As Baku prepares to host the 2015 European Games, those who oppose the country’s leading family, and its oil wealth, are facing a crack down. In this post, Amy Hall explains why British oil and gas company BP is accused of propping up the regime.
Emma Hughes, an activist and journalist working for London based group Platform, has been detained on her way to cover the 2015 European Games which begin later this week in Baku.
Over 6,000 of Europe’s top athletes will gather in Azerbaijan’s capital as the country’s leaders face widespread condemnation over the repression of critical voices.
President Ilham Aliyev and his government have been pulling out all the stops to make sure the international sporting event, which runs from 12-28 June, puts Azerbaijan on the map.
For several years Hughes has been working with Platform to expose a murky world of oil money, inequality, corruption and repression of freedom of speech in Azerbaijan. She co-wrote Platform’s new book, ‘All that Glitters – Sport, BP and Repression in Azerbaijan’. Due to be published on 12 June, it covers oil and gas giant BP’s close relationship with President Aliyev and the European Games, of which it is an official partner.
“I may get deported, but over 100 political prisoners in Azerbaijan face years in jail until the oil-funded regime falls,” said Hughes speaking from Baku airport. “Civil society has been stamped on hard in Baku. Journalists, lawyers, academics, writers and activists have all found themselves behind bars. And yet the Oil Games carry on regardless. The future of this country is imprisoned, yet BP still work hand in hand with this regime.”
Azerbaijan is ranked 160th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index and the Committee to Protect Journalists rates it as the fifth most censored country in the world.
Hostility grew towards the briefly blossoming pro-democracy movement in 2012, as well as independent and pro-opposition journalists, when the international spotlight was on Azerbaijan again as hosts of the Eurovision Song Contest.
Rasul Jafarov, one of Azerbaijan’s more high profile prisoners has been sentenced to 6.5 years. He was behind the Azeri Sport for Rights coalition which campaigns against corruption and in support of political prisoners.
Sporting ‘gold wash’
BP is the largest foreign investor in Azerbaijan and in September 2014 celebrated its 20 year relationship with the country. It become the operator of the biggest oil field in Azerbaijan in the ‘contract of the century’, an agreement with BP and 10 other international oil companies to open up hydrocarbon resources in the Caspian Sea.
“It’s fossil fuel money that’s paying for the games completely because the Aliyev regime has been created by oil,” said Hughes before she left London.
Ilham Aliyev took over the presidency from his father Heydar in 2003. His father had been in power since 1993.
“BP spotted that he was the person to work with and signed the deal with him,” said Hughes. “Since then they’ve brought him money, political power, influence and by doing that put Azerbaijan’s society on ice, in terms of developing democratically.”
“BP is one of the reasons why the west is very hesitant about any changes in this country,” said Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist, shortly before she was arrested in 2014. “Political influence is part of the bargain. BP is blamed for bringing Aliyev senior to power but it’s not just historic – the UK government is silent about problems with democracy in Azerbaijan. BP’s interests are dictating the agenda.”
Hughes says that BP’s links with the Aliyev family are good for both parties. “They [BP] don’t have to worry about environment pressures, they don’t have to worry about social pressures,” she explained. “They know that if there were to be political change it may not work out in their favour at all because they’re still deeply unpopular with the people of Azerbaijan – they don’t have the legitimacy there.”
Platform have started a petition to call for the release of Emma Hughes and all political prisoners in Azerbaijan.
On 12 June there will be a protest in London against BP and the Aliyev regime at BP HQ, from 8.30am, moving to the Azerbaijan Embassy at 10am. For more information see the Platform website.
‘All that Glitters – Sport, BP and Repression in Azerbaijan’ is published on 12 June and is the sequel to 2012’s ‘The Oil Road – Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London’ by James Marriott and Minio-Paluello.