International attention is on Sochi, Russia today, as the Winter Olympics start. Along with this attention has come intense international scrutiny of everything from corruption and mismanagement of preparations for the games, to the underlying human rights situation in the country.
Not far from the frenzy in Sochi came a quiet announcement from Azerbaijan: 28 January marked 500 days to the European Games, which will take place in Baku in June 2015. The first of its kind, the European Games will serve as a qualifying round in seven sports for the 49 countries of the European Olympic Committee. The organizers have announced that the program includes a total of 18 sports so far, and they anticipate the participation of 5,400 athletes.
Azerbaijan has gained experience in recent years of hosting large international events, including the Eurovision Song Contest, the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, and the Internet Governance Forum, all of which were held in Baku in 2012. But the pervasive corruption in the country leaves room for the same kind of issues that have arisen in Sochi.
Also worrisome is the hostility that the Azerbaijani authorities have demonstrated in the face of the international scrutiny that comes with hosting such events, as well as their intensified efforts to silence critical voices in the run-up. Property rights violations have also become more widespread around the time of these events, with thousands of Baku residents being forcibly evicted from their homes as the authorities have worked to “beautify” the city or to clear room for event venues, such as Crystal Hall, the Eurovision venue.
It remains to be seen what approach the Azerbaijani authorities will take in the run-up to the European Games. Perhaps President Aliyev will follow the lead of Vladimir Putin, who released several high-profile political prisoners in the run-up to the Sochi Games. Or perhaps he will follow his lead in another way, and adopt more regressive legislation taking the country even further from the government’s stated commitment to democratization.
Past experience suggests that we are likely to see more intensive human rights violations in the run-up to the European Games. But the increased international media coverage could result in some positive steps. Political stunt or not, the release of political prisoners would be a very welcome step in Azerbaijan, where local human rights groups report a current total of 133 cases. Even more welcome would be the end altogether of the cycle of politically motivated arrests that has plagued the country in recent years.
As was the case with Eurovision, the international community is certain to learn more about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan as a result of the European Games. But the serious challenge remains of achieving concrete international action to address the ongoing and widespread violations in the country, not just spectating from afar. Otherwise, as with past international events, it will be the courageous local journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists who will pay the price once the international media attention inevitably shifts from the country following the games.
Rebecca Vincent is human rights activist and former U.S. diplomat.
The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL
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