A deadly high-rise fire in central Baku, Azerbaijan killed 15 people and injured dozens more on Tuesday. Shoddy building materials were believed to be the root cause of the blaze. It is the latest of many high-profile incidents that have invited intense scrutiny of the Azerbaijani government, as the country gears up to host the Olympic precursor European Games in June.
Much reporting and criticism leading up to the Games has been a sadly similar refrain underscoring other major multinational events: that the eye-catching, luxury facilities erected to impress global tastemakers stands in stark contrast to local misery. Rio de Janeiro and Beijing faced similar accusations in connection with their Olympic bids in 2008 and 2016. Even Qatar — the world’s richest nation per capita — has become a magnet for human rights reporting on the migrant laborers recruited to construct the stadiums for its 2022 World Cup.
Families living near the Baku hosting sites have told reporters that they have barely enough money for food, and are deeply cynical about the value of hosting a global sporting event. Public resources are practically unavailable.
For many observers, Tuesday’s tragic fire fits perfectly into this narrative of immoral government priorities. This inferno, the argument goes, was no accident. It’s been linked to haphazardly-installed Polyurethane panels, which have become a common state-backed beautification method in Baku over the past several years. But the panels are such a dangerous fire hazard that some concerned citizens have actually attempted to dismantle the panels themselves, using tools or bare hands.
The horrific event sparked an intense outpouring of grief on social media, fueled by amateur videos of the fire-in-progress as well as photos of victims, including one widely-circulated shot of two-year-old Fereh Meherremova celebrating her birthday days before her death. Officials acted quickly to take Miryusif Mahmudov, the head of the firm behind the botched construction, into custody. But this sort of public-minded accountability is rarely associated with any post-Soviet republics, and the gesture struck some as disingenuous.
Several local news outlets have argued that Mahmudov is little more than a sacrificial lamb for the government itself, which has enthusiastically bankrolled cut-rate aesthetic spruce-ups to bolster the image of the capital. In a country marked by corruption, bribes and a lack of transparency, major beautification projects practically beg for risky corner-cutting.
Radio Free Europe’s investigations into this very issue leaves little doubt that President Ilham Aliyev and his supporters are more concerned with projecting a positive image for Baku than investing meaningfully in the city or its people. Mahmudov’s company has received over $500 million in shady state loans, and despite past allegations of corruption, continues to score major government contracts. In statements about the fire, officials have tried to dodge culpability by offering laughably low-balled estimates for how many Baku buildings are capped with the hazardous panels. Even more damningly, Azerbaijan has repeatedly cracked down on any investigation into its dealings. Khadija Ismayilova, the journalist behind many reports on corruption in construction contracts, as well as other government abuses, has been in prison for over six months on phony charges. Not even citizen-generated content gets a pass: in recent weeks, police have reportedly begun cracking down on taking any photos whatsoever in hosting areas of central Baku.
But what is behind such overwrought measures to control Baku’s PR? It is no coincidence that Aliyev kicked his facade-funding mission into high-gear just before Baku hosted the Eurovision song competition in 2012. The small Eurasian country is desperate for geostrategic cache in the eyes of more powerful global neighbors. Minister of Youth and Sport Azad Rahimov was open about the European Games’ blunt political goals in an interview with The Guardian: “The main important thing is to position our country on the map of the world and our country on the map of Europe,” he said. “The best instrument to do that is sport and culture. Sport has a bigger potential for reaching the most people.”
It seems clear that the desire for European branding has more to do with cash than with political values. Azerbaijan has plunged over the past few years in press freedom rankings, and many political prisoners have reported enduring serious abuse.
But the country’s oil stores and advantageous status as a bridge between East and West have made it an attractive ally for powerful countries: it has close ties to China, Turkey, Iran, Russia, and has influence among Muslim nations. Even in the context of unsavory geostrategic alliances with dictatorial regimes, Baku has weathered remarkably little criticism for anti-democratic policies. U.S. officials’ relationship with Baku can be embarrassingly sycophantic. In January, the Washington Times ran several glowing op-eds by current and former legislators praising the virtues of Azerbaijan- – only to come under fire for forgetting to disclose that the section was an advert funded by a pro-Azerbaijan lobbying firm chaired by former U.S. Rep. Dan Burton. Just last week, reports surfaced that a Baku oil magnate clandestinely footed the bill for a posh U.S. congressional visit in 2013.
Despite its attractive positioning to potential allies, Azerbaijan is unlikely to relax its tireless courting of global prestige and the hefty investments that come with it. Like many wealthy Eurasian dictatorships, the Azerbaijani economy is heavily reliant on oil and falling prices have hurt its economy. While prices stay low, Baku has more of an incentive to suppress any dissent that undermines its flattering narrative — and so far, its wealthy transnational partners have been perfectly happy to play along.