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How Azerbaijan exploits sports for political influence
As Azerbaijan continues to bask in the glory of its international sports events, its underlying motives remain clear.
I first visited Azerbaijan in June 2016, as the country was getting ready to host the 2016 European Grand Prix—its inaugural Formula 1 race on the newly-completed Baku City Circuit. The event marked the second summer in a row that Azerbaijan was hosting global sports event despite an unprecedented crackdown against its own citizens.
I remember seeing some of the F1 practice sessions and support events while sitting on the terrace of one of Baku’s local eateries. My colleague and I gorged on delicacies like fire-grilled kababs, dumplings, burnt vegetables, as well as tender lamb chops. Yet while we enjoyed an Azeri Syrah and admired the extraordinary view of the Caspian Sea, I could not shake the feeling—much like my native Egypt—that all was not as it appeared.
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Situated at an ethnocultural intersection in Eurasia, Azerbaijan is a resource-rich country that borders powerful states such as Russia and Iran. Its lucrative oil and gas industry helped establish its position on the global stage and furthered its ambitious nation-building projects. It also emboldened the country’s ruling elite and reinforced the authoritarian rule of its long-serving president, Ilham Aliyev.
Since 2014, Azerbaijan’s government has arrested and prosecuted countless journalists, dissidents and political activists on trumped up charges and character-assassination campaigns devised to obstruct their ability to distribute information of public interest. Among the individuals targeted in this campaign was Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist who exposed corruption linked to the Aliyev family, among others.
On Dec. 5, 2014, Ismayilova was arrested in Baku and charged with tax evasion, embezzlement, and “inciting a person to attempt suicide.” Secretly recorded tapes of the journalist’s sex life were also leaked online, which she maintained was part of the government’s effort to intimidate her.
“They planted a hidden camera in my bedroom, living room and bathroom,” Ismayilova said in 2016. “And then they sent me pictures from a video still and the letter also included a note saying I should behave or I will be defamed.I immediately went public with that threat.”
Following international campaign to support Ismayilova, the journalist was released from prison 18 months into her seven-and-a-half year jail sentence on bogus charges in May 2016. However, while Ismayilova was released, many other dissidents remain in prison. The Azeri government has also continued to restrict media freedoms and have violently dispersed political protests. In one such incident in December 2021, 60-year-old opposition leader Tofig Yagublu sustained serious injuries while in police custody.
Meanwhile, as the Azeri government continues to create a hostile environment for journalists and dissidents alike, it has also emerged as one of the leading applicants of sports as government policy. In 2015, Azerbaijan hosted the state-funded European Games in Baku—the event that cost more than $10 billion and seemingly led to the coining of the term “sportswashing” by critics. The government followed up by hosting the European Grand Prix in 2016 and the inaugural Azerbaijan Grand Prix the following year. Azerbaijan also hosted the Islamic Solidarity Games in 2017, which had previously been held in Indonesia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
Since its international debut in 2015, Azerbaijan has continued to host major sports events. The country hosted the 2019 UEFA Europa League final at the Olympic Stadium in Baku, the 2016 World Chess Olympiad, the European Youth Olympic Festival, and, most recently, the 2023 World Taekwondo Championships, which was attended by the president of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach.
““The 2023 World Taekwondo Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, will be remembered as one of the most historic, and was an excellent showcase of our Olympic sport on the occasion of our 50th founding anniversary,” World Taekwondo President Chungwon Choue said.
Choue also claimed that the event “contributed to the IOC’s call for peace,” despite renewed border clashes between Azeri and Armenian forces—the latest development in a decades-long dispute over Azerbaijan’s Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh, over which they have fought two wars. The Azeri military has also been accused of war crimes, including beheadings and torture of captured Armenian civilians and soldiers.
Following the start of the military offensive in September 2020, war propaganda became a feature of some Azeri football clubs. Following a Europa League game against Legia Warsaw in October 2020, Azerbaijani champions FK Qarabağ posted a photograph of 27 players and staff giving a military salute with the national flag. Qarabağ’s head of Public Relations Nurlan Ibrahimov also published a Facebook post calling for Armenian men, women and children to be killed. Ibrahimov was issued a lifetime ban by UEFA.
Speaking with insidethegames during the World Taekwondo Championships, Azerbaijan's Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports Minister Mariana Vasileva revealed that the country remains interested in hosting major sports events, arguing that the 2015 European Games was critical to establishing the country’s sports policy.
"First of all it is very important to thank the President of the country and the vice-president," Vasileva said. "The fact we hosted those first European Games in 2015 prepared us for future events taking place at the moment.”
Aliyev, who has served as Azerbaijan’s president since 2003, is also the president of the country’s National Olympic Committee. And while Aliyev has enjoyed a booming economy and thriving oil and gas sector that has added to the country’s riches, the president has been accused of widespread corruption and nepotism that has allowed the Aliyev family to enrich themselves through ties to state-run businesses. He even created the position of vice president in 2017 and appointed his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, to the position.
Aliyev also maintains an authoritarian regime that quashes dissent, targets journalists, and where elections are neither free nor fair.
Despite Azerbaijan’s ongoing human rights violations, Vasileva argued that such hosting international sports events proved that democracy actually exists in Azerbaijan.
"First of all it is good that we hosted all those sports events, because if those sceptics thought differently, now after hosting so many events we have proved that Azerbaijan is a democratic state," Vasileva claimed. “There are various reasons for that. First of all we have so many different minorities in terms of ethnicities and religions. There is a big Jewish community and a big Christian community and they live in peace and it has always been like this.”
While Vasileva’s comments do not provide evidence that Azerbaijan is a democracy, they reflect the government’s key objectives from hosting major sports events: identity formation and international influence. By investing billions on sports events and infrastructure, Azerbaijan hopes to continue shaping public opinion and nation branding through sports-themed acquisitions of soft power.
Despite Azerbaijan’s considerable resources and investments, it is evidently clear that relatively little of the state resources trickle down to the general population. During my stay in Baku, I saw the tell-tale signs of gentrification in the renovated downtown area, while the neglected interior was tucked away and difficult to access. Much of the population suffered from unemployment and poverty but none of that would be obvious to those strolling by the 6 kilometre Baku City Circuit, which offered a lavish view of a city in economic bloom.
As Azerbaijan continues to bask in the glory of its international sports events, its underlying motives remain clear. Behind the facade of development and a thriving civil society lies a calculated strategy to leverages sports as a tool to divert attention from political realities and present a carefully crafted image to the world.
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