On the evening of 12 June, the Baku 2015 European Games in Azerbaijan will begin. Fireworks will burst out of the National Stadium into the city sky. The roar of the spectators and music from the athletics ground will be heard across the hot metropolis and far out over the Caspian Sea.
Across Europe and beyond, the opening ceremony will be followed on TVs and laptops. Fifty nations and 6,000 athletes will be taking part in the Games, which have been dubbed ‘the great coming-out party of Azerbaijan’.
Rewind to April and, at the Court of Grave Crimes in central Baku, a sandy wind is swirling grit into people’s eyes. A young man emerges from a doorway. Arms behind his back and eyes watering, he is pushed head first into a waiting van.
The man is Rasul Jafarov, and he has just been sentenced to six and a half years for a crime he didn’t commit.
Young, handsome and charismatic, Jafarov shot to prominence in Azerbaijan when he spearheaded the Sing for Democracy campaign in 2012. The campaign highlighted the lack of democracy in a country where the ruling Aliyev family has held on to power through fraudulent elections, attacking independent media and arresting people for holding so much as a flashmob.
Euro-pop is a serious matter for the Aliyevs. The oil-funded dynasty is obsessed with vanity projects (for a few precious weeks Baku had the tallest flagpole in the world, until Tajikstan built a taller one) and the Eurovision Song Contest, hosted by Azerbaijan in 2012, was the perfect opportunity to show the world that the Aliyevs headed a modern, secular, European country.
So Jafarov caused the regime considerable embarrassment when he persuaded the winner, Loreen, not only to meet with him but to give her public support to Sing for Democracy.
Since then, Jafarov has focused on supporting political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Shortly after launching the Sport for Rights campaign last year to target the Baku European Games, he was arrested for illegal entrepreneurship and tax evasion.
He was held for eight months in pre-trial detention before being sentenced. Human Rights Watch has called the charges ‘bogus’. During the trial, the ‘victims’ called by the prosecution stated that they were fully paid by Jafarov and did not regard themselves as victims, but when they tried to present documents to prove this the judge refused to look at them.
Trials in Azerbaijan are not about truth or justice – their purpose is intimidation, brutalizing those who stand up to the Aliyev regime to ensure that no-one else dares speak out.
Rasul Jafarov is far from alone. The human rights situation in Azerbaijan has rapidly deteriorated over the last year and there are at least 100 political prisoners there. The true figure is likely higher, but monitoring prisoner numbers has become impossible.
At almost the exact moment Jafarov was being sentenced in Baku, Bob Dudley, the CEO of energy giant BP – which is intimately involved in delivering the Baku Games – was rising to his feet in the concrete behemoth of London’s ExCel convention centre. Addressing the audience gathered for the company’s annual general meeting, Dudley was keen to talk about BP’s close, 21-year relationship with the Aliyevs.
His talk was peppered with lines that would not have been out of place in an Azerbaijan tourist-board announcement urging everyone to visit the country. Dudley was talking about the Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline – a new joint venture between the Aliyevs and a number of oil companies and other governments.
The multi-state gas pipeline will run about 3,500 kilometres between the Caspian Sea and Italy, and by 2050 will have put just over two billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. When Dudley was questioned about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, he replied: ‘I urge you all to go to Azerbaijan. It’s a great place.’
The Aliyev regime and the oil company have been bound together since 1994 when they signed the so-called Contract of the Century to extract crude oil from Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli – the oil field beneath the western Caspian Sea.
The relationship continues to be one of key importance for both parties. As BP proudly declares in its annual report, it invests more in Azerbaijan than any other foreign company (although quite how good a deal Azerbaijan is getting is contested – BP pays no tax for the export of oil; indeed, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is registered in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands).
In terms of net production, in 2014 Azerbaijan was BP’s fourth-largest supplier after Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico and Angola. But Azerbaijan’s importance for BP is not just measured in barrels per day – the country is its security, its pension pot. When times get hard, BP still expects to be able to rely on Azerbaijan.
This was evident in July 2010, during the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. To shore up support for his beleaguered company, then-CEO Tony Hayward flew to four key cities: Moscow, Abu Dhabi, Luanda – and Baku. When Bob Dudley took over as CEO in October 2010, the first new deal signed was a production-sharing agreement with the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan on the Shafag and Asiman gas field.
It wasn’t just the timing that gave this project special significance. BP is planning to use Shafag and Asiman as a test case for its Project 20K high-pressure, high-temperature drilling.
BP hopes that this technology will allow it to extract oil and gas more than 10 kilometres below the seabed, where temperatures can rise to 150oC and pressure can increase to 20,000 psi.
In Azerbaijan, ecology, social justice and human rights can be put aside when they threaten to hinder the primary economic activity: the extraction and exporting of oil and gas
This new frontier of deepwater drilling is risky. It is hard to predict the dangers, and if something goes wrong the reputational damage to BP could be irreparable. Yet BP feels secure enough to take this risk in Azerbaijan.
Key to its Azerbaijan operations is BP’s relationship with President Ilham Aliyev. ‘The Number One priority [for Gordon Birrell, BP’s regional president],’ admitted a senior BP executive, speaking in private, ‘is the relationship with Aliyev.’
Azerbaijan has been moulded into an industrial resource colony, where ecology, social justice and human rights can be put aside when they threaten to hinder the primary economic activity: the extraction and exporting of oil and gas.
‘Before the oil and gas incomes came to Azerbaijan,’ said Rasul Jafarov, ‘we had more democracy and freedom. The main income from oil came in 2006 when the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline started to operate. And from that time the situation started to deteriorate.’
Azerbaijan is being drained by the BP-Aliyev Alliance – drained of fossil fuels, drained of wealth, and drained of democracy. Sadly, the glitz and glamour of the opening ceremony of the Baku Games will only serve to blind the world to this terrible reality.