Azerbaijan hosts the first European Games in June. With Team GB sending 153 athletes, including Olympic gold medallists, could this be a new major sporting event – or a propaganda vehicle for Baku?
Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev at Baku’s Olympic Stadium, March 2015
You may not have heard much about it yet, but June sees the inaugural European Games, a sporting festival that aims to emulate continent-wide competitions like the Asian Games, the All-Africa Games and the Pan-American Games.
The first European Games opens in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, on 12 June, continuing to 28 June. Azerbaijan was the sole bidder to host the event, which is run under the auspices of the European Olympic Committee.
Team GB yesterday announced that it will be sending 153 athletes, competing in 13 different sports. They include London 2012 boxing gold medallist Nicola Adams, taekwondo gold winner Jade Jones, and Ed McKeever, a current European and Olympic champion.
Team GB Chef de Mission Mark England called the event – for which BT has acquired the TV rights – “a great opportunity”.
Geopolitically, Azerbaijan is best known in recent years for the conflict that flared in 1988 with neighbouring Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed, mainly Armenian-populated region that remains a focus of regional instability. Azerbaijan says the territory is an integral party of its country.
But the oil-rich post-Soviet nation sees sport, and the hosting of big sporting occasions, as a way of promoting the country across the world. Before securing the European Games, Baku had bid unsuccessfully for the 2016 and 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.
Azad Rahimov, Azerbaijan’s sports minister, told the Guardian last year: “The main important thing is to position our country on the map of the world and our country on the map of Europe. The best instrument to do that is sport and culture.”
November 2014: European Games symbols displayed on Baku’s Maiden Tower
In cultural terms, Azerbaijan last hit the international headlines in 2012 when, having won the Eurovision Song Contest the previous year (with Running Scared by Ell & Nikki), it secured the right to host the songfest.
But the problem with a country using culture and sport to raise its international profile is that the spotlight is almost inevitably trained on some of its less media-friendly features. The 2012 coverage of Eurovision in Baku was a case in point.
On the day of the contest, on which Azerbaijan spent an estimated $400m, Channel 4 News reported that Baku was in lockdown.
“Local activists have seized on the increased international media presence to draw attention to corruption and human rights abuses by the country’s authoritarian government,” this website reported.
And now, with the European Games less than two months away, there is renewed interest in human rights and press freedom in Azerbaijan.
In its World Report 2015, Human Rights Watch (HRW) referred to “a dramatic deterioration in (Azerbaijan’s) already poor rights record” and said “the authorities convicted or imprisoned at least 33 human rights defenders, political and civil activists, journalists and bloggers on politically motivated charges”.
In March Amnesty International reported that at least 22 prisoners of conscience are currently in prison or in detention in Azerbaijan, awaiting trial “following trumped-up charges ranging from fraud and embezzlement to abuse of drugs and even treason”.
It cited the case of human rights activist Leyla Yunus, arrested in July 2014 for allegedly spying for neighbouring Armenia, just days after calling for a boycott of the European Games because of the country’s dire human rights record.
Channel 4 News contacted the Azerbaijan embassy in London for a response to the claims by Amnesty and HRW. They sent this statement –
“The recent biased and non-constructive criticism both from the western media and human rights groups lead us to believe that this is part of a politically motivated smear campaign against Azerbaijan in the run-up to the European Games.
“When it comes to your claims that there exists a suppression against local dissent, we wonder how it can be possible in this atmosphere for the local people to attract foreign media attention.
“The fact that local opposition groups have managed to attract media attention demonstrates that the so-called “political suppression” upon certain dissent groups is non-existent in the country.”