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Beyond Balcony-Rental Boom, Formula One Race Offers Few Rewards For Azerbaijanis

  • Charles Recknagel
  • Arzu Geybullayeva

The Azerbaijani government has carved a winding 6-kilometer circuit out of the heart of a city where few people can afford to buy a place in the bleachers.

The Azerbaijani government has carved a winding 6-kilometer circuit out of the heart of a city where few people can afford to buy a place in the bleachers.

No matter who wins the Formula One Grand Prix in Baku this weekend, Vahid Veliyev stands to make some money: He is renting out his balcony, which overlooks the course of the first-ever F1 race to be held in Azerbaijan.

The asking price: $200 a day, with a discount if a spectator leases the small outdoor space for all three days of the June 17-19 event.

"That will include a table on the balcony, as well as tea with sweets," says Veliyev, who put an ad in the paper after the government urged Baku residents with balconies to rent them out for the race.

The chance to earn extra income from a balcony overlooking the circuit is one of the few ways any of the city's residents stand to benefit from Baku's latest effort to become a global sports and entertainment center. The event, which culminates with the Grand Prix race on June 19, is taking place as the country's economy has slowed to a crawl due to the low price of oil, the main source of revenue.

Inflation is in the double digits and the national currency, the manat, had to be devalued twice last year after the Caspian Sea country's central bank spent some $10 billion in foreign-currency reserves defending it.

But if Veliyev expects to gain from the unusual sight of some two dozen F1 race cars reaching speeds of up to 340 kilometers an hour on the streets of Baku, he is in a small minority.

The event is causing a massive headache for many other residents.

Priced Out

The Azerbaijani government has carved a winding 6-kilometer circuit out of the heart of a city where few people can afford to buy a place in the bleachers. Seat prices range from $99 to $665 -- affordable enough for Azerbaijan's elite, the small group that has reaped the benefits of its oil wealth, but far out of reach for most in a country where the average monthly wage is about $300.

But ticket prices aren't the only thing making the Baku F1 controversial. So is the amount of money Azerbaijan has spent for the rights to host a Formula One race in each of the next three years. The total amount is uncertain, with Minister of Youth and Sports Azad Rahimov last year estimating the cost at somewhere between $66 million and $86 million. But other sources, including the sports magazine Autoweek Baku, put the price closer to $150 million. Baku also reportedly spent up to $90 million more on building infrastructure, raising the total cost to some $240 million.

What is not in doubt is the emphasis the government has put on seeking to ensure the event goes smoothly -- with public convenience taking a back seat, critics say.

To clear the calendar for the race, the Education Ministry ordered high schools and universities to hold exams two weeks earlier than their usual June 15 to 20 schedule.

Similarly, the government scrubbed summer daylight savings time, which usually begins in March. The semiofficial Turan news agency reported that the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), the governing body of motor sport, had worried that the Baku race, which will be widely televised internationally, was slated to start at the same time as the finish of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, another major auto race. With the abolition of summer time, the overlap vanished.

At the same time, officials have pushed aside their usual concerns for preserving the historic feel of Baku's old quarter and resurfaced some of its cobblestone streets with a thick coat of high-speed asphalt. This will allow the racecars to career around one of the city's most attractive sights, its medieval stone fortress, but also gives the quarter a suddenly very modern look.
The authorities also have masked some of the less attractive building facades along the circuit by covering them with giant silkscreens presenting much improved versions of the reality.

The preparations, plus the closure of streets near the circuit for a full week bracketing the events, have soured the experience for some in Baku even before the starting signal. When an Azerbaijani driver tested the track in an F1 car on May 29, there were complaints that the noise was deafening.

"There was a roar like an earthquake," says Vusala Mammadova, who lives in a building along the route. "And that was only one car! Imagine how noisy it will be when several race cars pass by. It affects everything here very much."

Silenced

But rights groups say public opinion often counts for little in Azerbaijan, where President Ilham Aliyev's government has a long history of harshly silencing critics even as it hosts events like Formula One that offer a modern image to the world.

"The Formula One European Grand Prix is the latest in a long line of international events that Azerbaijan has hosted, other big ones being the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012 and last year's inaugural European Games," says Rebecca Vincent, a former U.S. diplomat who is coordinator of Sport for Rights, an international campaign drawing attention to human rights violations in Azerbaijan. "These events are part of their propaganda efforts to present this polished image of Azerbaijan that glosses over many more sinister truths that lay behind."

Her group has led a campaign calling for the chief executive of the Formula One Group, British billionaire Bernie Ecclestone, to use the platform of the race to publicly criticize the Aliyev regime over its poor rights record. So far, that has not happened; Ecclestone's staff has met with campaign representatives but offered no commitments.

Officials have pushed aside their usual concerns for preserving the historic feel of Baku's old quarter and resurfaced some of its cobblestone streets with a thick coat of high-speed asphalt.

Officials have pushed aside their usual concerns for preserving the historic feel of Baku's old quarter and resurfaced some of its cobblestone streets with a thick coat of high-speed asphalt.

Sport for Rights has also called on singers Julio Iglesias, Chris Brown, and Pharrell Williams, who are scheduled to perform during the race, to cancel their appearances. Requests by RFE/RL for comment from the entertainers' spokespeople have not been answered.

Amnesty International has also called on the Formula One organization to press Baku to improve its human rights record. The group said in a statement this week that "behind the glitz the [Azerbaijani] authorities are locking up their critics, have shut down NGOs, and arrested or harassed their leaders."

RFE/RL journalist Khadija Ismayilova was released in May when a court shortened and suspended her sentence after an international campaign protesting her imprisonment -- which she and supporters contend was retaliation for award-winning reporting linking President Aliyev's family to corruption.

Several other journalists and opposition figures have been released in recent months, but many remain in prison.

Freedom House said in May that there were still more than 80 political prisoners in Azerbaijan. In its annual report for 2016, the rights group rated freedom in the former Soviet republic as declining "due to an intensified crackdown on dissent."

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