Passport

In Post-Soviet Azerbaijan, PR Does You

The European Games open today in Azerbaijan, whose authoritarian leader has conceived of the event to boost the country's international profile.

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In the finest tradition of postmodern authoritarianism (see: Sochi Olympics, Beijing Olympics), President Ilham Aliyev’s personal fiefdom — better known as Azerbaijan — is hosting an international sporting event to present its best face to the world. The inaugural European Games, beginning in Baku today with a splashy opening ceremony, are meant to present Azerbaijan to the world as modern and sophisticated — and, if possible, to distract from the country’s appalling human rights record.

One can understand why Aliyev, who has crushed Azerbaijan’s civil society, thrown its bravest reporters into jail, and hounded the opposition into submission, might be looking for some positive news on the world stage. In fact, his regime has been quite skilled at PR, successfully manipulating both the Council of Europe and the U.S. Congress through sweet talk, all-expenses-paid trips, and pushy lobbyists.

This time, however, the PR push isn’t coming off well. A Google news search for “Azerbaijan European Games” yields article after article of scathing criticism from the world press, drawing exactly the kind of attention Aliyev didn’t want. (No surprise, then, that the regime’s favorite Washington lobbyist, the Podesta Group, agreed last week to provide Azerbaijan with extra advice on “online engagement.”)

As if that weren’t enough, a horrifying video has surfaced showing a shiny new European Games bus plowing into a group of Austrian teenagers who were in Baku to compete in the synchronized swimming event:

Thankfully, none of the girls struck by the bus have died — though one is in an artificially-induced coma. It’s not quite the PR start Aliyev had imagined for his pet project.

Of course, those who suffer most from an authoritarian regime’s delusions are not foreigners but its own citizens. On May 19, an enormous fire engulfed a large Baku apartment building, killing 16 people, including children. As it turns out, the low-quality plastic paneling that covered the building’s façade was to blame. And, as local residents reported to independent media channel Meydan.tv, the cheap paneling was part of a renovation done to spruce up the building ahead of the European Games.

These lost lives are only the Games’ most tragic and obvious costs — with oil prices falling, and the national currency along with it, the decision to spend more than $1 billion (officially) on this boondoggle is facing growing criticism, even at home.

In fact, the propaganda value of hosting large international sporting events may itself be coming increasingly into question. Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi were roundly mocked by Western journalists in attendance, and today are mainly remembered as the last time Russia even pretended to smile westward before taking a bite out of Ukraine. Qatar’s 2022 World Cup has become best known for the appalling death toll among the migrant workers building the massive infrastructure projects to make it possible — and the tournament itself still seven years away.

For the regime and its spin doctors, press coverage of Azerbaijan ahead of its European Games has been an unremitting nightmare. International events require foreigners, and foreigners have Twitter accounts with foreign audiences. We may have arrived in an era when, no matter how many ill-gotten millions are spent, no façade can conceal a dictatorial regime’s true dark nature.

Photo credit: TOFIK BABAYEV/AFP/Getty Images

Ilya Lozovsky is assistant editor of Democracy Lab. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he worked as program officer for Eurasia at Freedom House, providing emergency support to human rights activists and organizations across that continent. @ichbinilya

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