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Lavish Price Tag Fans More Flames Over Baku's European Games

Artists perform onstage at the opening ceremony for the 1st European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, on June 12.
Artists perform onstage at the opening ceremony for the 1st European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, on June 12.

Azerbaijani Sports Minister Azad Rahimov has said the spectacular June 12 opening ceremony in Baku of the first-ever European Games cost some 100 million manat ($95 million) to stage.

The figure is likely to shock critics of Azerbaijan's entrenched leadership, which rights campaigners say has no business hosting prestigious international events until it stops routinely jailing dissidents and journalists on bogus charges.

Baku's opening show at the brand-new Olympic Stadium was half as long and employed far fewer actors, who were in fact volunteers, but cost more than twice as much as London's $42 million, four-hour rollout of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Rahimov said the spectacular -- which included 2,000 performers and in addition to regional cultural acts featured Lady Gaga covering John Lennon's song "Imagine" -- "showed off the work carried out over the past two years" and called "general opinion" of the ceremony "positive."

The opening-night show was marred by the hostile reception that many spectators gave to the national team of Armenia, a bitter rival with whom Azerbaijan has been fighting a low-simmering conflict for more than two decades over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The games' operating committee chairman, Simon Clegg, said matter-of-factly afterward that the boos were "something that we expected."

"Bearing in mind the difficulties between the two countries, I think that it demonstrates the power of sport, that Armenia is here [in Baku] and participating in the first ever European Games," Clegg said. "I think to have all 50 national Olympic committees marching in the opening ceremony sent an incredibly positive message."

In addition to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, the opening was attended by the presidents of Russia, Serbia, Turkey, Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan.

But another V.I.P. attendee highlighted the international rights grievances against Aliyev's administration by using the occasion to ferry an embattled Azerbaijani opposition activist out of the country.

The Swiss government announced on June 13 that Aliyev critic Emin Huseynov -- who has spent 10 months sheltering at the Swiss Embassy in Baku to avoid criminal charges widely seen as politically motivated -- flew out of Baku after the ceremony aboard the airplane of Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter.

Huseynov is head of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety in Baku, a group that regularly accuses the Azerbaijan's government of undue restrictions on free speech.

The flight was the result of months of negotiations with Azerbaijani authorities, the Swiss Foreign Affairs Department said.

Several foreign journalists and activists have been barred from attending the games.

Azerbaijan's most prominent investigative journalist, jailed RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova, said the country was in the "midst of a human rights crisis" as the European Games began.

The run-up to the European Games, intended as a complement to the Olympics, were marred by a horrific incident on June 11 when a shuttle-bus driver inexplicably barreled his event shuttle bus through a group of Austrian synchronized swimmers in the athletes' village. Two of the three 15-year-old swimmers who were injured were flown to Vienna, where one is lying in an induced coma.

Driver Veli Ahmadov has been arrested and a criminal investigation against him launched, according to Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry.

Reports in the local media suggested alcohol was drunk by some village staff and might have played a role in the tragedy, although organizers countered that there was "absolutely nothing" linking alcohol to the bus incident.

There are some 6,000 athletes in attendance at the inaugural European Games, which are governed by the European Olympic Committees and correspond to other Olympic run-up events like the Asian Games, Pacific Games, and Pan-American Games.

Just days ahead of these Baku games, reports said the Netherlands -- which was announced as the host of the next European Games in 2019 -- had withdrawn its interest in hosting the multisport event.

The Dutch were initially the only bidders for the 2019 games, although European Olympic Committees officials say five cities have since expressed interest.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and RFE/RL
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