Eurovision did it with pop music, and the hope was that the World Economic Forum would do it with entrepreneurial spirit. But, in the end, what the Azerbaijani government had hoped would be another high-profile, image-enhancing event fell far short of expectations.
The international business leaders and various multi-millionaires who usually flock to the Forum’s annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland, were noticeable in their absence at the April 7-8 Baku event, which was designed to discuss the future of the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Andrei Kostin, the chief executive officer of Russia’s VTB Bank, was just about the only prominent foreign business baron to attend.
“Not any noticeable decisions, no business deals, no star names. I would say the forum went generally unnoticed,” commented Natik Jafarly, head of the Society of Economic Bloggers, a local non-governmental organization.
Azerbaijani executives were also in short supply among the few hundred registered participants. Many of those on hand were from operations dependant on good ties with the government. The chief executive officer of one large Azerbaijani holding company, who asked not to be named, told EurasiaNet.org that he had learned about the event less than a week before its start, and had had no luck finding out the list of participants in advance. “My bosses told me I have to attend,” he said. “The only thing I managed to do is to give my business cards to a few people.”
The regional government presence was also subdued. Turkey sent its energy minister, Tamer Yıldız, while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan dispatched a few deputy prime ministers. Georgia and Russia settled for their ambassadors to Baku, though Moscow added Peter Sannikov, vice-president of the Russian Direct Investment Fund.
News coverage was limited primarily to state-friendly Azerbaijani outlets. Even the presence of Great Britain’s Prince Andrew, Duke of York, a friend of President Ilham Aliyev, failed to generate much international buzz.
But that didn’t change the talking points. The World Economic Forum (WEF) had agreed to come to Baku after a Davos meeting this January between President Aliyev and Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the organization. Details of the event financing – registration fees were not charged – are not known. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry reportedly issued letters of invitation for all who required visas.
At the April 7 opening, Schwab hit points pleasing to Baku, telling participants that Azerbaijan “embodies great opportunities … for most indicators and directions,” and demonstrates the advantages of “using natural wealth for economic diversification;” notably, in promoting “the financial and construction sector, as well as information technologies.”
That assertion might come as a surprise to many Baku watchers. Although officials have attributed the country’s 2012 economic growth of just over 2 percent to the non-oil sector, energy accounted for 80 percent of Azerbaijan’s foreign direct investment of $5.4 billion in 2012, according to government data.
Schwab argued that the South Caucasus and Central Asia have considerable potential for long-term economic success, and that if everyone can work together – with some help from the World Economic Forum – the region would benefit still further.
President Aliyev was ready with the examples; he praised as “very important for the region” the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway with allies Georgia and Turkey, slotted for opening in 2014, and Azerbaijan’s Trans-Anatolian Pipeline project with Turkey.
But other, more controversial issues also critical to the region’s economic development – democratization, rule of law, media rights, civil rights, and migration – were not addressed publicly at the gathering.
Nor was mention made of an April 3 report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that President Aliyev and his family members allegedly own offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands – a topic so far ignored by the government.
The event did not even attract a lone protester – topless or otherwise.
Emin Huseynov, one of the organizers of the “Sing for Democracy” protests that took place during last year’s Eurovision contest, told EurasiaNet.org that the Baku meeting’s low international profile meant “it did not make sense to organize a campaign regarding it.”
Economist Zorhab Ismayil, head of the non-governmental “Support for a Free Economy” think-tank, said the WEF’s “dialogue” in Baku failed to grab the international limelight since foreign entrepreneurs and government officials “understand” that it is an image-making event “and do not want to participate.”
In an appearance that further underlined the event’s PR mission, the president’s elder daughter, 27-year-old Leyla Aliyeva, who allegedly holds sizable interests in Azerbaijan’s aviation, telecommunications and mining sectors, delivered a 40-minute speech on campaigns by her International Dialogue for Environmental Action to address global environmental problems. Before the start of the event, she also inaugurated a government-funded mobile library.
The only business deal formally concluded during the Baku forum was an agreement that spoke little to the economic diversification praised by Schwab -- a memorandum between Norway’s Statoil and the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic about development of offshore gas fields estimated to contain 300 billion cubic meters of gas.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku.