The façade of Azerbaijan and the disgrace of football’s higher powers, from clubs to governing bodies

The façade of Azerbaijan and the disgrace of football’s higher powers, from clubs to governing bodies

Over the last decade, Azerbaijan has turned towards sports diplomacy in order to improve its international reputation. It has hosted the 2015 European Games, sponsored Atlético Madrid’s shirts, witnessed Formula 1 races, and submitted bids for two Olympics. This year it will host the Europa League final; next year it will host some games of the European Championship.

This comes in the midst of falling energy prices and widespread international condemnation of its treatment of the national press. Azerbaijan longs to pitch itself as a centre of intercultural communication, as outlined in the ‘Baku Process’, a cultural initiative kickstarted in 2008. Moreover, since energy prices fell in 2015, Azerbaijan has sought to present itself as a viable tourist destination for east and western visitors alike. These sports events are one arm of the nation’s cultural diplomacy, as it seeks to brand itself as a small but welcoming state in the middle of Eurasia.

However, the granting of the Europa League final to Baku creates considerable complications for Henrikh Mkhitaryan; the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan means whilst in the country, if allowed in, he will be concerned for his safety, hence his decision to not travel. This is a problem which will perhaps rear its head at the Euros too, and a classic example of UEFA’s short-sightedness. However, this is the least of the issues with granting host rights to Azerbaijan; Human Rights Watch describes the nation’s human rights record as “appalling”.

In the 21st century, the world of football has witnessed a surge of interest in sport from nations looking to establish themselves on the world stage. Three of the five BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa – have hosted a World Cup since 2008, with the remainders hosting the 2010 Commonwealth Games (India) and the 2008 Olympics (China). Qatar’s World Cup and its intricate involvement in some of Europe’s biggest clubs is another example of the allure of the sporting sphere. Azerbaijan is the latest addition to this decreasingly exclusive club. 

“I don’t [know] really how they decided to play there,” said Arsenal boss Unai Emery earlier this week, in a sentence that sums up the widespread disbelief regarding the choice of Baku as the Europa League final venue. Fans of Arsenal and Chelsea will receive alarmingly small ticket allocations – as will those attending the Champions League final -and one of the game’s biggest draws is out due to his nationality. Regardless, on 29 May, Azerbaijan will play host to thousands of tourists.  

This is the latest in a series of ventures into the more political side of the sporting world by the Eurasian nation. It hosted the 2015 European Games, will host its Grand Prix until 2023, submitted bids for the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games as well as the 2019 Champions League and Europa League finals, and will play host to at least four games of the 2020 European Championship and the 2019 Youth Olympic Festival.

Baku has also hosted the 2015 World Chess Cup, the 2016 World Chess Olympiad and the 2017 Islamic Games. This diaspora of sporting events welcomed by the country underlines its government’s commitment to promoting Azerbaijan – and Baku in particular – on the world stage. 

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Events aside, the Azeri have made a number of strides into football through sponsorship, in a move similar to that of organisations such as Emirates and Qatar Airways. Their ministry of tourism sponsored Atlético’s shirts during the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons, adorning the jerseys with the message ‘Azerbaijan: Land of Fire’. Sheffield Wednesday and  Lens’ shirts sported the same message.

Upon renewal of the deal, Atlético president Enrique Cerezo said: “We are two travelling companions who embark on a common path that allows them to develop multiple joint actions. In just one year, we have been able to project the image of Azerbaijan for the world and promote bilateral relations between our countries.” It is this image projection which Azerbaijan prizes so highly. 

It’s perhaps no coincidence that the Europa League final’s branding also focusses on presenting Azerbaijan as the Land of Fire, in what appears to be a concerted attempt to develop a ‘nation brand’ across its events.  

However, a growth in tourism is not the only benefit of hosting numerous sports events. Such events give Azerbaijan a platform by which to espouse a certain image of itself, or brand, to its visitors, and to international viewers. This process is known as Nation Branding, or image-leveraging. The brand or image that Azerbaijan seeks to export, however, is a complex one. 

Whilst it hosted some events during its oil boom (Azerbaijan hosted 36 sporting events between 2002 and 2016), the magnitude of events has significantly grown since it hosted the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012. The 2015 European Games, the Grand Prix – scheduled until 2023 at least –  and the 2020 European Championship are the most significant additions. All of these events serve to promote a positive image of Azerbaijan as an exciting, welcoming place. Their event slogans serve as a kind of join-the-dots public diplomacy montage. 

The slogan for their Eurovision Song Contest was ‘Light your Fire’, a reference to the ‘Land of Fire’ slogan the nation had been using throughout its worldwide marketing push. The 2015 European Games, whilst having no official slogan, featured a flame in its icon and referred to volunteers as “flamekeepers”. The official slogan of the 2019 Baku Grand Prix was ‘Ignite the City’. The logo for the Europa League final features a flame carved into the A of Baku; another reference to the country’s traditional name. 

In presenting Azerbaijan as the Land of Fire, these events are purporting an image of Azerbaijan as exciting, eye-catching, and as protective of tradition and religion – President Aliyev claims that, “In Baku, the Fire Temple, which belongs to the religion of Zoroastrism, also demonstrates our cultural and religious diversity. Today, mosques, churches, synagogues … are protected by our state.”

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This image of Azerbaijan as an exciting, welcoming melting pot of intercultural communication matches the one outlined in the Baku Process, a cultural initiative kickstarted in 2008 which aims to ‘[Build] dialogue into action against discrimination, inequality and violent conflict’. The Process sees a biannual conference occur, bringing together delegates from Europe and the Middle East. 

As Chiara Loda notes, the Heydar Aliev Foundation is the most significant NGO in terms of promoting Azerbaijan on the world stage. The foundation, chaired by first lady Mehriban Aliyeva, states on its website that its aims include promoting Azerbaijan’s image worldwide, promoting the cultural heritage of Azerbaijan, and communicating “true information of Azerbaijan”. The latter quote refers chiefly to the Nagorno-Karabakh territory dispute and associated conflict in which Azerbaijan and its neighbour Armenia are embroiled. Azerbaijan’s higher-ups clearly recognise the importance of international influence and soft power. 

As with many event-focussed public diplomacy efforts, Azerbaijan’s recent pivot towards Western-centric events serves a number of purposes, all of which affect the more general aim of improving Azerbaijan’s image worldwide and garnering soft power.

Firstly, it opens the country up to a lucrative tourism market that it is yet to exploit: in 2018, three-quarters of travellers were from Russia, Georgia, Iran, Turkey and the UAE. The new slogan created by the Ministry of Tourism in 2018 – ‘Take Another Look’ – implies a concern about tourists coming to the country for an event and then simply leaving. Retaining tourists is a crucial part of expanding a nation’s tourist industry, especially key for those just beginning to establish themselves as tourist hotspots (Azerbaijan was one of the fastest growing tourist nations in 2018). 

Moreover, tourism is an important part of Azerbaijan’s economic diversification. Though it has experienced impressive growth since the turn of the century, natural resources make up 95 percent of the nation’s exports. It may come as no surprise, then, that Azerbaijan has begun to look towards other means of sustaining its economy. In “Azerbaijan 2020: Look into the Future” Concept of Development, a report published on the president’s website, the need to safeguard against turning into a “raw material appendage” for the rest of the world is outlined. The European Games drew in over 25,000 visitors, many of them European, and the Europa League final and European Championship are guaranteed to draw more.

Secondly, sports events provide the perfect opportunity to build infrastructure essential to tourism. Events tend to have a minimum requirement of hotels, transport infrastructure and airport accessibility, and therefore provide an excuse for  development. In the World Economic Forum’s 2017-18 Global Competitiveness Index, the ‘Quality of overall Infrastructure’ in Azerbaijan was ranked 26th in the world, outstripping all of its neighbours.

Generally, sports events legitimise infrastructure spending which otherwise may not pass the political process. However, given the lack of democracy in Azerbaijan this is less relevant; instead, the construction of such infrastructure ensures tournaments can be clinched. Well-run, successful events boost international prestige and national pride, giving the Aliyev government something to boast about domestically and internationally.  

Order  |  European Cup

Thirdly, the focus on European-centric events allows Azerbaijan to spread its version of the narrative regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict around the European community. The issue is such a pressing one for the Azerbaijani government that the president’s website has a section dedicated to explaining the conflict. 

Lastly, its hosting of events with a large Western audience alongside some generally less expensive, and less prestigious, more Eastern-focussed events such as the Islamic Solidarity Games and the Chess Olympiad, allows it to present itself – in line with the message of the Baku Process – as a hub for intercultural dialogue and cooperation. This is emphasised by the government, proclaiming that at the cross-roads of cultures and civilizations, Azerbaijan represents a juncture between East and West and between North and South’.

Elsewhere, projects such as the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline emphasise the ways in which Azerbaijan seeks to be seen as serving the European Community, in this case reducing their reliance on Russian oil. Unsurprisingly, the pipeline is the lovechild of Ilham Aliyev. 

The focus on Baku is striking; Azerbaijan is an economic city-state in that its capital, located on the shores of the Caspian Sea, contributes to over 95 percent of the national economy. Over 90 percent of their infrastructure development is in the Greater Baku region; this is one of many parallels with Qatar’s rapid development, as Baku has seen a similar regeneration to that of its Middle Eastern counterpart, Doha. 

Whatever their strategic aims, there are distinct issues with selecting Azerbaijan as a host nation and Baku as a host city. The country’s human rights record is described as ‘appalling’ by Human Rights Watch, as it routinely silences political activists for criticising the government, holds elections in an intimidating and undemocratic environment, uses torture, and restricts free expression. Reporters Sans Frontieres ranked the nation 166th in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index. Whilst UEFA claims it aims to “promote and protect ethical standards”, such host choices imply that ethical standards aren’t particularly important to the organisation. 

In 2019 the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association ranked Azerbaijan as the worst country in all of Europe for LGBTI rights, granting a score of 3.33 percent. UEFA cannot claim to be an organisation that aims to “promote football in a spirit of unity, solidarity, peace, understanding and fair play, without any discrimination on the part of politics, race, religion, gender or any other reason” if it continues to elect Azerbaijan as a host country.

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Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s inability to travel to the game is a stark reminder of the obvious issues with picking a host nation that remains in conflict. Indeed, despite assurances from the Azerbaijan FA have confirmed he will be able to, Mkhi felt unsafe in the region. 

The problem isn’t only that this allows Azerbaijan to sports-wash its image on a larger stage, presenting an image of the country as welcoming, organised and jubilant as opposed to autocratic and discriminatory. It also enables Aliyev to solidify his position domestically, as dissidents during such events can be portrayed as anti-Azerbaijani, for unsettling the country’s image on a global stage. 

However, UEFA isn’t the only international institution that has acted irresponsibly. The IOC should not have awarded the European Games to Baku – there were significant issues that may resurface this year and next. That the IOC has also awarded Ilham Aliyev the Olympic Order of the National Olympic Committee is testament to their ethical incompetency. International institutions simply have to hold host nations to higher standards. Fans should be put first, not governments, and not finances.

This is difficult for UEFA – they have to create revenue in order to prevent clubs breaking away from the Champions League to form the much-discussed Super League – but it surely isn’t impossible to find a better host nation than Azerbaijan. Spain also bid for the Europa League final and, while giving them the match would’ve been criticised as unfair as the Champions League final is also in Spain, it is surely a better choice than supporting Ilham Aliyev’s oppressive regime. 

Ultimately, the aims and effects of this match go beyond football; the AFFA ‘sees hosting the 2019 UEFA Europa League final as an opportunity to generate excitement across Azerbaijan and eastern Europe generally ahead of UEFA EURO 2020’. Their president is Rovnag Abdullayev, president of the SOCAR Oil Company; it is in his interest to draw the attention of international suitors in Azerbaijan. But hopefully, as such attention grows, international pressure does too. 

The final will come and go, but Azerbaijan’s aims go well beyond the turnstiles of the Baku Olympic Stadium. As I rounded off this article, Arsenal announced the decision of Henrikh Mkhitaryan to miss the Europa League final. Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the UK, Tahir Taghidazeh, bemoaned Mkhi’s decision, rather ironically stating: “If our purpose is to play political games around it, that is something different, but I hope it is not, because you are being paid as a footballer, not as a politician, so let’s leave other issues aside.”

An Azerbaijani diplomat trying to pretend sport and politics are distinct is confusing, but not surprising: this is a nation and government with experience in façade.

By Ewan Morgan @ewan_morgan

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