ImportantCool associate Edward Miller talks to environmental justice campaigner Emma Hughes about how BP and Azerbaijan’s ruling Aliyev dynasty have used events like the Euro Games to divert attention from human rights abuses and pipeline politics.
While European attention has been focused squarely on the unfolding financial skirmish between Greece and the troika, the inaugural Euro Games in Baku, Azerbaijan have come and gone with little global recognition. For sports watchers the games will probably fade into obscurity; many professional athletes didn’t bother to attend (some had to attend because it is an Olympic qualifier event) and few records were set. In fact you’d be forgiven for completely missing the supposedly historic event, while much of its news coverage breathlessly crossed into allegations of media censorship and other human rights abuses in the oil-rich state. One article in The Telegraph sardonically begins “Are you looking forward to the European Games in Baku? No?”
In the days leading up to the games their already-shaky legitimacy took some major blows. Chancellor Angela Merkel announced she would not be attending, and the 2019 games were left homeless after proposed hosts the Netherlands decided it was too expensive. To make matters worse, in a poorly calculated move, overzealous Azerbaijani security forces detained journalists and human rights organizations at the Baku airport for a number of hours, before denying them entry.
Among those detained was environmental justice campaigner Emma Hughes, a co-editor at Red Pepper who works with the post-fossil fuel lobby group Platform. Hughes was told that she was on a “red list”, for her campaigning work against the corrupt alliance between the Aliyev dynasty that has ruled Azerbaijan since independence and the oil major BP. In her new book All that Glitters: Sport, BP and Repression in Azerbaijan, Hughes documents this relationship, and explains the significance of the Euro Games in the current European environment.
The story of the Euro Games is not a long one. Emma explains to me how continental Olympic associations had long planned to establish subsidiary Olympic-style qualifying events, and the Asian, American, and African franchises had all enjoyed some success. For wealthier European nations, however, the prospect made little sense; why not just bid for an Olympics instead? For Azerbaijan, however, a former Soviet nation in the Caucasus with designs to address European energy demands, the European Games presented itself as a unique opportunity to ingratiate itself toward Europe in a bid for deeper economic integration.
It is important to understand the scale of this undertaking. Hughes had intended to attend the opening ceremony at the brand new 68,000 seat stadium (which alone cost $700 million), one of the games’ 13 purpose-built new venues. The government states that hosting games (featuring 6,000 athletes from 50 countries competing in 20 different sports) cost about $1.5 billion, but others estimates are closer to $10 billion. The ceremony has to be seen to be believed. The games’ lavish opening ceremony ($95 million), featuring a bewildered-looking Lady Gaga performing John Lennon’s “Imagine“ ($2 million), and a stadium-sized passion-play with a shapeshifting set artfully doused in flames depicting the arrival of spring.
A gift from Baku to Europe, the Euro Games dripped with oil wealth.
Europe Minus the Lofty Ideals
“Azerbaijan is very keen to position itself as a member of the European family,” Hughes tells me. And where most continents are primarily defined by geography, “Europe” is delineated as much by geography as it is by cultural or institutional barriers. Since Azerbaijan and BP signed the 1994 “Contract of the Century” to exploit the Azeri Caspian oil and gas reserves, the happy couple have sought to infiltrate European cultural institutions (like EuroVision and the Euro Games) and political institutions (like the Council of Europe). In this way, wealth and spectacle have deflected criticism of a seething legacy of human rights abuses, shutting down dissenting views in a desperate pursuit of financial gain.
The 2012 Eurovision song contest, won by Swedish electro-popstar Loreen, is a classic example of these elements. For many European viewers the lasting memory of Baku may be the impressive purpose-built Crystal Hall, or perhaps the striking architecture of Flame Towers (a building which, according to Hughes, remains largely empty to this day). While Eurovision officially eschews politics, Azeri TV refused to broadcast the Armenian competitor (Armenia fought a war with Azerbaijan in the 90s over the Nagorno-Karabakh region). A Panorama documentary explains how pro-democracy activist Rovshan Nasirli was arrested and taken in for questioning just for voting for the Armenian competitor.
Azerbaijan is currently home to nearly one hundred political prisoners, and Hughes describes some of them in All that Glitters. These include investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova (whose work has exposed corruption amongst the Azeri elite), human rights activist Rasul Jafarov (who began the Sport for Rights campaign to raise awareness about political prisoners prior to the European Games), and human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, arrested on trumped up charges of tax evasion and “illegal entrepreneurship”. According to Reporters without Borders Azerbaijan is number 162 in the world in terms of press freedom (out of 180 countries). In March 2009 Azerbaijan shut down foreign media outlets like BBC and Radio Free Europe, around the time voters rewarded Ilham Aliyev a not-at-all-suspicious 90 percent referendum result, lifting the two-term presidency limit.
Restrictions on rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association sit awkwardly in the eyes of Europe, where Azerbaijan looks for demand for its hydrocarbons since the Soviet Union collapsed. Azerbaijan’s allegiance shifted West when aid began to flow from Western countries. Economic and political aims were formalized with the 1999 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, however, for Azerbaijan the most important cultural institution for Azerbaijan is the Council of Europe.
The council is the oldest European institution. It is responsible for promoting human rights, democratic development, the rule of law, and cultural co-operation. Hughes tells me that Azerbaijan’s position in the council since 2001 has been aided heavily by Azerbaijan’s notorious “caviar diplomacy“. Many an MP or MEP has enjoyed a luxury holiday to the Caucasus, courtesy of the European Azerbaijan Society. A report from European Stability Initiative documents how Azerbaijan was able to have a resolution on Azeri political prisoners voted down, a vote The Economist noted put the council’s credibility on the line. At the same time as chairing the Council, Azerbaijan received a pasting in the European Court of Human Rights, concluding that “the actual purpose of [political prisoner Ilgar Mammadov’s] detention had been to silence or punish Mammadov for criticizing the government and publishing information it was trying to hide.”
Azerbaijan is home to competing extremes. There is perverse wealth, but Hughes also describes to me that key infrastructure like drainage systems often don’t work, and there is little the way of public health care. “Standards of education have been rapidly falling since Soviet times and very little money is spent on education.” Much of the large internally displaced population who fled the conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh live in grinding poverty. And yet, a 2010 leaked US diplomatic cable describes how “oil and gas revenues produce enormous opportunity and wealth for a small handful of players that form Azerbaijan’s elite”.
“You’ve got very grand buildings studding the city of Baku like jewels that are for the most part empty and dusty,” says Hughes, “while basic infrastructure like roads are inadequately provided for.” And, while oil sales have lowered the national poverty rate, many remain dismayed at the regime’s profligate spending on large events. “People in Azerbaijan are really frustrated to see large amounts of money being spent on what are essentially vanity projects like the games”, says Hughes.
Defusing a Carbon Bomb
Azerbaijan’s wealth is drawn from the carbon bomb that sits beneath the Caspian Sea. The ruling Aliyev dynasty have been working together with BP to build a fuse for that bomb, a fuse big enough to blow a two billion tonne hole in the global carbon budget. The planned Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline would be the first time Azeri oil could travel 4,000 km in just one pipeline, connecting the Caspian to Europe, by way of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Albania, and Italy.
Things were looking good for Azeribaijan on 17 December 2013 when, just months after BP and Azerbaijan struck a deal thought to be worth $100 billion, the promised Shah Deniz II gas field off the coast of Baku came online. However, the dramatic fall in oil and gas prices since late-2014, which account for 85 percent of Azeri state revenues, have put the prospect of the enormous steel vein under threat. The Azeri currency (the Manat) has been devalued by a third, and it sclerotic public infrastructure is already utterly stretched. The proposed pipeline was set to travel through Greece, and if low oil prices continue Azerbaijan may be going down the same financial path as Greece (it was, after all, the year after holding the Olympics that Greece became the first EU country to be placed under fiscal monitoring by the European Commission).
Financial crises and energy geopolitics are also conspiring against Baku. Two weeks after coming to power the energy minister of Greece’s Syriza government flew to Baku, disputing the financial terms accepted by the previous government for the 500 km stretch of pipeline. A duelling sales pitch from Moscow has become the subject of acute attention from the US Government, doubling down on Greece’s current pariah status. Greece has even mooted the idea of being a regional energy hub, and continued financial pressure on Greece could initiate a kind of regulatory race-to-the-bottom as it desperately seeks to attract investment.
For BP the possibility of further bad publicity at this stage would be extremely unhelpful. Hughes tells me that the Deepwater Horizon blowout in September 2010’s had left BP, one of the largest companies in the world, days from bankruptcy (BP’s situation was helped by settling most of its claims for a mere $18.7 billion, a fraction of the costs incurred by the blowout). Months later Wikileaks cables revealed that BP had a similar blowout in Azerbaijan September in 2008 on the Azeri-Chirag Guneshi field. The causes of these incidents were very similar – a bad cement job.
“The Azeri government works hand-in-hand with BP to cover up information like this,” Hughes tells me when I ask her how we never heard about this at the time of the Gulf of Mexico blowout. “In Azerbaijan there is no scrutiny, either for the social impacts or the environmental impacts of BP’s operations there. That, for BP, is what is so valuable about the regime. To them it’s stability. It’s a very easy company to work in.” Hughes also tells me that it is the United Kingdom that remains most silent on human rights abuses in Azerbaijan (Tony Blair is acting as a political advisor to the pipeline project).
Confronting the Petrodollar Assault
Energy geopolitics and shifting Cold War allegiances will play a role in determining the future of both Azerbaijan’s and Greece’s variable orbits around the European constellation. The future of pipeline politics and atmospheric carbon levels hangs in the balance, while oil majors are becoming increasingly savvy marketers. Funding the arts is another wing of the cultural assault of big oil, and Hughes tells me that Layla Aliyev (President Aliyev’s daughter), puts a lot of money toward buying art and funding exhibitions in the UK. “Oil companies fund the arts to give them a social licence to operate,” says Hughes. “We need to break the link between art and the fossil fuel industry.”
And, even as the Euro Games began, that is exactly what some activists were doing. Hughes tells me about an action by an art collective called Liberate Tate at the Tate Modern, the iconic art gallery which receives sponsorship money from BP. On 13 June the art collective occupied the Tate Modern’s famous Turbine Hall and stayed overnight, scrawling messages with charcoal about climate change and oil on the hall’s floor.
This active reclamation of public space sends a critical message to oil majors: that their profit margins are not more important than the public good.
 If we want to limit the chance of staying below 2C of climate change we have have room in our carbon budget for about another 1000 billion tonnes CO2 equivalent emissions left. Whether this pipeline should be built ought to be a question of global concern.
Complete interview with Emma Hughes: