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The Dissident’s Guide to Azerbaijan’s Formula 1 Grand Prix

One independent media organization is hoping to use the race as a guide to Azerbaijan’s endemic corruption, deteriorating press freedom, and beleaguered human rights activists.

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Tourists, government officials, and fans of motor racing will flock to Azerbaijan for the European Grand Prix this weekend. Organizers for the Formula 1 race are hoping to showcase the historic scenery of the capital, Baku, with a picturesque seaside track where cars will zoom past buildings dating back to the 12th century at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour.

But one independent media organization is hoping the street race will expose the world to more than Baku’s architecture, by using the race track as a guide to Azerbaijan’s endemic corruption, deteriorating press freedom, and beleaguered human rights activists.

Meydan TV — a Berlin-based news site and online television channel made up of exiled Azerbaijani journalists and activists — on Thursday published “Race for Truth,” an interactive political guide to the Formula 1 event. The guide takes readers around the race track, stopping at public squares where protesters once gathered, noting the sites of high-level corruption scandals, and delving into luxury hotels believed to be owned by President Ilham Aliyev and his family.

“We brainstormed and realized that we can connect every landmark in the race to an event where the regime cracked down or tried to consolidate power,” Zarona Ismailova, a journalist at Meydan TV who worked on the project, told Foreign Policy. “We knew that the government of Azerbaijan would have a huge PR campaign for the event, and we thought that the people who have been deprived of their voices needed their stories told.”

The start and finish lines are marked by Baku’s Freedom Square, the site of Azerbaijan’s largest-ever political protests and a major crackdown by security forces in October 2003, following Aliyev’s election. Another section at the race course’s first turn passes a series of five-star hotels, one of which was revealed in an investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project to be traced back through holding companies to the ownership of the president’s daughters, Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva.

The Aliyev regime cares deeply about its image abroad — especially in the West — and the auto race is widely believed to be a pet project of the president. The government of Azerbaijan is known as one of the biggest-spending foreign lobbies in American and European politics, hiring public relations firms to court lawmakers in Washington and Brussels. The small nation of 9.4 million people also has turned to hosting major events in recent years to showcase itself to the world as a stable and prosperous country. In 2012, Baku hosted the Eurovision song contest and once again courted the international limelight with the European Games in 2015.

“The primary objective is to promote our city from different points: from the touristic point of view, investment,” Aria Rahimov, a race organizer for the Grand Prix who is also the son of the country’s sports minister, told the BBC on Tuesday. “This is a great opportunity to do so.”

And while hosting the expensive event might be a fair price for oil-rich Azerbaijan to pay to boost its profile abroad, Ismailova said such events are also an avenue for government corruption at home.  

“The government wants to be on the map, they want people to know who they are. They are craving attention and approval,” said Ismailova. “But they also make money off all this. The [Aliyev] family owns restaurants and hotels, it’s essentially a money-laundering opportunity.”

Ilham Aliyev first attained power in 2003 when he succeeded his father, Heydar, a former KGB general who ruled Azerbaijan from 1969 to 1982 when it was still part of the Soviet Union, and later returned to power during independence following a 1993 coup. Since then, Aliyev has held power and tightened his grip on Azerbaijan’s politics and the economy. In the past several years, the government has jailed dozens of journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers in a sweeping crackdown. The most recent move to crush dissent coincided with the October 2013 presidential election, which, according to results that were leaked an entire day before voting took place, declared a landslide victory for the incumbent president.

The Aliyev family also featured prominently in the Panama Papers, where the president’s sister, daughters, wife, and teenage son were linked to offshore accounts, state-owned enterprises, and various businesses in former Soviet countries. A great deal of that reporting on the Aliyevs’ illicit fortune was done by investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who was arrested in December 2014 and imprisoned on charges of tax evasion, misappropriation, and abuse of power. Human rights groups and Western governments viewed the charges as trumped up and a consequence of her reporting. After a major campaign calling for her to be freed, Ismayilova was released on probation on May 25 by the government.

Meydan TV has also been in the regime’s crosshairs since it started operating in 2013. Several of its reporters were arrested and sentenced to jail in 2015, and Azerbaijani authorities announced an investigation into the organization for tax evasion in April. Emin Milli, Meydan TV’s founder, was also arrested in 2009 and served over two years in prison for reporting critical stories about the government on his blog.

Due to Azerbaijan’s checkered history, several human rights groups have pressured Formula 1 for hosting the event in the country and called for a boycott. But Bernie Ecclestone, the chief executive of the Formula One Group, has said he has a “100 percent” clear conscience about hosting the race in Baku, and largely shrugged off the criticism.

Meanwhile, Ismailova and her colleagues at Meydan TV are hoping their guide can draw attention to the developments inside Azerbaijan that would otherwise be lost amid the fanfare during the sporting event.

“We need to tell the story that the government doesn’t want to tell,” Ismailova said. “There is enough glamour and glitz. People don’t need that. They need medical care or proper schools for their kids.”

Photo credit: DAN ISTITENE/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

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