Sport just a political football for regimes in need of a makeover
Azerbaijan hosting major international sporting events despite human rights abuses
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev inspects the stadium during the opening of the Baku Olympic Stadium in Baku. The first European Games will be held in Baku Olympic Stadium. Photograph: Getty Images
What do you know about Azerbaijan? Be honest. Could you pick it out on a map without squinting? Since vast amounts of the world manage to get along with a similarly vague idea about Ireland, there’s nothing dodgy about pointing out how Azerbaijan rarely registers on the global radar. It’s the lot of little countries everywhere.
Except Azerbaijan is a little country resentful that most of us are unable to reliably narrow its location down to the nearest thousand square kilometres. It wants attention, a bit like here a decade ago. Remember, Brand Ireland? Just think Brand Azerbaijan, but with oil.
Yep, the Azeris have oil, not bungalows, but oil, and gas too – huge amounts of the stuff, so much so that the country is the ugly guy made good who’s suddenly never lonely. And Azerbaijan likes it, to the extent it wants to re-brand itself as a cultural, social and economic hot-spot rather than some backwater parked next to the Caspian Sea. And sport is a perfect branding opportunity.
For some of us, the only time Azerbaijan pierced our consciousness was the ‘Land of Fire’ emblazoned on the front of Atlético Madrid’s shirts as they marched to last year’s Champions League final.
But the country has hosted boxing world championships, powerboat world championships, European championships in gymnastics and wrestling, an under-17 World Cup too, all in the last five years. There was even a bid for the 2020 Olympics, with perhaps another bid in the offing for 2024. And next year, the Formula One circus is stopping by.
Brand boostFirst up though is the first ever European Games next month. Never heard of them? Don’t worry. It hasn’t exactly caught on yet. They’re an idea by Europe’s Olympic Committees to give sports that only get a public airing every four years – like badminton or taekwondo – their own brand boost: Europe’s answer to the Pan-American or Asian Games, if you like.
And you think, yeah, there’s a certain sense to that, just as there’s a certain sense to a country projecting an image of it itself through sport. So it’s the inaugural European Games, in Baku, with Azerbaijan pouring huge money into staging something mostly ignored elsewhere and getting positive profile in return; a win-win, right?
Well, maybe, if it wasn’t for the fact that Azerbaijan has been condemned for decades over breaches of human rights, corruption and persecution of those opposed to the rule of the Aliyev dynasty, which has effectively ruled the country since the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Yep, as well as oil and gas, Azerbaijan has its own despot too. The current ‘Great Leader’ is Ilham Aliyev. Prior to him, it was his father, Heydar Aliyev, a former communist boss who reportedly embraced the perks of a free market with an enthusiasm common to those freer than anyone else to exploit it.
Just like Daddy, Ilham Aliyev continues to be courted by a west in thrall to all that oil and gas and prepared to ignore how umpteen human rights organisations continue to express profound reservations about the government’s record on trifles such as dissidents being thrown into prison and elections that fall well short of accepted western democratic practices.
The self-serving response is usually to point out how Azerbaijan is a young country making great strides, but, you know, teething problems are inevitable; teething problems such as jailing those who dare to express opinions out of synch with the tin-pot on top.
Even the US government believes Aliyev is corrupt, describing him, in Wikileak documents, as a mafia-like character who is grooming his offspring to take over once he’s had enough, which is no time soon. Just to add a little more flavour to this vicious little pot, Aliyev even has a simmering conflict going with neighbouring Armenia.
Sport though allows him project a different image to the world, a wholesome picture of healthy competition and fitness and glamour and excitement and modernity, the very things Azerbaijan aspires to.
Military optionInvesting in sport like this is a classic example of soft power, where a government or regime works through culture and persuasion rather than straight forwardly coughing financially to get what it wants, or reaching for the hard power military option. And from Aliyev’s point of view, it’s a no-brainer, because sport clearly has no problem in playing along.
Next door in Russia, Putin is a master of exercising soft power wrapped around a hard fist. Remember the furore over Sochi? What happened? Precisely nothing. Who’s got the next World Cup? Russia, that’s who, despite continuing internal persecution, swiping the Crimea, a downed airliner and all but invading Ukraine. Nothing has happened over all that too because Putin is ponying up.
Sport and this insidious projection of soft power are becoming increasingly synonymous. What else is hosting the World Cup in a Qatari desert about if not an exercise in branding? How else did Beijing host the Olympics? Aliyev is using sport to get his official version of Azerbaijan out there. He’s got the money, it clearly works, and dismal political realities keep getting conveniently hidden behind the old ‘sport and politics are separate’ chestnut.
The brass in charge of the European Games might conceivably be concerned about their credibility being tainted. The Olympic charter supposedly enshrines the principle of human dignity and the role sports play in advancing it. But who are we kidding? Everyone knows that’s just cant. When it comes to major sports events, he who pays the piper continues to get to call the soft power tune.