This weekend, millions of viewers worldwide will tune in to watch the Champions League final between newly crowned Spanish soccer champions Atletico de Madrid and perennial favorites Real Madrid. It’s rare to have both finalists from the same country. But another nation will be present on the field – or at least on the Atletico jerseys: Azerbaijan.
The sponsor’s message, emblazoned across Atleti’s red and white stripes, reads: “Azerbaijan, Land of Fire.” It’s an intriguing label, intended to promote Azerbaijan around the world. Those who have been there would likely know that on a hillside near the capital, Baku, flames jet out into the air from a thin, porous layer of sandstone, a place called “Yanar Dag” (“Burning Mountain”).
Azerbaijan is indeed an amazing oil-rich country in the South Caucasus. But what the sponsor’s message does not advertise is the Azeri government’s poor human rights record and increasingly entrenched, authoritarian political elite. As Human Rights Watch has documented, the government has a history of suppressing dissent, often arresting journalists, human rights activists, political opponents and other critics on trumped-up charges, including drug possession, hooliganism, tax evasion – even treason.
What many of these “criminals” have in common is a history of criticizing the government in blogs, on Facebook and in other social media. Or a history of investigating the business dealings of President Ilham Aliev, re-elected to a third term last year with 85 percent in a vote described by monitors as “seriously flawed,” and his relatives.
An alternative source of energy supply to Russia, Azerbaijan is courted by a European Union eager for energy security and often willing to overlook a poor and deteriorating human rights record. With traditional media under tight government control and severe restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, online activism is on the rise in Azerbaijan, prompting the authorities last May to extend criminal libel laws to include statements posted on the Internet. Currently at least five Facebook activists are on trial for bogus drug-related charges.
Azerbaijan is also keen to burnish its international image. Baku, undergoing a Gulf-style beautification process, hit the headlines in 2102 by hosting the annual Eurovision Song Contest. But the shine was tarnished by related human rights abuses, including illegal forced evictions and jailing of political opponents.
The Atletico deal, worth more than 12 million euros, is another element in the government’s glossy PR campaign – let’s hope it inspires viewers to learn more about the real Azerbaijan.