This is a guest post by Chiara Loda is Marie Curie ITN “Post-Soviet Tensions” Fellow at Dublin City University
Azerbaijan is mainly known for being a South-Caucasian country blessed by energy resources. Currently, some of its oil is directly shipped to Turkey through the BTC pipeline and in the coming years the TANAP and TAP pipelines will connect the Azerbaijani gas reserves to Europe. In addition to enhancing the country’s energy strategy, in recent years President Ilham Aliyev has been personally committed to devising and implementing a successful public diplomacy policy. Multilateral forums, sport events and international partnerships are only some of the tools designed to win international sympathy. These actions are not simply aimed at mere prestige. Instead, making the international audience more sympathetic to the Azerbaijani position with regard to the Nagorno Karabakh confict is the main aim of public diplomacy. In spite of those efforts, though, the presence of political prisoners, a policy which is denied by the establishment but which is asserted by organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, often brings international criticism to Baku.
The Eurovision Song contest, hosted in Baku in 2012, clearly showed how much Ilham Aliyev wanted the event to be memorable. Together with his wife Mehriban Aliyeva (who was the Chairperson of the Organizing Committee), President Aliyev actively participated in the preparation of the event. On that occasion, the state budget pledged $721 million to the project ($ 277 million was devoted solely to the construction of the new concert hall). This is a gigantic amount when we think that another oil-producer, Norway, which hosted the same contest in 2010, spent only $37 million. On this occasion, the president, facing international pressure, agreed to set free some political opponents. Even if some observers lamented the fact that new political arrests were made shortly after the end of the contest, the leadership did still wish to avoid negative media coverage during the event.
With time passing, those signs of goodwill have become less and less frequent and the attempt to enhance the international visibility of the country is no longer accompanied by efforts to find a point of compromise with international demands. More than that, external observations about freedom of speech and individual human rights are now often harshly dismissed as meddling in domestic affairs. This uncompromising attitude was clear during the address by President Aliyev at the Summer Session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Strasbourg, 24 June 2014). After the speech, the members of the Assembly were invited to ask questions. Mr McNamara, from the socialist group, asked about political prisoners in the country. He was given the following answer: “There are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan. All of what Mr McNamara has said is based on false information or his biased approach to our country”.
The first ever European Games, hosted in Baku in June 2015, sum up new situation as a whole: the desire to host grand events and the inflexible resistance to external pressure. In 2012, after being rejected as a candidate country for the Olympic Games in 2020, Azerbaijan was the only country to volunteer to host the newly-established European Games in 2015. After securing the bid, President Aliyev constantly demonstrated his interest in the success of the event by visiting the newly inaugurated facilities almost every month and by often mentioning the importance of the event for the country. For this event too, his wife, Mehriban, chaired the organizing committee.
In addition to spending significant sums on infrastructure and promotional activities (the inauguration event alone, which was attended by no less than Lady Gaga, cost $100 million), the organizers volunteered to cover the travel and lodging expenses of all the foreign delegations, including the Armenian one. Additionally, the city was polished up for the event. Weddings and funerals in the capital were suspended for the month of June. In Baku, a few days before the games, almost everybody was complaining about the closed traffic lanes, the inflexibility of the traffic police, and the exorbitant costs of the events.
Given this massive effort, some personalities in Azerbaijani society expected the president to pardon some high-profile jailed dissidents. That would have sheltered the country from some criticism. Instead, the aforementioned attempts to impress visitors were not matched by other signs of goodwill and, in spite of international organizations and media outlets calling for the release of political prisoners, no action was taken. Remarkably, nobody was even pardoned by the president on the 28th of May, which is the Azerbaijani republic day, even such an amnesty almost always occurs each year on this day.
Even if domestic dissent was not widely voiced, the Azerbaijani intelligentsia seemed highly perplexed by this contradictory approach. A local scholar, interviewed a few days before the games, revealed his scepticism. According to him, governing elites failed to realize that all the Western reporters would have mentioned in their articles not only the magnificence of the stadiums but also the issue of political prisoners. Another prominent figure said bluntly (on condition of anonymity) that keeping people in jail only makes them popular and that this obstinacy on the domestic front is directly hindering the national energy strategy.
The media coverage seemed to confirm those worries. Media outlets such as the BBC and the NY Times, writing about Azerbaijan on the day of the opening of the games, did not hide their concern for the mixed human rights record of the country. In addition, on the same day (12th of June) the German Bundestag adopted a resolution which linked the Azerbaijani presidential elections in 2013 with the deterioration in rights. On the state TV Channel, AZTV, Mr. Aliyev condemned the perceived attempt by Germany to set global normative standards.
The international reaction to the games (which were attended by only a few heads of state) constitutes a lesson not only for the Azerbaijani establishment but also for future emulators. Public diplomacy efforts are likely to be severely undermined by intransigency on domestic affairs. Ilham Aliyev, a strong proponent of this model, now has to rethink the cost-benefit ratio. Time will tell if the country will become more responsive to international requests, if only symbolicly, or if the closed nature of the regime will be reinforced. The challenges presented by the drop of the global oil prices, together with the possible return of Iran to the energy market, are additional factors that further complicate this equation.
Chiara Loda is Marie Curie ITN “Post-Soviet Tensions” Fellow at Dublin City University. Currently she is based in the South Caucasian region where she is conducting extensive fieldwork. This research was supported by a Marie Curie Initial Training Network within the 7th European Community Framework Programme (grant no: 316825).