The Postmodern Spectacle of Baku’s European Games

The games’ budget exceeds $8 billion,and includes the cost of paying all participating athletes…

On April 3rd, the daily news site Vestnik Kavkaza reported

a major event:

the first ticket for the upcoming European Games in Baku had been sold. The brief item failed to indicate when the buyer, a Russian citizen named Ksenia Muradova, purchased her ticket, but the fact that the article was posted four days after tickets went on sale would seem worrying to anyone with a financial stake in the games’ success.

The games’ budget

exceeds $8 billion

,and includes the cost of paying

all participating athletes’ way, although why,

exactly, wealthy nations like England, France, Germany and Sweden need Azerbaijan to foot the bill is unclear.

The European Games will mark the third time in less than a decade that an autocratic regime has spent lavishly on an international sporting event, ostensibly to showcase their economic might and rising global influence. Baku must be hoping that it will fare better than its predecessors, as

Beijing has yet to figure out

what to do with its costly Olympic infrastructure, and Russian tourists only began flocking to Sochi after the ruble’s precipitous decline made

European vacations prohibitively expensive.

Throughout the twentieth century, hosting major international sporting events was reserved for highly developed countries. In the twenty-first, emerging states such as China, Russia, South Africa, and Brazil have used these events to cement their place in the ranks of fully-developed economies. The success has been mixed – Brazil received

negative press

over its income inequality during the World Cup, Qatar’s World Cup preparations have been a public relations and human rights nightmare, and the Sochi Olympics served to put Russia’s staggering institutional corruption on the front pages of newspapers worldwide for months.

Governments that have tied their legitimacy to a major sporting event tend to immediately tout their economic success, however, the actual impact of hosting is notoriously

difficult to quantify

. Given all this, one must ask what, then, is the government of Azerbaijan hoping to gain?

It surely cannot be hoping for a boost in international prestige –

no other city expressed interest

in hosting the games – and the event’s organizers themselves do not expect any international visitors apart from athletes’ friends and families.

Other than blind hubris, the only plausible explanation for the Azerbaijani government’s enthusiasm for the games is that they represent a golden opportunity to produce an illusion of international prestige and wealth for the benefit of a domestic audience. Russia and China,which spent lavishly on their respective Olympics with no real economic benefit to show for it, were able to domestically package their efforts as a rousing success. As an Azerbaijani regime that has always tied its legitimacy to economic progress instead of democratic governance struggles with a

collapsing currency

and rising unemployment, it must see a “successful” European Games as a salve for increasing domestic pressure.

This strategy is far from innovative. It fits squarely within a the Aliyev government’s longstanding practice of sending money abroad to burnish its image at home. For years, Azerbaijan has spent millions of dollars on high-priced Washington lobbying firms, and in 2013 was the


spending foreign country on US lobbyists at $2,298,233.03. This is most definitely only a portion of the total, as determining the scale of internationally-funded lobbying in the US is notoriously difficult.

Although all politically active groups accepting money from foreign donors must identify themselves and their source of funding under the

Foreign Agents Registration Act,

a mix of legal loopholes and lax oversight provide

abundant opportunities

for avoiding registering as ‘foreign agents.’ A common tactic is to create either a 501(c)4 o 501(c)6, both types of tax-exempt non-profit organization – typically a business league or a chamber of commerce – that are able to receive unlimited donations without publicly disclosing their donors.

Three such organizations that appear to have close ties to the Azerbaijani state are the

United States – Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce


Azerbaijan-America Alliance

, and

The Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan

. Although the source of their funding is secret and none are registered as foreign agents, their connections to the Azerbaijani state are unambiguous.

The first lists President Ilham Aliyev as one if its trustees, the second was founded by the son of Azerbaijan’s

most nepotistic minister

Ziya Mammadov’s son


– who may or may not have once paid a restaurant $1 million to slaughter and grill a bear – and the third is a maddeningly opaque cipher. As of April 2015, its website lists no staff or directors. A June 2014

Buzzfeed investigation


The Assembly’s vice president is Milla Perry Jones, the sister of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and its treasurer is Rauf Mammadov, the chief of SOCAR’s U.S. Branch … reached by phone, Jones said her position with AFAZ was “ceremonial” and unpaid and that she had become involved with the group after traveling to Azerbaijan. Jones said she had “no idea” who is a member of the organization.

What is clear is that the Azerbaijani state has invested – and continues to invest – a great deal of money in the America political process. Much like the $8 billion budgeted for the European Games, what tangible results the citizens of Azerbaijan are getting for all that money remain unclear.

As reported by Buzzfeed, the most visible presence of Azerbaijan in American politics was a flurry of 13 state-level resolutions in 2013 memorializing events in Azerbaijani history – most commonly the 1992 Khojaly Massacre. However, such resolutions carry no legal weight, commonly go unreported in American media, and are forgotten even by the legislators who pass them without a second thought. As either propaganda or policy, they are functionally useless.

At the national level, results are even harder to come by. According to

documents obtained by the Sunlight Foundation,

the Azerbaijan America Alliance spent $1,968,288.40 in the last six months of 2012, the vast majority of which it received from the Bank of Azerbaijan. Almost $1.5 million was paid to two Washington consulting firms, Fabiani and Company and Gibraltar Associates. Another $430,064.30 was spent on a ‘gala,’ attended by fifteen members of Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner.

There’s more: the Assembly of the Friends of Azerbaijan (AFAZ) proudly lists

sixty-one US representatives

– one in every seven members of the House of Representatives – as members of a “Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus.”

However, the caucus’ results has been underwhelming. According to, a website that monitors congressional legislation, neither house of the United States Congress has considered a bill or resolution containing the word “Azerbaijan,” “Khojaly,” or “Nagorno-Karabakh” in the twenty-first century.

Attempts to sway public opinion through mass media achieve similar results. Late last year, the New York Times published

an editorial

critical of Armenia’s conduct in Nagorno-Karabakh by an author who failed to identify herself as a paid SOCAR consultant. The omission

was picked up

by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Times quickly posted a correction noting the author had intentionally misled the paper.

This was not an isolated incident. Several months later, a lobbyist for the

Azeri Consulate

, also failing to acknowledge his conflict of interest,

lashed out at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

in an editorial in the Washington paper The Hill, accusing it of anti-Azeri bias. The author had previously published an attack on Azerbaijani opposition politician Ali Karimli in

The Huffington Post,

in which his claims of expertise in all things Azerbaijan were undermined by misspelling Karimli’s last name in the first sentence. As with the New York Times editorial, other American media outlets largely ignored both pieces other than to heap scorn on both

the author and the publisher.

More recently, former Congressman and current chairman of the Azerbaijan America Alliance Dan Burton published editorials in the Washington Times and The Daily Caller. Again, neither publication identified Burton by his current position, choosing instead to credit him solely as “former Congressman Dan Burton.” Unlike the New York Times,

neither the Washington Times or The Daily Caller has seen fit to issue a correction.

With the exception of the Times, none of the editorials appeared in major American media outlets. Both The Daily Caller and the Washington Times are niche conservative publications, and The Hill, which only publishes when Congress is in session, has a circulation of around 21,000.

This begs the question: why does the government of Azerbaijan and its proxies continue to fund US-based lobbyists and pressure groups that, at best, accomplish nothing, and at worst, take embarrassing public pratfalls?

If the goal of these lobbying efforts is to produce results and improve the livelihoods of the Azerbaijani people, they can only be judged as a complete failure. There has been no discernible change of American policy towards Azerbaijan as a result of the activities of Azerbaijan’s FARA-compliant advocates or of its 501(c)4 and 501(c)6 proxies.

On the other hand, if the purpose is solely to provide the Azerbaijani government with favorable press clippings to use for domestic propaganda, and if the same government has zero interest in using the state budget in a manner conducive to an increase in the well-being of its citizens, then the plan doesn’t seem so absurd after all. The editorials in The Hill, The Daily Caller, and the Washington Times are aimed at Azerbaijanis, not Americans, just like the European Games.

In this sense, The Hill and the Washington Times’ low circulation and lack of authority is a boon, not a handicap. Like the “European Games,” all that is important is that they sound important. When publishing in the New York Times, one runs the risk of being exposed, much like major sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup place nations under an international microscope. Imagine the international outcry if an Olympic host

brazenly turned international human rights representatives away

at the airport.

The European Games aren’t a sporting event, but fantastically expensive propaganda. It’s so expensive that the government has spent months making sure anyone likely to speak embarrassing truths

is safely behind bars or in exile.

The relevant question isn’t who will win, but whether the government can sell its biggest lie yet, and whether the international community has plans to do anything about it.

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