Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev triumphantly joined the torch-relay for the European Games on June 7 in Baku.
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.
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.
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.