Can Baku Foot the Bill for Olympic Athletes?
Call it Azerbaijan's interpretation of traditional Caucasian hospitality. Its citizens may be facing a bad currency-crunch, brought on by devaluation and depressed oil prices, but that’s not gonna stop this South Caucasus country from footing the bill for travel and accommodation for the “more than 6,000” athletes competing in this June’s European Olympic Games in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.
Not all Azerbaijanis, however, share the official enthusiasm for such largesse or for what is now being touted as “the most spectacular show in Azerbaijan’s history.” After the abrupt February 21 devaluation of the manat, many saw their savings wiped out overnight.
But the European Olympic Committee, which is running the Baku games, claims that covering athletes’ costs is standard for Olympic-host countries.
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s government does, however, have a thing for “spectacular shows.” In 2012, almost $80 million was spent on Eurovision, a continental pop music extravaganza. Baku plans to foot a $8 billion bill for the European Olympic Games, even though its manat can buy 33.5 percent less per dollar now and fears persist that the nation’s hydrocarbon-supported revenues may halve this year.
Yet one independent Azerbaijani parliamentarian claims the money spent should just be seen as a long-term investment. Baku 2015 is going to be for Azerbaijan, what Sochi 2014 was for Russia, Rasim Musambekov wrote in an op-ed for 1news.az. * Olympic Games are “not just big sports projects, but also commercial and image-building projects,” Musambekov said. Eventually, the international spotlight will bring more benefits than costs, he concluded.
But Musambekov appears to have forgotten what happened to Sochi after its Olympics. One year on, it has become a sink-hole for billions of dollars in investments. Residents “have seen few economic benefits from hosting the Olympics,” the Associated Press reported last month.
If Baku is considering that experience, it’s not letting on. The Games are a pet project for President Aliyev, who also chairs the country's Olympic Commmittee.They are meant to create a sense of national achievement, a perception that Azerbaijan is emerging from post-Soviet obscurity and moving on up the European social ladder.
“Economic growth and modern infrastructure played its role in the decision to hold the Games in Baku,” Aliyev told attendees at Davos this January.
But to some critics, both at home and abroad, Baku’s talk is just that. Behind the brand new, all glass-shell buildings, things continue to run the Soviet way, with news media serving to extol the government’s achievements, dissidents locked away in prisons and national leaders staring down from omnipresent posters.
As was the case with Eurovision, democracy-watchers claim that the Games will serve to distract from Azerbaijan’s increasingly repressive reality. Baku may be annoyed, but is still unfazed by such criticism. As Aliyev said, it is “looking forward to the guests and tourists.”
*Rasim Musabekov formerly served as a board member for the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan, part of the network of Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet.org is run under the auspices of the Open Society Foundation-New York City, a separate part of that network.