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Aliyev's Azerbaijan In Spotlight As European Games Begin

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev poses for a few selfies as he meets with European Games athletes in Baku.

The first-ever European Games open in Baku on June 12, bringing some 6,000 athletes to Azerbaijan and putting the spotlight on what critics say is a growing government crackdown on dissent.

President Ilham Aliyev has dipped deep into state coffers to ensure success, spending billions on new stadiums and infrastructure in the energy-rich Caspian Sea country.

As athletes prepare to compete in 20 sports, activists are watching from the sidelines, blowing the whistle over what they say is a slick public relations exercise by the autocratic Aliyev.

"No one should be fooled by the glitz and glamor of the international show Azerbaijan is putting on to portray a squeaky-clean international reputation and attract foreign business,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's director for Europe and Central Asia.

European Parliament Vice President Ulrike Lunacek said Azerbaijan is "trying to look good in the public eye worldwide and Europe-wide, but almost every human rights defender in the country is in jail."

The futuristic Baku Olympic Stadium -- one of five new venues -- cost close to $500 million.
The futuristic Baku Olympic Stadium -- one of five new venues -- cost close to $500 million.

Rights groups say that some 100 political prisoners are being held in Azerbaijan and that many more activists and journalists face harassment and travel bans.

Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist and contributor to RFE/RL, has spent six months in detention awaiting trial on charges her supporters say result from her reporting on alleged corruption within Aliyev’s regime.

In an open letter, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has urged sponsors of the European Games not to turn a blind eye to “violations of freedom of information for the sake of their economic interests.”

ALSO READ: Azerbaijanis Paying The Price For Aliyev’s 2015 European Games

RSF also appealed to Azerbaijani authorities to release 12 detained journalists and bloggers.

Aliyev routinely denies his regime is violating human rights.

However, in comments quoted by Azerbaijani media on June 9, he seemed to set the bar a bit lower.

“They are always referring to European standards; certainly, European standards are the highest ones," he said. "However we are applying [Azerbaijani] standards.”

And his government appears to be doing all it can to keep the focus on sports and off of human rights.

Rights activist Emma Hughes says she was barred from entering Azerbaijan after arriving on a flight to Baku on June 9.
Rights activist Emma Hughes says she was barred from entering Azerbaijan after arriving on a flight to Baku on June 9.

Emma Hughes, a campaigner with the British rights group Platform London, said she was barred from entering the country after arriving on a flight to Baku on June 9.

The same day, Amnesty International said the government had barred its delegates from visiting, telling the rights group they would not be welcome until after the games.

Hughes told RFE/RL she was surprised to have been prevented from entering the country because the event’s organizers had granted her press accreditation and purchased tickets to the event.

Hughes frequently criticizes human rights in Azerbaijan, as well as British energy giant BP’s business dealings with the Aliyev government.

Hughes told RFE/RL that she had planned to monitor human rights practices in Azerbaijan during her trip, including the case of Rasul Cafarov.

The Azerbaijani activist was arrested in August 2014 after announcing plans to launch a campaign focusing on the country’s rights situation ahead of the European Games.

International media focusing on such stories have been slammed by pro-government media in Azerbaijan.

An Azerbaijani news website -- -- accused the BBC of biased coverage and claimed it was part of a “smear campaign” against Baku.

The British broadcaster’s crime? Reporting the cases of Cafarov and Ismayilova as examples of censorship and attacks on free speech.

Despite the bad press, Azerbaijani officials are confident ahead of the games.

The president of the European Olympic Committee, Patrick Hickey (left), and Sports Minister Azad Rahimov pose with an unidentified man on June 11 in Baku.
The president of the European Olympic Committee, Patrick Hickey (left), and Sports Minister Azad Rahimov pose with an unidentified man on June 11 in Baku.

Sports Minister Azad Rahimov says the country will be an “even more popular destination” after the athletic gala.

Aliyev wants his Baku European Games to wow the world and has spent a reported $10 billion on stadium and infrastructure.

The futuristic 68,700-seat Baku Olympic Stadium -- finished just this past February and one of five new venues -- cost some $482 million.

But Baku may be wondering whether it has paid too much.

A few years ago, when Azerbaijan was calculating costs for the games, oil, its main export by a longshot, was selling for over $100 a barrel on global markets.

But world oil prices have slumped, putting a serious dent in Azerbaijani state finances. In February, the government was forced to devalue the country’s currency -- the manat -- by a whopping 33.5 percent against the dollar and 30 percent against the euro.

Apparently, money is so tight the government has allegedly docked part of the pay of some state workers, particularly in the Tax and Customs Ministries, to help cover costs associated with hosting the European Games, according to a report on Eurasianet.

Azerbaijani officials deny such claims.

On the field, the European Games will be “innovative and different,” European Olympic Committee (EOC) President Patrick Hickey has promised.

Sixteen of the 20 sports on tap will be standard Olympic fare -- from swimming and gymnastics to athletics and boxing, to name a few.

The remaining four are a bit less traditional, if not quirky.

Gold will be contested in soccer -- but on sandy beaches, not grass fields.

Basketball has been tinkered with for the European Games, with a three-on-three half-court version to be rolled out.

The other two non-Olympic sports are karate and sambo.

The latter -- a form of wrestling -- has its roots in the former Soviet Union. It was devised to be part of Red Army training in the 1920s to hone soldiers’ hand-to-hand combat skills. The name itself is a shortened version of the Russian for "self-defense without weapons."

Also of interest in Baku are not only the sports being played, but who is competing.

For the first time ever, athletes will compete at an international sporting event under the flag of an independent Kosovo.

Kosovo was admitted as a full member to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in December 2014, making its participation possible.

Armenia is also sending a team to the games, a coup of sorts given the bad blood between Baku and Yerevan.

The two countries have been feuding for 25 years over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan. More than 30,000 people were killed there in a war in the early 1990s.

Getting Armenia to participate required shuttle diplomacy, with IOC head Thomas Bach visiting Yerevan last year along with Hickey.

But will anyone be watching or care?

The EOC thinks so. It says the games fill a void.

Asia has the Asian Games, Africa the African Games, the Americas the Pan American Games, and now Europe has its games.

The high cost involved in staging such an event, however, meant few candidates stepped forward to bid for the inaugural games.

In fact, there was only one: Azerbaijan.

Making the choice all the easier was Aliyev’s pledge to cover all the travel and accommodation costs for the thousands of competing athletes and coaches.

Hickey told Reuters in December that “this event will be at no expense to the national Olympic committees.”

Aliyev apparently has a soft spot for sports.

Azerbaijan tried and failed to win the right to host not one but two Summer Olympic Games in 2016 and 2020.

Unfazed, the country is gearing up to bid for the 2024 Olympics.

As or the fate of the European Games, things look less than certain.

The Netherlands, the only country to bid so far to host the next planned quadrennial event in 2019, has pulled out.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.