The European Games and its implicit race between hydrocarbon dollars and human rights have come to an end after a grandiose closing show on June 28 in Baku and divergent opinions about what the Olympics-style event has done for Azerbaijan.
Officials in the oil capital of the Caucasus say, all puns aside, that the event has been a gas. Government-influenced media (in other words, mainstream Azerbaijani media) is busy cultivating a sense of achievement and President Ilham Aliyev’s government is promising to host more sporting events that raise Azerbaijan’s international profile.
But some critics question the need for the Games. The Guardian wrote that Baku 2015 left the impression of “ghost games;” that “there is no real need for in a crowded calendar and willed into existence by the endless expansionism of the Olympics movement and an authoritarian state.”
Sports Minister Azad Rahimov was a bit on the defensive amid reports of excessive spending. He claimed that the alleged 960 million manats ($914.55 million) price-tag for the Games was within range of initial estimates, but there are reports of much higher spending.
But that’s not all – it’s co-hosting the European soccer championship in 2020 and has set its sights on perhaps even the Summer Olympic Games in 2024.
Baku’s earlier Olympics bids failed, but the European Games left the city with some new, glittering sports infrastructure and the authorities are bent on making the most of it.
Azerbaijan’s big decision about going for the 2024 Olympics won’t come until September, however, and rests with President Ilham Aliyev, who also doubles as the chair of the Azerbaijani National Olympics Committee, Sports Minister Azad Rahimov specified on June 26.
Rahimov, though, believes that the European Games have put Baku on the right road. Holding large-scale sports events puts Azerbaijan "on the road leading to the Olympics,” the minister said.
The opening ceremony for Azerbaijan's new Caspian Sea naval base at Puta. (photos: president.az)
Azerbaijan has inaugurated a new base for its navy on the Caspian Sea, which it calls "the largest and most modern military object in the Caspian basin."
The base was formally opened on June 25, Azerbaijan's Armed Forces Day, in a ceremony with President Ilham Aliyev.
"Today we have gathered for the opening of the naval base. This event shows the strength, the power of our country," Aliyev said at the ceremony. "This base meets the highest world standards and is one of the biggest military objects created in recent years in Azerbaijan."
The old base, near the center of Baku, was the home of the Soviet Caspian Fleet. In 2011 Azerbaijan announced it was leaving that base and building a new one as it sought to expand the very modest naval forces it inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The new base is in the town of Puta, about 30 kilometers southwest of Baku, and was originally scheduled to open last year. The announcement of the new base included some detail on the living, dining, and medical facilities for sailors but somewhat less on the operational details of the base. It did emphasize that it would facilitate real-time monitoring of activity in the Azerbaijani sector of the sea by means of surveillance stations on islands and on naval vessels. It also will allow for information sharing between naval forces, the border control service and the State Maritime Administration.
There was no mention of what sort of vessels the base might accomodate, but Azerbaijan has been active in recent years in trying to enlist foreign partners in naval shipbuilding.
The State Department has released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" reviewing terrorism activity from the past year and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the ISIS is the overwhelming focus throughout the report, but also in the former Soviet Union.
"The ongoing civil war in Syria was a significant factor in driving worldwide terrorism events in 2014," State wrote in the report's introduction. "The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years."
The report continues State's practice of describing governments' perceptions of the threat of terrorism, rather than Washington's own perception. The introduction of the section on South and Central Asia reads: "Central Asian leaders have expressed concern about the potential terrorist threat posed by the return of foreign terrorist fighters to the region in the wake of ISIL’s growth in the Middle East and the drawdown of U.S. and Coalition Forces in Afghanistan."
Last year's report expressed substantial skepticism about Central Asian government's claims about terror threats; that skepticism is less apparent in this report's newly written sections on ISIS. However, a senior State Department official testified before Congress earlier this month on ISIS in Central Asia and downplayed the threat, noting that the vast majority are not recruited in Central Asia but abroad, particularly in Russia.
Azerbaijani athletes competing in the European Games have been allowed to dispense with fasting for Ramadan in a bid to boost predominantly Shi’a Muslim Azerbaijan’s results in the Olympics-style competition.
With 29 medals to its name, Azerbaijan currently ranks second to Russia for medal-results among the 50 countries taking part in the Games. How many of its 285 athletes are observant Muslims is open to speculation, but, apparently, the Caucasus Muslim Authority, a close ally of the secular Azerbaijani government, wants to do its part for the team effort, too.
Victory on the playing field “pleases God,” local clerics ruled in a recent fatwa and blessed athletes who opt to skip the fast, which bans food, drink and sex from dawn to sunset, APA news agency reported on June 19.
The month-long celebration of Ramadan started in Azerbaijan on June 18, less than a week after the Games began.
“To make sure that the valiant Islamic sportsman is stronger than his competitor in the month of Ramadan, he cannot observe oruj [fast],” said the Baku-based Caucasus Muslim Authority. “To defeat a competitor on a sports field, to defend the honor of your country and raise the flag of your homeland is important and pleases God.”
The fact that this is the first time that Azerbaijan has hosted the Games qualifies as a special circumstance, the body held.
Azerbaijan was the only country that bid to host the Games, a pet project for President Ilham Aliyev, who heads up the National Olympic Committee.
Moscow is driven by the principle of "parity" in its arms supplies to rivals Armenia and Azerbaijan, a senior Russian defense official has said, in comments that are likely to further erode Armenia's confidence in its ostenible military ally, Russia.
"I know that the sale of arms by Russian manufacturers is carried out by the decision of the Russian leadership taking into account the necessity of observing parity," Nikolay Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, said at a press conference June 18. "In addition to the arms Azerbaijan buys, arms are delivered and sold to Armenia in quite large quantities. And that allows a sort of parity to be maintained."
Armenia is a member of the CSTO, a post-Soviet defense bloc, while Azerbaijan is not. The CSTO has been dogged by doubts about its effectiveness, but Armenia is the most loyal member, seeing the alliance as a instrument of Russian support against Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan has been extravagantly rearming itself with the aim of retaking Nagorno Karabakh, its territory that it lost to Armenian forces in a war in the early 1990s. The fact that Azerbaijan has been making many of those purchases from Russia has been causing increasing discomfort in Yerevan. Earlier this year the scale of those sales was revealed for the first time, with Russia supplying a whopping 85 percent of Azerbaijan's total weapons acquisitions.
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.
On the eve of Baku’s mini-Olympics for Europe, Germany’s body for Olympic sports seems to have become the first major European sports authority to heed calls to take Azerbaijan’s government to task for human-rights abuses.
With a week to go before the European Games kick off, the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) on June 4 said it shares international concerns over Azerbaijan’s crackdown against government-critics.
“We support human rights and freedom of the press, and we are going to talk about this in Baku, too,” the confederation’s chairperson, Michael Vasper, said, Frankfurter Allgemeine reported.
Local news reported trapped residents jumping to their death from the burning high-rise in the Binagadi district. Harrowing footage shows friends and families rushing to the scene and arguing with police who blocked access to the building. Scores of apartment-dwellers were hospitalized for burns and smoke-poisoning.
Murisif Makhmudov, the head of the company, Global Construction, which allegedly put the facing on the building, has been charged with the use of low-quality materials and was arrested on May 19, news agencies have reported.
Outrage over the incident, strongly expressed on Facebook, is running strong and building. Five children, including a one-and-a-half-year-old, died in the fire. Sick of rampant corruption, many Azerbaijanis see this tragedy as the result of many officials and businesspeople’s willingness to go cheap on building materials or blind on safety standards. This was the second Baku-fire this year blamed on polyurethane-based sidings.
Top: the photo published by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense. Below: from the twitter account of Armenia MFA spokesman Tigran Balayan.
Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense published a photo of its soldiers in Moscow's May 9 Victory Day parade in which an Armenian flag has been digitally edited out.
Armenia and Azerbaijan were among a number of countries whose soldiers marched in the parade, marking 70 years since the allied victory in World War II. And thanks to the fact that they are next to one another alphabetically, they marched one behind the other in the parade.
While the parade went off without a hitch, the controversy began soon afterwards. Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense published a photo of its soldiers on its website, which web users quickly identified as an alteration of a previously published photo which was a good shot of the Azerbaijani contingent but -- unfortunately for Azerbaijan military PR -- prominently featured the flag of the Armenian soldiers right behind.
Armenia's government, naturally, leapt. "#Azerbaijan falsifying history, is going far beyond and fabricates reality," tweeted Armenia Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Tigran Balayan.
The episode caused some embarrassment within Azerbaijan, as well. "It's an obvious Photoshop," prominent military analyst Uzeir Jafarov told the BBC Russian service. "Our soldiers are in a ceremonial parade. They have Israeli weapons in their hands, conforming to NATO standards -- and all this for a photo shoot? It's unworthy of us." (The Azerbaijan MoD declined to comment.)