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Azerbaijanis Paying Price For Aliyev’s 2015 European Games

State workers have told RFE/RL that they have been forced to help foot the big bill for the European Games, in an effort to fund such venues as the Aquatics Center (above).
State workers have told RFE/RL that they have been forced to help foot the big bill for the European Games, in an effort to fund such venues as the Aquatics Center (above).

With dozens of opposition activists and independent journalists behind bars, domestic criticism of Baku’s hosting of the 2015 European Games is hard to find.

But despite the clampdown on dissent by President Ilham Aliyev’s government -- which in recent days has banned Amnesty International and kicked the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) out of the country -- complaints from upset Azerbaijanis are still being heard.

Several state workers say they have been forced to help foot the bill for the expensive (up to $10 billion), first-ever mini-Olympics for some 6,000 European athletes.

A doctor from the north-central city of Mingachevir told RFE/RL that fellow doctors at his hospital were forced to contribute between 100 and 500 manats ($105-$524) apiece.

“Each department is required to donate at least 2,000 to 5,000 manats ($2,100-$5,240)," said the doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Therefore, senior doctors have to collect money from other staff [and] there are rumors that whoever does not contribute money [for the European Games] will be fired.”

Speaking to RFE/RL, Ilham Mayilov, the head of Mingachevir’s Health Department, rejected reports that doctors had been ordered to pay money to support the games.

But there are indications that some doctors may have decided to pass along the cost for the games to their patients.

“My doctor told me I will not receive my free medicine for two months until the European Games are finished,” an ill Baku resident told RFE/RL via Facebook last month.

The patient, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, normally gets four injections per month to treat the disease, with each injection costing some 400 manats ($381).​

Security staff walks along a street in front of the Athletes' Village prior to the 2015 European Games in Baku.
Security staff walks along a street in front of the Athletes' Village prior to the 2015 European Games in Baku.

Another person, who is receiving chemotherapy, told RFE/RL that she would only receive about one-third of her state-paid medicine until the European Games are finished.

Sefaya Ahmedova, a press officer at the Health Ministry, dismissed reports of patients having their treatments reduced or medicine not being paid for due to doctors having to contribute to the costs of the European Games.

The “involuntary” contributions to help pay for Baku’s big event seems to involve other state workers.

The father of a man who works at the Economy and Industry Ministry told RFE/RL that his son, like many other midlevel state employees, receives a bonus, under-the-table payment every month to enhance his low official salary.

But he said his son’s 800 manat ($838) salary has been reduced to 250 manats ($262) for the last four months, with his missing bonus being sent to the European Games’ budget.

ALSO READ: Aliyev's Azerbaijan In Spotlight As European Games Begin

Other anonymous sources told RFE/RL that similar “bonus salaries” were no longer being received in recent months by employees at the State Customs Committee.

Committee officials told employees the bonus cut happened due to the games and will be resumed after the games are finished.

Azerbaijan won the right to hold the games based partially on a generous promise to pay the airfare of the thousands of athletes, trainers, and coaches who have come to Baku to compete in more than 250 events from June 12-28.

Much as they did for the 2012 Eurovision song competition hosted by Azerbaijan, Baku authorities have spared no expense in projecting a positive image of the country while the eyes of Europe are on it.

But critics say that rather than working to improve its rights record to bolster its image, Azerbaijani officials have focused on sprucing up Baku’s visual appearance to put the city’s best foot forward.

State-approved graffiti?
State-approved graffiti?

The effort has drawn scorn from some Baku residents who are unimpressed by the cosmetic improvements.

A mural painted on a concrete bridge underpass near a bus station in north-central Baku has been dismissed by many as state-approved graffiti.

Ironically, some of the artists hired to paint the mural reportedly were selected from a list of street artists who have been arrested in the past for painting graffiti.

Some have previously served up to 10 days in a Baku detention center on charges of hooliganism, for acts such as painting the word “freedom” on a concrete wall or scrawling opposition slogans.

While some residents grumble, others see benefits from the European Games, such as with newly planted trees in parks and flowers near Baku Boulevard, a main street in the booming capital that also boasts free WiFi while the games are being played.

There are modern buses on the streets and new, air-conditioned subway cars beneath.

Perhaps most surprisingly, people on Facebook say they have seen police officers on the streets who are, uncharacteristically, smiling.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz and Pete Baumgartner

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