Azerbaijan: A case of reckless political marketing

Azerbaijan: A case of reckless political marketing

Nicola Morfini
In recent years, Azerbaijan has experienced unprecedented exposure in the global media. The Azerbaijani government has lavished an enormous amount of resources in order to organize and host massive music contests and sporting competitions.

The first European Games took place between June 12 and 28 in Baku, transforming the Azerbaijani capital into a worldwide showcase of global-level sport and entertainment. Azerbaijan hosted nearly 6,000 European athletes in 20 newly built venues. According to official figures, the overall cost of the games was more than 1 billion euros. 

The brand “Azerbaijan” in sport, however, is not limited to just the European Games. Since January 2013, the country has been a major sponsor of the famous Spanish football team Atlético Madrid, granting Azerbaijan a massive exposure in international competitions. The cost of the Atlético Madrid sponsorship alone comes to 12 million euros.

In 2012, Azerbaijan hosted the music contest Eurovision. In this case, helped by the oil boom, Azerbaijan spent more than 73 million euros in order to prepare for the contest, making Baku’s Eurovision the most expensive Eurovision contest ever. Moreover, the venue for Baku’s Eurovision, the Crystal-Hall, necessitated the additional expenditure of nearly 240 million euros. The overall cost of the contest, therefore, came to more than 310 million euros.

This extensive, expensive and high-level marketing aims at creating a positive and globally recognized reputation for the Azerbaijani government on the global arena. All these macro-events can in fact be described as an enormous, albeit rather simple, “branding” activity.

The issue of the intensive care of the Azerbaijani government in creating a positive and compliant international environment has been debated by Ilya Lozovsky in Foreign Policy. Lozovsky focuses on the Azerbaijani political marketing, pointing out the enormous lobbying activity that Azerbaijan pursues in the American Congress. 

Lobbying, however, is not the only channel of soft power for Baku. The Azerbaijani government, in fact, pursues two major channels of soft power. Events related to sport and entrainment aim at projecting the idea of Azerbaijan as a wealthy, modern, and functional state to a global audience. At the same time on a political level, Azerbaijan has undertaken an intense lobbying activity in the American Congress in order to gain compliance from one of its major allies.

The over-exposure of Azerbaijan and consequently of the Azerbaijani government in politics and the mass media possesses some side effects. Azerbaijan had been almost unknown to the global audience, so the government has the advantage of creating a brand-new reputation. Nonetheless, the access to free communication allowed the spread of a huge volume of information concerning the violation of human rights, corruption, and restrictions on political participation in the country. 

The marketing plan of the Azerbaijani government is virtually perfect, but it does not correctly evaluate the possibility of international dissent. To some extent, the promotional activity of the Azerbaijani government better works within a domestic context, in which information can be, to some extent, controlled as compared to the international context.

The organizing of events in order to create consensus is an old technique that dates back to ancient Rome. The Roman political elite lavished an enormous amount of resources in order to stage spectacular shows for citizens. In this way, the Roman elite fostered consensus according to the motto of “panem et circenses” (bread and circuses), which was based on two pillars: wealth and entertainment. In the case of Azerbaijan, the motto underpinning the political market addressing the international context can be better defined as “lobbying et circenses.”

Today Azerbaijan is facing new challenges that threaten to compromise internal political and social stability. Official projections forecast revenues of 19.3 billion manat (1 manat = 0.85 euro) in 2015. However, such a forecast was based on oil prices of $90 per barrel. The current Brent crude price has dropped to $50. Such conditions, therefore, constitute a serious challenge for the Azerbaijani sociopolitical system. Oil and gas account for the 75 percent of government revenues and 95 percent of the overall national export. The current oil prices, therefore, represent a challenge for the internal political bargaining and reallocation system.

Since oil prices are not likely to come back to the previous peaks, Azerbaijan has to acknowledge the reality and start working in the direction of an alternative transitional path. Such a path should consist of political and economic reforms aimed at increasing political and economic competition. However, at the moment, the Azeri elite seems to be more concentrating on the promotion of the national “brand” rather than the promotion of structural reforms. Economic and political reforms are the only possible advertising from which the country would benefit, as well as the only chance to peacefully deal with unprecedented structural sociopolitical changes.