Azerbaijan's price for hosting first European Games

By Rayhan Demytrie
BBC South Caucasus correspondent

The Crystal Hall, Baku, AzerbaijanImage source, AFP
Image caption,
The Crystal Hall hosted the 2012 Eurovision song contest, but will host volleyball and other sports at the Games

"After the European Games in Baku, people across the world will know that Azerbaijan is in Europe."

For Sports Minister Azad Rahimov, the motivation was clear for Azerbaijan's multi-billion dollar effort to host the first European Games, an official Olympic franchise.

Azerbaijan's government wants to put the country on the map.

With 6,000 European athletes competing in 20 sports at newly-built venues in the capital Baku, the official cost of the game stands at $1.2bn (£700m).

But the real figure may be much higher. The Olympic Stadium alone cost more than $600 million (£391 million).

Media caption,
Are the European Games here to stay?

Then there are the newly built Aquatic and Shooting Centres, the National Gymnastics arena, the Athletes village and a half dozen temporary venues for triathlon, basketball and other sports.

On top of that, Azerbaijan is covering travel and accommodation costs for all the athletes. To complete the party atmosphere, the transportation ministry announced that participants would enjoy free rides in hundreds of London cabs bought especially for the Games.

European Games

12 - 28 June 2015


medal events over 17 days


countries taking part

  • 18 competition venues

  • 6 temporary arenas

  • 7,351 beds in the Athletes Village

'Totally unprofitable'

But the European Games are being held against the backdrop of falling oil prices and the value of the national currency depreciating by a third. Some are wondering whether Azerbaijan can afford it.

"When the majority of Azeris are finding it hard to make ends meet, all these lavish expenses are really irritating people," says Arastun Orujlu, the head of the Baku-based East-West research centre.

"For the government the subject of the European Games has the highest priority. This is PR for the government. But from the economic point of view the Games are totally unprofitable."

Image source, Baku 2015

The European Games were devised by the European Olympic Committee and launched at their General Assembly in Rome in December 2012.

The concept is a continental multi-sport event along the lines of an Olympic or Commonwealth Games.

Asia has already been holding its equivalent games every four years since 1951. That was the same year in which the Pan-American Games came into being as well.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
A deadly fire in Baku led some to question the government's priorities

There was a suggestion of public frustration last month, when Azeris reacted angrily on social media to a deadly fire in a high-rise Baku block of flats. Fifteen people died and dozens more were injured.

Numerous caricatures appeared online, mocking the government's obsession with the European Games, and accusing it of prioritising image over safety.

One depicts the mayor of Baku pointing at the building on fire with the caption: "I've lit the biggest Olympic torch."

Officials said the fire was caused by highly-flammable cladding material used to resurface the Soviet-era building.

At least 200 other old buildings in Baku had been covered in the same flammable panelling, which President Ilham Aliyev promptly ordered to be removed.

"The surface cladding is part of the government's practice of hiding the real appearance of how things are," says Arastun Orujlu.

Media caption,
Memes and cartoons: Video by Alexi Peristianis and Sevinj Abdullayeva

"For example, from Baku airport there is a new road, and along the road the authorities have built a wall, which is lit at night and looks rather nice. But the main objective was to hide poverty behind those walls, and to create an illusion of prosperity and development."

The European Games is not Baku's first large-scale international event. In 2012 it hosted the Eurovision song contest.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The view from inside the new Gymnastics Centre

At the time, activists drew attention to rights abuses such as forced evictions, political persecutions, corruption and the lack of free speech.

"Sing for democracy" was organised by Rasul Jafarov, a young human rights activist.

He was also hoping to launch a similar campaign ahead of the European Games. But today he is in jail, sentenced in April to six-and-a-half years for charges including abuse of power and tax evasion.

Almost all outspoken government critics are now in prison. They include human rights activists, lawyers and journalists.

"The government did not want to take any chances this time around," says Human Rights Watch senior South Caucasus researcher Giorgi Gogia.

"They have taken concerted efforts to silence those who they thought will tarnish the country's image."

But the authorities deny that the arrests of its critics are politically motivated.

"No-one in Azerbaijan is persecuted based on his or her political beliefs or activities. The rule of law and the full independence of judiciary is also guaranteed in Azerbaijan," said foreign ministry spokesman Hikmat Hajiyev.

But it appears that the rule of law is being applied selectively against those who challenge the authorities directly.

Azerbaijan's most famous investigative reporter, Khadija Ismaylova, has been in pre-trial detention since December 2014.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
President Aliyev's wife Mehriban (R) chairs the Games' Organising Committee

But her incarceration has not stopped colleagues from the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) from publishing an investigation she began into the business activities of Azerbaijan's ruling family.

The OCCRP concluded in a recent report that offshore companies closely linked to the president may have made as much as $1bn in a forced takeover of the state's share in the country's largest mobile operator.

But with a diminishing pool of independent journalists, few Azeris are able to read allegations of high-level corruption.

Instead, as the start of the Games on 12 June approaches, state-controlled media show President Aliyev and his wife Mehriban, the chairperson of the Games' Organising Committee, cutting red ribbons and declaring new venues and projects officially open.

Government officials say that criticism of Azerbaijan's human rights record is just a campaign to discredit the country.

"Exploiting the noble principles of sports for political purposes and, as such, using it for political propaganda and as a smear campaign against Azerbaijan is unacceptable," the foreign ministry spokesman told me.

"Azerbaijan, as a young democracy and dynamically developing country, which demonstrated goodwill in hosting the first Baku Games, deserves appreciation and understanding, too."