It’s harder to be a moderate in Washington, D.C., than ever before. Nobody knows that better than the veteran centrist Democrat Henry Cuellar, who faces prosecution from the federal government for his work on one of the few remaining bipartisan causes in Texas politics: the glorious nation of Azerbaijan.

On Friday, the Department of Justice indicted Congressman Cuellar, who represents Laredo, on fourteen counts, including bribery, conspiracy, failure to register as a foreign agent, and money laundering. Cuellar and his wife, Imelda, are alleged to have used a network of shell companies to hide $600,000 in payoffs from a Mexican bank and an Azerbaijani oil company. For those payments, the feds allege, Cuellar offered concrete deliverables, the “quid” for the “quo.” Cuellar is supposed to have promised to pressure Biden administration officials to back off from enforcing regulations on Mexican banks and to have promised the Azerbaijanis he would back them in Congress. Cuellar denies the charges. His office did not respond to an interview request from Texas Monthly, but in a full-throated press release about the indictment, he wrote that “everything [he has] done in Congress has been to serve the people of South Texas.”

For a powerful borderland representative who is the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee (Cuellar stepped down after the indictment), allegations of entanglements with a Mexican bank would seem to make a certain amount of sense. But Azerbaijan’s alleged involvement with Cuellar struck many as a curious detail. To many Americans, “Azerbaijan” sounds a bit like one of those fake Eastern European countries that produce the villains in Liam Neeson movies.

Azerbaijan is, instead, an oil-rich country that won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The nation is a family-run despotism: only two men have run the country since 1993—first Heydar Aliyev, and then his son, Ilham Aliyev. The country’s wealth is tied up in the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic, known as SOCAR, which is also run by the Aliyev family. Billboards with Heydar’s face dot the capital city of Baku, and you are always reminded of the men that rule over you. From 1994 to 2020, the country was locked in a mostly frozen military conflict with neighboring Armenia, which occupied territory claimed by Azerbaijan. The promise of this war loomed over everything in Azerbaijan, and it helped bolster an authoritarian political culture. In February, Ilham Aliyev won 92 percent of the vote in his reelection bid.