It’s known as “The Land of Fire” – but one organization that fights for freedom of the press has dubbed it the “The Land of Repression.”
Either way, it’s a country you’ll be hearing plenty about in the next few weeks.
On June 12, the inaugural European Games will be launched – in Azerbaijan.
The former Soviet republic is hosting the new, Olympics-style event, featuring 50 nations contesting 30 sports over two weeks.
All the major European countries will be there, if not all the leading athletes. Some sports will use the European Games to help decide who goes to next year’s Olympics; others are treating this as a junior tryout.
For Azerbaijan, however, hosting the Games is critically important in a broader plan to reinvent the country on the global stage.
Its leaders want to use sport to change the way you see it. To make that happen, President Ilham Aliyev reportedly has spent about $10 billion of the oil-rich state’s money on this event alone.
Next will come a Formula One race, hosted – like the European Games – in the Azeri capital Baku in 2016. Following that will be the 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games.
Elevating Azerbaijan through sport even extends to sponsoring the shirts of Spanish football team Atletico Madrid, which are emblazoned with that “Land of Fire” slogan.
Aliyev is at the heart of this movement. Prior to becoming president in 2003, he led the country’s national Olympic committee – a position he still holds.
“You could say that he comes from sport, he understands sport, he gets sport,” says Simon Clegg, former leader of the British Olympic Association, now the chief operating officer of the European Games.
“He realizes how sport can be used to deliver political objectives, whatever those political objectives are.”
Comparisons have been drawn with the likes of Russia and Qatar, whose leaders also sought to reposition themselves through sport.
President Vladimir Putin oversaw vast expenditure on Sochi’s Winter Olympics last year, while Qatar won the right to stage the 2022 FIFA World Cup – which follows Russia in 2018 – not to mention the 2019 athletics world championships and other, similar events.
Both Russia and Qatar face – and largely dismiss – allegations of human rights abuses and corruption in relation to major sporting events.
Human rights campaigners say Azerbaijan, in attempting to emulate them, is no different. Just days from the start of Baku 2015, they say the freedom of Azeri citizens is now more restricted than ever.
“The past year, I would argue, has been the worst on record for human rights in Azerbaijan since the breakup of the Soviet Union,” says Rachel Denber, deputy director of Human Rights Watch.
“I don’t think it’s fair to expect countries to have perfect transitions overnight, or maybe even in 24 years (since Soviet disintegration in the region, in 1991). But I do think it’s fair to expect them to not regress significantly.”
Denber accuses Azeri authorities of imprisoning dozens of political, youth, and human rights activists on spurious grounds, as the country clamps down on freedom of expression.
Journalist Mehman Huseynov says he was one of those targeted.
Huseynov told CNN he was arrested after helping to found a pro-democracy campaign during the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, also hosted by Azerbaijan.
“I allegedly beat four or five police officers,” said Huseynov, arguing the charge was laughable.
“These policemen are an elite unit. It took them one and a half months to bring up that charge. They were waiting for the end of Eurovision to start the revenge campaign.”
Huseynov says he has been barred from leaving Baku, let alone Azerbaijan, for most of the past four years. He believes his phone is tapped.
“We are living in something like an ‘empty society.’ Everybody is frightened. Independent journalists are intimidated,” he told CNN.
“International events are not helpful for us.”
Azad Rahimov is Azerbaijan’s minister of youth and sports. He is a crucial figure in the organization of the European Games, and the man tasked with building the nation’s profile through similar events.
Speaking to CNN, Rahimov directly addressed human rights concerns in his country for the first time.
“We have no journalists sitting in prison,” says Rahimov.
“We have our open, opposition press. We have a lot of different newspapers and magazine opposition, we have open internet. How do we have so many newspapers, if they are all in prison?
“I, personally, really don’t understand the link between human rights and the European Games. I don’t understand that. Because it’s a totally different issue.”
Rahimov prefers to see the European Games through the lens of positive change being brought to Azerbaijan. As an example, he points to dozens of Olympic sports complexes that have been built there in the past 15 years.
“As a government, we pay big, big attention to sports construction involving young people,” he says. “We want to see our future generation healthy, and sport is the best opportunity and possibility to get that.”
’We are treated very well’
Azeri athletes happily supported this vision when CNN visited some of Baku’s fast-improving facilities.
“Thanks to God, I have everything. Our government gave us everything we need,” says wrestler Rovshan Bayramov.
The 28-year-old has won two Olympic silver medals, and a world title, in one of his country’s most popular sports. He says the European Games will be a “great celebration” for Azerbaijan.
“Nobody is pushing us to train hard, it is just our own heartfelt drive,” says Bayramov.
“Whatever we do is for our country … and we have great support from our federation, from the head of our country. We hope we can justify that confidence and support.
“I can just be happy that other sports are improved (alongside wrestling). It would be good if the number of stars in Azerbaijan increases. It would be perfect if we have more stars.”
Not long ago, when you looked for Azeri sporting stars, you would find former soccer official Tofiq Bahramov. A linesman in the 1966 World Cup final, it was Bahramov who ruled that Geoff Hurst’s infamous second goal for England against West Germany had crossed the line.
Later in life, Bahramov – who died in 1993 – had a stadium in Baku named after him. It will host archery at the European Games.
Now, sports minister Rahimov wants new stars, but he will not say precisely how many in terms of European gold medals. But, he confides, he wants the country to finish 10th or higher in the medals table.
Rahimov says his country is doing this to inspire young people like Marina Durunda, a 17-year-old rhythmic gymnast.
Born in Ukraine, she grew up in Cyprus and accepted an invitation to compete for Azerbaijan in 2012.
“The facilities here are great. They are the best in the world of rhythmic gymnastics,” says Durunda, who won bronze in the ribbon event at this year’s European Championships.
“Gymnastics in Azerbaijan is moving very rapidly forward and the facilities are getting better and better … it cannot be compared with any other country. We are treated very well here.”
But Denber and Human Rights Watch insist the real motives of Rahimov, and Azerbaijan, don’t put the country’s people first.
“I think that they are eager to boost their prestige – not just the prestige of their country, but also their personal prestige globally and domestically,” says Denber.
“(When) they put their country on display, they put their own sort of personal clout and power on display.”
Clegg says that is not true. He believes the nation’s ambitions are “incredibly healthy” and that a “stunning sporting event” is on the way in June. But he also declined to answer any questions regarding human rights, claiming they are best left to politicians, not sports organizers.
Huseynov, by contrast, says Azeri people know that clout and power all too well.