Azerbaijan will host the inaugural European Games from 12-28 June. The games will bring international attention and increased awareness of the Caucasus’ major problems – notably energy politics, the Nagorno−Karabakh conflict and strained relations with Russia. They are also the first in a series of Baku-based sporting events the Azerbaijan government hopes will improve the country’s image and international influence at a critical geopolitical moment, when it is caught between the competing priorities of Russia and the West.
Since 2010, the Azerbaijan government has pursued a strategy of large-scale spending of oil revenues, aimed at increasing the profile of the capital and promoting the country’s image as a Muslim but secular developed state. The city will also host a Formula One race in 2016, the Islamic Solidarity Games in 2017, and is a host city during the European Football Championships in 2020.
There is some evidence of early success − Baku’s hosting of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest was a significant moment for connecting the country to Western culture, and according to one poll from the Caucasus Barometer, in-country support for EU membership increased by 50 per cent following the contest.
But there has also been backlash. Increased media interest in the country has enabled civil society groups and human rights defenders critical of the government to broadcast their message more widely. This led to greater international criticism of Azerbaijan’s democratic credentials; in response, Baku officials accused the Western media of pursuing an ‘anti-Azerbaijani’ campaign.
The promised increase in the flow of tourists and economic opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises has also been slow to get going. Though a host of luxury hotels, restaurants, and boutiques have been opened in advance of the games, visa restrictions have not been loosened enough to attract the necessary numbers.
And while a large part of the population has so far supported the hosting of international events, the sharp decline in oil prices and the devaluation of the Azerbaijani manat has brought increased public criticism, especially after it emerged that Baku was covering the accommodation and travel expenses of participating countries’ athletes.
The timing of Games comes at a sensitive moment. Russia’s aggressive policy in Ukraine has highlighted issues of territorial integrity in the region and European energy security. Europe’s need for alternatives to Russian gas supplies means that the Southern Gas Corridor − which would bring gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe through Azerbaijan, bypassing Russia − is more important than ever to both the EU and Azerbaijan.
Baku had hoped that the annexation of Crimea and international condemnation of Russia would lead to increased focus on Azerbaijan’s own territorial integrity issue over Nagorno-Karabakh. But its series of high-profile events has instead brought attention of a different kind: increased international scrutiny of Azerbaijan’s democratic credentials. Baku’s growing dissatisfaction with the West has bred an unhealthy atmosphere where conspiracy theories abound: notably that an anti-Azerbaijan campaign is being run from the office of US Secretary of State John Kerry. The OSCE office in the country has now been closed by the government following an exodus of Western-supported NGOs. International media coverage of human rights issues in Azerbaijan has led to domestic criticism of the EU and the US, resulting in President Ilham Aliyev’s de facto boycott of the EU’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga in May. Further international criticism of the Azerbaijani government may fuel even greater dissatisfaction with the West; this, in turn, will strengthen Russian influence in the country and the wider region.
All this is another demonstration that major sporting and cultural events do not, ultimately, bring political benefits for countries aiming to move away from Russia and get closer to Europe. Governments would do well to remember the tension between Europe and the disgraced Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine in 2012 when it co-hosted the European Football Championships. This further damaged, rather than enhanced, Ukraine’s integration into Europe.
There are several pro-active policy solutions the West could undertake to help Azerbaijan escape a similar fate. The European Commission’s investigation into Azerbaijan’s acquisition of the Greek gas transmission system operator is impeding progress on the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline – a crucial component of the Southern Gas Corridor. It would be in the interest of both sides for the EU to resolve this in Azerbaijan’s favour. Separately the West should step up its efforts towards the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, for instance by facilitating a meeting between the Azerbaijan and Armenian presidents, which could be accomplished at the presidential level in the US; or by supporting confidence-building measures to rebuild trust by engaging on the key issue of prisoners of war.
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