Azerbaijan: Preparing for the Aliyev Games or the European Games?
Two days after his government booted out the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a smiling Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev ran through the streets of Baku with an Olympic torch. The flame was for the European Games, a presidential pet-project that kicks off on June 12. But its intended symbolism was much broader – Azerbaijan, once again, is playing the big time, and international criticism should be checked at the door.
“Long live President Ilham Aliyev!” cheered a crowd of onlookers in a scene reminiscent of Soviet-era staging as the 53-year-old leader jogged along. “Success for the first European Games!” Beaming broadly, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, son, Heydar, and daughters Leyla and Arzu later also joined the torch-relay.
Within Azerbaijan these days, state-spread adulation for the Games and panegyrics to Aliyev dominate traditional media. With some of the government’s most outspoken critics, whether journalists or activists, now in jail, critical scrutiny of the “landmark event” from within Azerbaijan is expressed with caution.
That makes it easier, of course, to stay on message. But Baku also wants the outside world to know that Azerbaijan has made it. And, so, no longer needs the presence of international democracy-watchdogs such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or any other potential sources of criticism.
On June 5, Baku requested the closure of the Vienna-based organization’s country-office without providing an explanation. “We have received a diplomatic ‘note verbale’ from the Azerbaijani authorities and it is under consideration now,” OSCE Spokesperson Cathie Burton told EurasiaNet.org.
Two years ago, Azerbaijan had signaled that it was ready for a change in the OSCE’s activities. In 2014, the organization saw its status downgraded to a “project.”
The 56-member OSCE will continue the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict-resolution efforts through the so-called Minsk Group, led by the US, France and Russia, but will no longer be able to engage with Azerbaijan’s embattled civil society.
Recent steady criticism from OSCE’s Media Freedom Representative Dunja Mijatović about Azerbaijan’s crackdown on independent journalism no doubt has not been seen as a bonus by Azerbaijani officials.
In the run-up to the Games, full leash has been given to complaints about international human rights organizations’ alleged “double standards” or, as one writer for the pro-government news service APA put it, the West’s supposed insistence on trying to use “every opportunity to pressure Azerbaijan” and its failure to accept “the realities.”
Among the Games’ attendees, though, there will be at least one guest who understands that complaint well.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently bashed Russian media for insufficient coverage of the Games, will be in Baku from June 11-12 and will conduct talks with President Aliyev, Azerbaijani news agencies reported.
No doubt, they’ll have more to discuss than just judo.