While a growing list of countries have announced they will boycott the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympic Games next month by not sending diplomats as is customary, Azerbaijan is abstaining from boycotting the games. While it is not clear whether the country will send any official representatives at the time of writing this article, the country's leadership and its National Olympic Committee have remained notably silent when discussing the host country's dismal human rights record.
Azerbaijan is sending two athletes, Vladimir Litvintsev and Ekaterina Ryabova, who will be representing its national team in the figure skating competition. Azerbaijan has hosted a number of international sporting events in the last seven years, and similar to China, UAE, Qatar, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, it too has been accused of covering up grave human rights violations in the country through grand sporting events.
Most recently, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the People's Republic of China to Azerbaijan Guo Min told Report, a local news platform, “A diplomatic boycott is not right at all. This is, first of all, an Olympic solemnity. We need solidarity to show the Olympic spirit, especially against the backdrop of the pandemic. In this regard, we are very grateful to the Azerbaijani government for its assistance and support. We wish the Azerbaijani delegation and athletes great success in advance of Beijing 2022.”
In the run-up to the games, China has been criticized by a number of international organizations and governments for employing “sportswashing,” the practice of using sports to draw attention from scandals or accusations of human rights abuse. Azerbaijan is all too familiar with the term, as it was coined when Azerbaijan was preparing to host the first-ever European games in 2015.
“Such sporting mega-events operate as a means to launder a national government’s global image and reputation — even to the extent that adversarial countries will be prepared to engage with them. The effect is similar to greenwashing, whereby organizations use PR and marketing to claim their environmentally-friendly credentials in order to boost their reputations,” wrote authors and for The Conversation in 2018.
Just as Beijing is being boycotted in today, back in 2015, most European leaders avoided traveling to Azerbaijan to attend the opening ceremony of the European Games, “though a roll call of local autocrats, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, were in attendance at the opening ceremonies,” reported Joshua Keating for Slate at the time.
Examples from Azerbaijan are not limited to the European Games, a sporting event similar to the Olympics organized by Europe’s national Olympic committees. It also played host to the Islamic Solidarity Games, the F1 Grand Prix, the 2019 Europa League final, and the Euro 2020 quarterfinals.
But in addition to sportswashing, diplomatic ties, and a standing agreement between each nation's olympic committees on technology and sports, the most important similarity between China and Azerbaijan is the extent of information control deployed by both governments. As Sarah Cook, a Research Director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan at Freedom House recently pointed out in The Diplomat, “As Beijing prepares to open the 2022 Winter Olympics on February 4, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership will be dialing up the world’s most sophisticated apparatus of information control, using censorship, surveillance, and legal reprisals to curb political, religious, and other speech that deviates from the party line.”
Back in 2015, when Azerbaijan was ready to welcome some 6,000 athletes to the country for the European Games, the country was already in possession of sophisticated DPI surveillance equipment that allowed the national security apparatus to monitor social media and communication apps such as Facebook, Viber, and WhatsApp. It is still unclear why the Ministry of National Security was interested in monitoring these platforms.
In 2017 during the Islamic Solidarity Games, officials in Baku blocked access to WhatsApp, Viber, and Skype throughout the entirety of the games, at first, denying responsibility, only to admit it once the games were over. At the time, the Ministry of Transportation, Communication, and High Technologies said it decided to block access to these apps for security reasons. No further explanations were given as to how exactly the ministry was able to do that. The research available to date indicates that such throttling was possible due to an extensive arsenal of surveillance technology the government has been accumulating over the years.
Surveillance aside, often these sporting events in countries like China, and Azerbaijan are a tool to deflect attention on rights violations and curbs on freedoms.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2015, Denis Krivosheev, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International, said, “Far from advancing the goals of press freedom and human dignity enshrined in the Olympic charter, the legacy of these games will be to further encourage repressive authorities around the world to view major international sporting events as a ticket to international prestige and respectability.”
Amnesty International representatives were prevented from traveling to Azerbaijan ahead of the games where they were planning to launch a new report highlighting the state of freedom in the country. Four years later, just as Azerbaijan was getting ready to host the Europa League final between Arsenal and Chelsea in 2019, the Amnesty International UK director, Kate Allen told The Guardian, “All too often, governments are using high-profile sporting competitions to distract attention from repressive policies and human rights violations, to instead project an image of openness. This couldn’t be further from the truth with the current administration, and the Arsenal-Chelsea clash is just the latest reminder of this.”
Little has changed in recent years when it comes to how repressive leaders use sporting events. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Beijing Olympics are taking place “against a backdrop of Chinese government crimes against humanity targeting ethnic Uyghurs, repression in Hong Kong, and Tibet and risks to athletes unprecedented in modern Olympic era.” HRW added:
Designed to “sportswash” the Chinese government’s abysmal human rights record, these Winter Games are a centerpiece of President Xi Jinping’s effort to burnish China’s image on the world stage.
Athletes have also been warned against speaking out at the Olympics by the Beijing Organizing Committee. But for some athletes like Azerbaijan's Vladimir Litvnitsev, thats the least of their problems. In an interview with Global Voices, Litvnitsev, who will also be Azerbaijan's flag-bearer at the opening ceremony in Beijing said, “I am concerned about the training time allocated during the stay. Not sure if its because of pandemic restrictions, but we only have 35 minutes per day for a training. This is very little. It's less than half of a normal training time, and I normally have two of those.”
Meanwhile, Rob Koehler, director general of the Global Athlete, most high-profile international sports athlete advocate organization, has advised athletes not to speak up. “We want them to compete, and use their voice when they get home.” Litvnitsev agrees, “perhaps you ask me again after I am back,” said the athlete in an interview adding, he had “no further comments at this time.”