Sports vs. Politics
Azerbaijan is currently hosting around 6,000 athletes from 50 countries for the first European Games, a new sports event modeled after the Olympic Games. The games kicked off in Baku on June 12 and will continue until June 28, amid criticisms ranging from the cost of the games to human rights violations by the Azeri administration. It will also be remembered for bans on representatives from international media outlets like the Guardian and Amnesty International from covering the games.
The Azerbaijani government, headed by President Ilham Aliyev, who has been running the country since 2003 and was re-elected for a third term with 84.5 percent of the vote in October 2013, has been facing international criticism over its civil rights record, corruption and nepotism allegations. Although the Azeri government wanted to host the games in order to endorse Azerbaijan’s image in the international arena and boost tourism and the economy, it has turned into a sort of public diplomacy nightmare, as many of the country’s unnoticed problems have been flouted in the Western media, even before the games started. Even the games’ lavish opening ceremony was not able to dispel the criticisms, with most European leaders staying away, leaving the stage to the Turkish and Russian presidents.
Countries regularly try to use international events like Olympics, the G-20 Summit, the Eurovision Song Contest and Formula One Racing to augment their international reputation and prestige. Some also hope for the economic benefits such events can bring, though they rarely materialize. The First European Games cannot be evaluated within this framework.
From an economic point of view, its estimated cost will be higher than $10 billion due to excessive infrastructure costs and the Azeri government’s decision to cover travel and accommodation expenses of all the competing athletes. As its expected revenue is around $3 billion, economically the games are a disaster, especially when oil prices and thus Azerbaijani income has been severely reduced.
This leaves the possible political and public diplomacy gains. Government officials have overlooked the exorbitant expense of the games in the midst of an economic crisis by arguing it will create new opportunities for future events and will also highlight the country’s modernized, developed and advanced features. The same arguments were used when Azerbaijan spent $1 billion to host the Eurovision Song Contest 2012, the largest amount of money any country had ever put up to host the competition.
But civil society organizations and human rights activists have tried to use the games to register their displeasure with the administration on a global scale. A coalition of human rights groups has written a letter to the European Olympics Committee to raise the human rights records of Azerbaijan, and Amnesty International, though unsuccessfully, called for a boycott of the games. What is more, the Human Rights Watch and several former Western officials have drawn attention throughout the year to the civil rights problems in the country.
Hosting international events has been perceived as good for prestige, and thus might augment one’s political standing internationally. There is no doubt this can work as envisioned, especially if the hosting country’s image already generates a fair amount of goodwill around the world, and it has at least the basics of soft power to wave around. Yet, they become problematic in achieving the intended results when there are open wounds and the national and international civil society is very clearly on the opposite side.
Thus, when it comes to Azerbaijan, the country should carefully consider whether it will do more harm than good to the image of the country in the international arena before applying for candidacy of another event.