray their visit to Utah back in their home countries.”

“Diplomatic and goodwill visits by foreign representatives and dignitaries with Utah state leaders are routine, even though sometimes the visiting delegations may come from a country with national policies and priorities that may differ from those of the United States or the state of Utah,” he said in a statement. “The recent Azerbaijani visit was limited to celebrate and foster multiculturalism and to promote religious tolerance.”

Soviet Chess

Ambassador John Herbst served more than 30 years at the State Department, including as ambassador to Ukraine in the early 2000s. Now a senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, he believes understanding the complicated conflict requires understanding how Russia deftly plays former Soviet states against one another.

When the Soviet Union fractured, he said, the Russians saw the advantage of keeping Armenia and Azerbaijan at each other’s throats. The Russians placed Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan — intentionally, Herbst said — despite the large population of Armenians who lived there.

Herbst described a struggle lasting decades between the two sides, with both at times defying international calls for peace when they held the upper hand.

(Ivor Prickett | The New York Times) Azerbaijanis celebrating the week after a peace deal was announced for Nagorno Karabakh in Baku, Azerbaijan, Nov. 15, 2020.

The first major post-Cold War conflict between the two nations in the ‘90s resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and control of Nagorno-Karabakh taken by the Armenians and their Russian-backed forces. That war also resulted in the Khojaly massacre by Armenian troops of hundreds of Azerbaijani civilians.

Almost 30 years later, in 2020, Azerbaijan invaded the area in a conflict that left as many as 7,000 combatants dead.

That six-week war brought with it fresh allegations of atrocities by both sides. Amnesty International reviewed verified videos on social media of Azeri soldiers decapitating prisoners in two separate videos. Another video showed an Azeri border guard having his throat slit.

In a shaky truce, mediated by Russia, Armenia had to give up territory seized from the larger conflict in the ‘90s. Since then, however, skirmishes have erupted periodically. And, in late 2022 the Azeri government began its blockade of the Lachin corridor, the rugged mountainous pass leading into Nagorno-Karabakh.

Reports from Radio Free Europe as recently as July stated the blockade was having dire impacts on the disputed region. Gas had been shut off, and Armenian civilians reported hourslong lines for bread and groceries. This led to Azerbaijan’s September 19 offensive, dubbed an “anti-terror” strike by the government that led to the recent refugee crisis and threatens to destabilize the region.

Essential oil diplomacy

(Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson via X) An Azerbaijani delegation led by Ambassador Khazar Ibrahim, second from right, meets with Henderson at the State Capitol Jan. 19.

The Utah Investigative Journalism Project reviewed hundreds of pages of emails from the governor’s office and the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity about the delegations that visited during the 2023 legislative session. In all of the correspondence, there was no mention of the controversial blockade. It turns out all of the information provided to state officials came primarily from the Stirling Foundation, the organization that hosted the delegates.

The Stirling Foundation is a private foundation created by members of the Stirling family who started doTERRA, the global essential oil multilevel marketing company. Market research company Zippia estimated doTERRA was valued at $940 million in 2022.

Representatives of the Stirling Foundation did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But tax records for the organization showed in 2021 it was active in global philanthropy, like constructing teacher housing for a school in Rwanda. It also helped fund a trip for Utah delegates to visit Azerbaijan in fall 2022, which included McKell.

McKell, Gov. Spencer Cox’s brother-in-law, did not respond to requests for comment

On Jan. 19, Nicole Stirling of the foundation sent talking points to the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity in preparation for a meeting with Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson. In the email, Stirling talked about the strong relationship between Utah and Azerbaijan, how the country was exploring investing in Utah and how the Azeri consul in Utah visited Silicon Slopes officials. Not only that, but Baku, Azerbaijan, Stirling stated, also was seeking a sister city relationship with Salt Lake City.

“Azerbaijan is the most open, progressive, and U.S.-friendly country within the critical Turkic belt, which stretches from Turkey to China,” Stirling wrote. She also stated that Utah and Azerbaijan “both value and promote interfaith cooperation,” adding that Azerbaijan has “tenaciously fought against efforts to introduce more radical forms of Islam or to adopt Sharia law and governance.”

Sofia Bedford, a Norway-based religion researcher specializing in post-Soviet republics, explained that, unlike in the Middle East, where religious differences can lead to bloody conflicts, Azerbaijani faith groups coexist peacefully — but only if they submit to state authority.

“It’s not like Muslims versus other faiths,” Bedford said. “It’s more about who does and does not abide by the [government’s] rules.”

She also said the religious interfaith delegation that visited Utah is known for making other international appearances, but those representatives operate under strict regulation from a state committee.

“Multiculturalism,” she said, “is just part of the nation’s branding.”

She acknowledged it is to the country’s credit that Shiite and Sunni Muslims pray together in unity mosques. On the other hand, any members of a faith that resist state regulation are liable to be thrown in prison — no matter their creed.

“The state committee,” she said, “is like the spider in the web, overseeing everything.”

The nonprofit Stirling Foundation would not respond to questions about its interests in Azerbaijan. In 2020, founder David Stirling discussed the foundation’s work at a Hatch Foundation symposium at the Grand America Ballroom in Salt Lake City. In the talk, Stirling noted the business relationship between doTERRA and the countries from which it gets materials.

“We have been fortunate to develop many friends in familiar and remote regions of the world,” Stirling said. “Their interest, of course, is largely driven by the potential economic impact DoTERRA can have on their respective countries and our track record of helping to bring people out of poverty.”

‘Support from Utah to Azerbaijan’

(Dmitry Lovetsky | AP) Buildings punctuate the hazy skyline of Baku, Azerbaijan, Friday, June 19, 2015.

The religious delegation to Utah was also covered widely in Azeri media. Coverage of the visit appeared in more than 20 pro-government and state-controlled media using the same text for the articles. When the Grand Mufti met with Latter-day Saint apostle David Bednar, a pro-government TV broadcast called the meeting “support from Utah to Azerbaijan.”

Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, an international human rights organization, despite criticism from other groups for jailing critics, journalists and activists.

In fall 2022, it defended its human rights record to the Council of Europe by referencing the 2020 conference held in Utah with The Stirling Foundation titled “the Azerbaijani Mode of Multiculturalism and Inter-religious dialogue.”

Casey Michel, an author and journalist who has covered Azerbaijani influence campaigns in the U.S., said most Americans don’t think about foreign lobbying outside of Washington.

“The reality has been this shadow diplomacy at the state level,” Michel said, both with Armenia and Azerbaijan wielding influence at the local level.

He concedes it can be strange to imagine support from the legislature of a small state can have an impact in Azerbaijan.

“But these things do have an effect. They trickle up into the federal government,” he said. “It is a really low-cost effort to pursue these lobbying games.”

That’s not to mention meeting with the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“That’s an impressive get for the delegation,” he said, “to have the head of a globe-spanning church sit down with you.”

The church declined to comment for this story but issued a news release earlier describing the goodwill visit with the church presidency in March. In the release, Sheik Pashazade praised the church for its model of tolerance to all faiths and described his visit with church leadership as “very, very positive.”

(Mauricio Lima | The New York Times) An unexploded rocket sticks up from a road near Martakert, in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Nov. 19, 2020.