Azerbaijan – Why Is It So Popular Now?
Azerbaijan is a country that some years ago just a few people knew where to place on the map. In less than twelve months Baku, the capital city, caught the world’s attention with the first edition of the European Games and a Grand Prix of Formula One. Some might also remember that in 2012 Baku hosted an edition of the Eurovision Song Contest that is now remembered as one of the most expensive in the history of the competition. Football fans maybe noticed that until last year the official sponsor of Atlético Madrid was precisely Azerbaijan, promoted with the catchy slogan of “the land of fire”. And speaking about football, just try to watch a few seconds of a match of the ongoing European Football Championship and keep an eye on the sponsors shown at the edge of the field. One of them is SOCAR, the national oil company of Azerbaijan. Something else? There you go: Ganja, the second biggest city of Azerbaijan, is nominated European Youth Capital for this year. Enough? Not yet: Baku already tried to obtain the organisation of the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games without succeeding. Some rumors say that they might try again for the 2028 edition. Do you want a last one? In 2017 Baku will host the second edition of the Islamic Solidarity Games, a multi-sport event with more than fifty countries participating.
Why this massive process of nation branding? What pushed Azerbaijani rulers to invest money and resources in organising big events and expensive sponsorships? “The answer my friend is blowing in the wind” sang Bob Dylan in one of his most famous songs and in Baku, “the city of winds”, answers are blowing from different directions: business, geopolitics and also diplomacy.
Economically speaking Azerbaijan is a country based on oil; official statistics, referring to 2014, say that 92% of Azerbaijani export is precisely oil. This sort of export monopoly was an advantage in the years between 2005 and 2013 but in the last two years, with the fall of the oil prices, Azerbaijan had to face an unexpected vulnerability. In 2015 the National Bank decided in two occasions to devalue the manat, the national currency, causing a strong inflation that hit the whole population. The government had to correct the budget and many people saw their savings losing value and started questioning the massive costs of events like the European Games and the recent Grand Prix of Formula One.
From the geopolitical point of view, the situation is even more complicated: since 1988 Azerbaijan faced a conflictual situation with Armenia for the control of the Nagorno-Karabakh Region. This conflict has very deep roots in the history of the Caucasus and between 1992 and 1994 continuous and repeated clashes brought to a full-scale conflict. The ceasefire signed in 1994 created a situation of “frozen conflict” because it just stopped the fights without solving the situation. The Azerbaijani population of Nagorno-Karabakh was expelled from the region and many of them became IDP (Internally Displaced People). The remaining Armenian population declared an independent republic that none has recognized yet, not even Armenia which de facto controls the territory. The border between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan, the so-called “line of contact”, is militarized and clashes between the two sides happen almost daily. In April 2016 the situation degenerated in what was called the “four days war”: a series of attacks and retaliations that caused many victims, even amongst civilians. Both governments keep on spending conspicuous parts of the GDP for military budget and often use Nagorno-Karabakh as a tool of unification of the public opinion against one single enemy. The situation is potentially explosive, negotiations have been stagnating for years and the possibility of a peaceful resolution is at the moment very weak in the short and medium term.
Politically speaking, since 1993 Azerbaijan has been ruled by a member of the Aliyev’s family. Heydar Aliyev, a former member of the Soviet Politburo, ruled the country until 2003, until he died. His place was taken by his son Ilham Aliyev, who won the political elections in 2003, 2008 and 2013. All these elections were criticized by international observers. In November 2015 OSCE refused to send its observers for the Parliamentary Elections because of the strict conditions posed by local authorities. This is not something new: the Azerbaijani Government has often been criticized for its low human rights record. Many journalists, political activists and human rights defenders have been jailed or accused of being Armenian spies just because of their investigations about political corruption.
But what is the reason of the massive promotion campaign that the country is actually bringing on? Now we get there. The Azerbaijani Government has three main goals at the moment: economical differentiation, international attention on its claims over Nagorno-Karabakh and a “clean” political image among the international public opinion. Three goals, one way to achieve them: tourism.
Tourism is a sector that has been constantly growing on a global scale in the last years: it brings resources and incomes, it creates job places and if well managed it has a positive impact on the country’s image. But Azerbaijan is not interested in mass tourism and it is concentrating mainly on two types of tourism: business and events tourism.
Business tourism involves people travelling for working reasons, meetings, conferences, fairs and other events. It implies a higher amount of spending, its destinations are big cities and its infrastructures are conference centres, luxury hotels and exhibition centres.
Big events tourism happens with the organisation of sport or cultural events that attract people from foreign countries. It requires big investments, infrastructures and a certain degree of organisation but it has many positive aspects: it gives immediate visibility and a positive image, it can generate incomes and it has a limited duration. Moreover, dates are decided reasonably in advance in order to allow the country to be ready and maximize the possibilities offered by the event.
Azerbaijan is trying to present itself as a modern country, open to business, full of opportunities, able to organise big mass events and ready to welcome people from all over the world. However, they want to do this at their own conditions: having a continuous and uncontrolled flux of foreigners travelling around the country is not well perceived among local rulers. Some of these foreigners might be real Armenian spies and there are also many parts of the country that are still underdeveloped and not ready for being visited. The strategy they adopted is to build some specific luxury “clusters”, mainly in Baku but also in other locations around the country, where to gather foreign businessmen for a couple of days or concentrate a lot of efforts and resources in organising many mass events.
The European Games, the Grand Prix, perhaps the future Olympic Games and all the other events we mentioned, the numerous international fairs and exhibitions that take place in Baku every year, the important sponsorships, they all follow a logic of “controlled tourism” that has the purpose of increasing Azerbaijan’s visibility and international reputation.
Is this working? Mainly yes because obviously more people, especially in Europe, now have a basic knowledge of Azerbaijan. The statistics published yearly by the UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organization) tell us that the number of arrivals in Azerbaijan has been constantly growing in the last years, reaching 2.16 million in 2014 and they forecast a growth that will bring to more than 3 million in 2025. Nonetheless, the repeated polemics that followed every big event organised in “the land of fire” also reinforced the impression of a corrupted country, where opposition is persecuted and basic freedoms are not respected.
Pecunia non olet (“money does not stink”), used to say the Ancient Romans. However, the fact that Azerbaijan was allowed to organise so many sports events despite of its bad human rights record smells terribly of money. The off-shore platforms that on bright day can be seen on the horizon from the coast of Baku seem to be there to remind where this money came from. Azerbaijan obtained international visibility thanks to its resources but now their low price changed the economic situation and in the future it would be harder for the government to sustain other massive investments without paying a political price.
The international community, once again, demonstrated that business comes before fundamental rights. Azerbaijan is a state member of the Council of Europe and is included in the Eastern Partnership of the European Union; nonetheless the terrible human rights violations that were perpetrated by its government did not have a strong answer from these institutions. Leyla Yunus, a human rights defender from Azerbaijan who was recently released from jail where she was with the accuse of being an Armenian spy, recently gave a lecture during the Venice School of Human Rights organised by EIUC, the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation: she strongly stated that at the moment there is not a real political opposition in the country, and the government systematically repressed all the ones who tried to dissent, charging them of crimes they did not commit. She also mentioned the case of another woman, Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani journalist who was blackmailed by public authorities with the release of a video showing her and her boyfriend in intimacy. All this happened because of her investigations about corruption inside the ruling party.
Azerbaijan is for sure a very interesting country to visit, it is absolutely safe for a foreigner and it has a lot to offer to a tourist. However, as for many other countries, one should not judge it just from what it is in front of their eyes. Baku can be compared to a beautiful curtain that hides a window from which one could see a whole landscape. For instance, many of the beautiful and fancy streets in Baku were built a few years ago by tearing down hundreds of other buildings erected during the first oil boom, at the end of the XIX century. The families living there were forced to leave and sell their houses at a ridiculous price.
This promotional campaign we are seeing will probably go on in the immediate future but international organisations and especially EU, Council of Europe, UN and apparently even UEFA, should remember the ideals they represent and sacrifice a bit of economic profit, pushing Azerbaijan to release its political prisoners and starting a process of democratisation. Quoting again Bob Dylan “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?”
Francesco Ricapito graduated in International Relations in July 2015 at the Ca’Foscari University of Venice. He spent nine months in Azerbaijan with the Erasmus Mundus Programme and he wrote the thesis about tourism in Azerbaijan. He is currently working in Venice at EIUC – European Inter – University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation.
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Charles King, The Ghost of Freedom, a history of the Caucasus, Oxford University Press, 2008.
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Peter Robinson, Tourism, the Key Concepts, Routledge, 2012.
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