West’s snub of Baku European Games reminiscent of Sochi

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev (R) rides a cart with Russia's President Vladimir Putin. (Reuters / Alexei Druzhinin / RIA Novosti / Kremlin)
The negative coverage of the European Games in Baku (June 12-28) by the Western media has left a deep impact on the 9 million of Azerbaijan, hurting the feelings of both the elite and the public at large.

Popular anger is added to the official one, and most of the blame is put on the US government and the EU officials. The angry response of the Azerbaijani authorities to the West, which was not represented at the opening ceremony by a single president of the EU member states, indicates Azerbaijan’s moving away from the pro-EU stance of the 1990s and the early 2000s.

Meanwhile, one of the positive side effects of this process is a certain improvement in relations between Baku and Moscow.

But let’s start with the description of the facts about the anti-Games campaign in the West. One day before the start of the European Games in Baku, the German Bundestag deemed it appropriate to come out with a special resolution, prohibiting top-ranking German officials from visiting the event. The poor state of human rights in Azerbaijan was cited as the reason for this “timely” resolution.

The resolution unleashed a storm of protest in Azerbaijan. The start of the Games is the main event of the decade for this young nation, which had only 2.5 years to prepare for it. A call by Bundestag and several Western-supported human rights activists to boycott the Games was seen as a direct insult by many. The Azerbaijanis living in Europe even started a special action “against attempts to ignore the Games” by displaying the national flag on their homes.

For Europeans and Americans, passing the Baku games in silence or providing politicized coverage for this sportive event might look like business as usual. Compared to the nasty campaign against the Sochi Olympics in Russia in 2014, the Bundestag’s resolution and derogatory stories in the European press about the “clannish regime” in Baku (which somehow organized excellent venues for competitions as well as a grandiose opening ceremony) may have seemed insignificant. But it did hurt the feelings of the Azerbaijani people, for whom there is no worse sin than for a guest to be rude to his or her hosts.

So, the ambassador of Germany was summoned to the Azerbaijani foreign ministry and presented with an official protest. An aide to the President of Azerbaijan, Ali Khasanov, denounced the “campaign” in the Western media against the Games and his country in general, noting that a lot of Western articles in defense of “human rights activists” repeated and mirrored each other. “The organizers of this campaign will not achieve their aim – to turn Azerbaijan away from its independent foreign policy line,” Khasanov said.

Khasanov certainly had a point with this statement. It is enough to cite some quotes from the Bundestag’s resolution: “Since the family of the current Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev came to power in Azerbaijan in the early 1990s, the country had no free and fair elections that would fit the international standards.” The German MPs failed to answer a very natural question stemming from that quote: Did Azerbaijan have free and fair elections before late president Heydar Aliyev returned to Azerbaijan in 1993? The rule of pre-Aliyev leaders, including the so called Popular Front in 1992-1993, is remembered in Azerbaijan as a chain of pogroms and crises. The pogroms, the defeat in Karabakh and economic mismanagement led to a massive exodus of ethnic minorities – something the German parliamentarians failed to mention in their resolution.

Here is another quote from the Bundestag’s resolution which actually makes a direct link between the campaign against the European Games in Azerbaijan and the campaign against the Olympic Games in Sochi: “There is a widespread opinion among representatives of the sports organizations and unions, that having sports events on territories of certain countries can give a push to the democratization of these host countries,” the Bundestag’s resolution says. “But the experience of the recent years demonstrates that these expectations are not realized. The summer Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008 or the winter games in Sochi in 2014 – these games did not lead to an improvement of the human rights situation. Their effect was the exact opposite to the desired one.”

When the Bundestag’s resolution cites the “ineffective” use of the money allotted for the Games as one more reason for “ignoring” the event, the parallels with Russia become unavoidable. The wild estimates of Russia’s expenses for the Sochi games became the main theme of Western propaganda against the event long before it actually started.

Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan and a graduate of the Moscow-based Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) could not have overlooked the similarities in the anti-Sochi and anti-Baku campaigns. Back in March 2015, Aliyev made a speech which in fact can be described as a “farewell to the pro-Western illusions” from the Azerbaijani president.

Here is what Aliyev had to say: “Our independent foreign policy is not to everyone’s liking. That is why we see an increased pressure on us, with new mechanisms of diverting us from our path set in action. Certain foreign circles are in fact leading an open campaign against Azerbaijan. But we are ready for this campaign… This campaign was visible in 2012 when Baku hosted the Eurovision contest, now our foes are quite disturbed by the European Games in Baku... This is an anti-Azerbaijani campaign, steered from one or few foreign centers. Its aim is to throw dirt at our country, presenting Azerbaijan as a backward, undemocratic, unfree country. All of this campaign is built on lies, of course”.

In March 2015, the Western media largely ignored this statement of the Azerbaijani president. Then in May 2015, at the summit of the Eastern Partnership in Riga, Azerbaijan first “showed teeth” to Europe’s masters from the EU and the US by refusing to sign a resolution calling for “liberation” of Crimea from Russia’s “annexation.” Many analysts view the negative coverage of the Games in Baku as a consequence of Azerbaijan’s independent position at the Riga summit.

Ilham Aliyev, having met at the Games’ opening ceremony with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, seems to be unmoved by the Western pressure. At the same time, it is interesting to note that Aliyev’s criticism of the West in many ways echoes Russia’s criticism of the Western institutions. For example, Aliyev denounced the police crackdown against the anti-austerity protesters in Frankfurt, Germany, in spring 2015, noting the absence of international human rights groups at the scene of the incident.

President Aliyev’s resentment against the West’s double standards is in fact philosophical: “There is a new system of values formed in the world. Instead of justice we see injustice; instead of truth we see lies and hypocrisy.”

President Putin would have undersigned every word from this statement by his Azerbaijani colleague. And when there is an agreement on common values among the leaders – there is a solid foundation for an improvement in relations between the countries, too.

Dmitry Babich is a political analyst with Sputnik radio

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.