December 3, 2022

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France-Azerbaïdjan : la caviar diplomatie

Nouvel Observateur

Botox, caviar and corruption: welcome to Azerbaijan for the first European Games!

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Céline Lussato

Botox, caviar and corruption: welcome to Azerbaijan for the first European Games!

The first European Games started on Saturday in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. If you go there to support the French sportsmen, here is what you will not read in the tourist guides.

An opening ceremony worthy of the Olympic Games. The first European Games in history began on Saturday, June 13 in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The competition will last until June 28, and will bring together a total of some 6,000 European athletes in twenty different sports.

But what attracted the European Games to Azerbaijan, a country on the borders of Europe, Asia and the Middle East? Probably not the mud volcanoes, the main tourist attraction of the country. Probably not the worries of RC Lens, whose main Azerbaijani shareholder has abandoned the club in the middle of the countryside. Perhaps a little more the black gold, and the mountains of money it generates, especially for the clan in power. A clan at the top of which reigns Ilham Aliev, the all-powerful president of the country. A colorful character, who does everything so that the whole world loves his country.

Hide this dictatorship with a moustache that I cannot see

“Everyone seems to be happy in this country!” For Bernie Ecclestone, the big money man of Formula 1 who has just decided to hold a Grand Prix in Azerbaijan, the damning reports of Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, which describe the country as an open-air prison for journalists and opponents, are exaggerated. He is not alone. Sponsored by the country, UEFA chose Baku as one of the host cities for Euro 2020 and held a congress in the country. The president of the French Olympic Committee, Denis Masseglia, was similarly indulgent in Le Monde: “I did not have this feeling of repression, there are no policemen on every corner”.

And for good reason. For some time now, Azerbaijan has been trying to erase its image as a paradise for dictators with moustaches. Before this realization, the country was racing with Tajikistan and Saudi Arabia for the record of the tallest flagpole in the world (Saudi Arabia won, with 171 meters high, nine meters more than the Azerbaijani attempt!) Everything changes in 2011, when the country wins the Eurovision with the song Running Scared (a fairly classic love song, nothing to do with the oppression of opponents).

The following year, the country went out of its way to organize the big European song rave. The companies belonging to the president, Ilham Aliev, built the majestic auditorium – and even a backup, in case of technical problems. The organizing committee is chaired by Mehriban Aliev, the First Lady. On the official poster of the event, one of the president’s daughters is posing. And for the role of Mr. Loyal, it is the presidential son-in-law who is at the microphone. A family affair, we tell you.

The whole country belongs to the Aliev clan. The districts of the capital, Baku, are managed by the families according to their importance. It is thus the president himself who manages the waterfront and expropriates the inhabitants to build complexes designed by architects who win him prizes in the specialized press, notes the magazine Afrique-Asie. The only authorized telephone company also belongs to the president. But, in a small twist, an investigation by the country’s only investigative journalist revealed that it was based in tax havens to avoid taxes, and registered in the name of the son Aliev, who was 11 at the time. It is not certain that this other information will be spread in the country: President Aliev has banned the BBC and Radio Free Europe, and has driven opposition newspapers into bankruptcy. This does not prevent him from repeating in every speech that “press freedom is total in Azerbaijan”.

Botox and formalin as pillars of the regime

To establish his power in the country, President Aliev relies on two key figures. Asset No. 1: his wife, Mehriban Alieva, whom he describes as “the most beautiful woman in Azerbaijan.” More popular than her husband, she is expected to succeed him. Foreign Policy describes her as “the Kim Kardashian of the Caucasus”. In a diplomatic message revealed by Wikileaks in 2010, the American embassy tells this embarrassing anecdote for Lynne Cheney, wife of Dick, then vice president of the United States. Moment of panic in the American delegation when three women came forward on the porch to welcome the Second Lady: “Which one is the mother?” asked a Secret Service agent. Botoxed to the point of “not being able to have a facial expression” (the comment is from the American embassy!), Mehriban Alieva, in her fifties, can easily pass for one of her daughters. A diplomatic incident is narrowly averted when Lynne Cheney bets that the mother, who should be greeted first, is probably the one in the middle.

Asset No. 2: the late President Heydar Aliyev, Ilham’s father and father of the fatherland, according to the official doxa. Sixty museums, an airport, a mosque, an auditorium and hundreds of streets bear his name throughout the country, according to Radio Free Europe (in Azeri). This cult of personality had begun before his death in 2003. Two years earlier, he told the BBC: “People love me, I can’t help it. Two years ago, the city of Ganja decided to erect a statue of me in front of the city hall. I called them and told them that it was not necessary. He insisted, but I told him, ‘Install this statue after my death’!” When Heydar died, the official sculptor of his busts was overwhelmed with orders. Not for the domestic market. Ilham intends to celebrate the memory of his father in the whole world. With success: ten years later, statues of the deceased president are flourishing on all continents.

Azerbaijan has spread statues of its dictator to Mexico. At the inauguration of the one in Mexico City in 2012, the city’s highest dignitaries jostled to scrape together a small oven at the Azerbaijani embassy. The statue of the former president is located on the Paseo de la Reforma, the boulevard of the Reforma, which also features Gandhi and national heroes. The sign underneath describes Heydar Aliev, a former KGB apparatchik who ruled the country with an iron fist, as “a shining example of infinite devotion to the motherland, loyal to the universal ideas of world peace. A few months later, Mexico realized that Heydar Aliev was a dictator and decided to dismantle the statue, which is now rusting in a warehouse. In retaliation, Azerbaijan decided to freeze 3.8 billion euros of planned investments in Mexico, reports the specialized site Eurasianet.

Rihanna, Rachida Dati, and caviar diplomacy

Azerbaijan is increasing its efforts to make new friends on the international scene. The country has directly entered the top 10 of the biggest lobbyists in Washington. Locally, it is courting certain states, from South Dakota to Missouri, to vote for a text proclaiming their friendship with Azerbaijan, BuzzFeed reports.

In Europe, he practices caviar diplomacy. The parliamentarians of the Council of Europe, of which the country is part, are regularly invited to Baku. And they do not leave empty-handed. It is not a question of briefcases of money, but of jars of caviar. “A common gift is two kilos,” a regular confides to the Guardian. After all, a kilo of caviar from the Caspian Sea only costs about 1,400 euros.

That’s a lot for a country that has only two friends: Vladimir Putin… and Rachida Dati. The current mayor of the 7th arrondissement of Paris praised on the News.az website the virtues of the Aliev regime, secular in a 94% Shiite country: “Azerbaijan is an example for the whole Muslim world”. A thought signed by Rachida Dati, who also participated in the luxurious parties organized by Mehriban Aliev in the French capital, around the activities of his patronage foundation.

The manners of the regime’s dignitaries to attract new fans are not always so refined. The son of the Minister of Transport, Anar Mammadov, offered Rihanna four million dollars to go out with him. The American singer, in the middle of a rehearsal, shouted “no!” into the microphone. The other feat of Anar Mammadov? After a hunting trip, he demanded that a restaurant owner serve him a bear barbecue, reports the independent daily Azidliq (which was sued for this article). And for this, he signed a check for one million euros. No more, no less.