Dominique Robertson, Paris Bezanis
The 1st European Games taking place in Baku, Azerbaijan have been shrouded in controversy from the outset. Human rights groups around the world have attempted to draw attention to the Azeri government’s abuses of civil liberties and the many journalists and activists who have been jailed or banned from attending the Games completely.
The international community has been most vocal over social media in its disapproval of the situation in Azerbaijan, using the hashtag ‘RealBaku2015’ as their rallying point.
The International Federation for Human Rights has used #RealBaku2015 as the basis for a website it has created, realbakugam.es/en/. This website leads you to an online game which offers you the opportunity to participate in the ‘Real Baku Games 2015’, where you can be a lawyer, journalist or human rights activist and select one of the sporting events to ‘participate in’ within the confines of your jail cell. The game ends with a statement that ‘Not everyone can participate in the 1st European Games. Take action for their release. Please spread the word.’ The hashtag has been picked up by dozens of NGO’s and individual citizens alike, seeking to highlight everything from civil rights violations to the breaching of a cease fire agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia by Azeri forces earlier this year.
Despite the hashtags origins as an anti-government slogan, the tag has been picked up by the Games’ proponents as a means for countering “negative opinion” circulating in Western media. Ramin Mammadov, a member of the Political Council of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, used the hashtag to express his pride in the Games success. He is among many Azerbaijanis lauding the inaugural European Games as a cultural and political victory.
Where Have the Politicians Gone?
Europe’s political elite and their absence from Baku
The one thing the media seemed puzzled by was the absence of Europe’s political elite from the Baku Games’ opening ceremony. Heads of State from major western European nations-namely Germany, France, and the U.K-have ignored the Games, with the German Parliament citing ‘human rights violations’ as the main reason for their absence.
That is not to say the Games were lacking political presence. Beyond the attendance of European microstate leaders, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, were all in attendance during the Games’ opening ceremony. Both Turkey and Russia are heavily connected to Azerbaijan via the many natural gas/petrol pipelines that stem from the region, and all three powers represent regional energy hubs for both Europe and Central Asia. In fact, the Games served as a premise for Turkey, Russia, and Azerbaijan to continue talks about trilateral trade relations particularly in the field of energy.
In the spirit of controversy prevalent around the Baku 2015 Games, social media users seem divided on the implications of the political presence at the Games (or lack there of).
In an article by Aynur Gasimova of the Azeri news agency Trend, Gasimova called European abscence an act of “its own stupidity” and called for European leaders to remember their dependency on Azeri natural gas, even as they shun the event. Even Russian Head of State Vladimir Putin commented on his political peers absence, joking to Turkish president Erdoğan that Erdoğan represented the entire EU and was a good candidate to join it.
Conversely, many human rights organizations are hailing the Western powers’ boycott as the first step in reprimanding Azerbaijan for its egregious human rights record. Amid calls for boycott before the Games opening, Naomi Westland, of Amnesty International, called the Games “a massive public relations tool to show the world through internal media that they’re [Azerbaijan] modern and dynamic. They’re using this to launder their image.” Other major media outlets such as The Guardian, which had one of its journalists banned, published several articles supporting a European political boycott of the Games.
Either way, the political consequences of the first European Games have yet to be determined.