Few authoritarian states have worked harder than Azerbaijan to leverage major international events to boost their image on the world stage.
In 2007, the country’s capital, Baku, hosted the European Rhythmic Gymnastics Championship in a newly refurbished sports complex named for the country’s dictatorial ex-president, Heydar Aliyev. In 2015, Lady Gaga sang “Imagine” at the opening ceremony of the first annual European Games, a glitzy affair held in a massive stadium purpose-built for the occasion. And in 2016, a racing circuit that hosts an annual Formula One Race opened right along the walls of Baku’s old city.
Human rights and democracy advocates have decried the strategy as a “sportswashing” of a regime where opposition parties are crushed, journalists are imprisoned, and oil wealth is controlled by a small clique of ruling elites.
That hasn’t stopped one of its key promoters, Youth and Sports Minister Azad Rahimov. “Each of these events strengthens Azerbaijan’s place on the world map,” he told the French news agency AFP last year.
But a new OCCRP investigation reveals the human cost of some of Rahimov’s projects — and the lengths the state has gone to protect its image when his complicity was unearthed.
Several of these marquee buildings were built or renovated by men from the Balkans who were shipped to Baku by a company that appears to be owned by the minister’s wife. They were forced to work long hours in grueling conditions for almost no pay. Two died there; many others were marked forever by their time toiling far from home.
“These traumas you carry with you for your whole life,” said one of these men, Seudin Zoletić. “That memory stays forever. It’s always there. Always, when you meet someone, it always comes up. And you remember, like I do now, whenever I breathe in.”