The first Olympic European Games are currently underway in Azerbaijan, and President Ilham Aliyev is extremely worried about his nation’s image. So much so that pro-government TV stations have been dressing up native Azerbaijanis as foreign tourists or getting sympathetic vacationers to praise the oil-rich Caucasian country in outlandish terms. It’s all to the delight of Azerbaijan’s independent media, which has satirized these Potemkin interviews in a series of viral videos and Internet memes.
On Lider TV, for instance, a channel owned by one of Aliyev’s cousins, carried this brief but hilarious exchange with a young man who identifies himself in heavily accented English as “James Bonar.” He claims to have come from London on his first ever trip to “beautiful” Baku, which he describes as “a very fantasy, just fantasy.” Also, the food is “really, really, really good, very good.”
He would certainly know since James Bonar is in fact an Azeri-born man called Seymur Safarov, from the Jebrail region, according to Emin Milli, the managing director of independent Meydan TV and a recent contributor to The Daily Beast. Clever social media sleuths at Meydan found Safarov’s original Facebook page, where he’s dressed exactly the same as he was for his Lider spot.
Or take this testimony aired on ANS TV, another pro-Aliyev outlet, from a vacationing Russian who says that he’s been to Hawaii and the archipelago has got nothing on the glorious Caspian Sea, a body of water where most of the aquatic life has disappeared due to overfishing and pollution—120,000 tons of sludge per year dropped by oil tankers, by one estimate.
“People started to ridicule the government’s stupid idea to fake even tourists,” Milli said.
Caricaturist Gunduz Aghayev, for instance, for instance, published a cartoon showing grey, drab Azeris being put through a metamorphosis machine and coming out beamish citizens of rich European nations, ready for their close-ups on state-friendly television.
More popular was the country’s most famous anti-government blogger and photographer Mehman Huseynov, who created his own parody news segment in which he pretended to be German journalist freshly arrived in Azerbaijan to proclaiming it paradise.
“He starts saying that human rights are violated grossly in Germany,” Milli translated, “that the police are beating up people, that his own apartment in the center of Berlin was destroyed and he was not properly compensated—and he shows photos that actually were taken in Baku. The line he gives is one very popular with the Aliyev government now, that Germany is collapsing, Europe is collapsing.”
Huseynov rattles off crimes common to Azerbaijan—in Germany, he bought his college diploma, he bribed his way through exams—and says that the scales have fallen from his eyes after watching Azerbaijani TV. He he shows a scene on his laptop of protestors being being up by the police in Baku and their homes destroyed as if these images, too, came from Germany. “I call on all Germans to leave Germany!” he shouts. “Come and live here.”
Shirin Tere, another popular Azerbaijani blogger, repeated the trick, pretending to be from Jamaica.
The reason Germany is a target, Milli explain, is because German journalists have been tireless critics of Aliyev’s human rights crackdown, which has gathered pace in the last year, with over 100 political prisoners snared.
“And the government here assumes that these journalists are working for the German government because this is the way they co-opt media in Azerbaijan.”
One of more prominent victims is Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty muckraker Khadija Ismayilova, who has broken much news about the vast network of cronyism and graft that has enriched the Aliyev family for decades.
Baku has tried to occlude or distract from its authoritarianism by mounting an equally extensive (PDF) lobbying campaign from Washington to London to Brussels, using its enormous oil wealth, strategic importance and, indeed, international sports, as enticements for democratic governments to look the other way.
Ismayilova has been in jail since December 2014 and recently wrote in a letter to the New York Times, “Azerbaijan is in the midst of a human rights crisis. Things have never been worse. As those at the top continue to profit from corruption, ordinary people are struggling to work, struggling to live, struggling for freedom. And we must struggle with them, for them.”
The recourse to bogus man-on-the-street testimonies is especially comic because there are plausible estimates that the government spent a ludicrous $8 billion on the Games.
“The Minister of Sport officially said it’s $1.2 billion, and experts estimate $3-4 billion. But this doesn’t include the projects designed for the Games that are not counted in the budget, such as large roads or a big sports complexes or building beautification schemes.”
To put this in perspective, consider that Holland has just turned down the chance to host the second European Games because it can’t afford the floated cost of $60 million. “The government paid 6,000 athletes coming the 50 richest European countries to come here, and still it can’t find people to honestly celebrate Azerbaijan from this 6,000!”