On Friday night, Azerbaijan's capital city Baku threw the biggest and most expensive party in the nation's history to herald the start of the European Games, a multi-sport extravaganza that will last for the next 14 days. A visually stunning feat of pyrotechnics and stagecraft, the elaborate show featured Lady Gaga, a giant floating pomegranate, and athletes from 50 countries parading their flags in front of an overjoyed audience of more than 60,000.
Commentators unanimously praised the ceremony, but the spectacle wasn't enough to overshadow the controversy over the host country's profoundly disturbing human rights record. The day before the games officially opened, the country denied visas for journalists from the BBC, the Guardian, and Radio France International, as well as for activists from Amnesty International.
At a press conference on Thursday, presidential adviser Ali Hasanov responded to claims of censorship. "There are certain forces at work conducting an anti-Azerbaijani campaign," he said. "They are envious and want only to overshadow our success in organizing this event."
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Azerbaijan — a nation of 9.5 million on the Caspian Sea between Russia and Iran — achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The Aliyev dynasty has ruled the country since 1993, when the late Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB officer, came to power in a military coup. Aliyev remained president until 2003 and is considered "the father of the nation." His son Ilham has continued the authoritarian rule, buoyed by fabulous wealth dredged from the country's bounteous oil fields.
Supporters of the government say that the Aliyevs have provided much-needed stability in a conflict-riddled region. Critics have decried an unprecedented crackdown on dissenting voices, describing a land where activists, journalists, and politicians are beaten, exiled, or thrown in jail under spurious charges.
For many years, Khadija Ismayilova, the country's highest-profile investigative journalist, exposed what she claims is a growing matrix of corruption and kleptomania by government officials all the way up to the ruling family. After receiving death threats, she was jailed last December amid accusations that she committed financial offenses and "incited" a colleague's suicide attempt.
Khadija's mother Elmira Ismayilova spoke to VICE News as she packed a white sunhat to take to her daughter in prison. "What Khadija did, she did for the future of Azerbaijan," she said. "The government should care about its citizens, with such low salaries we don't need things like the European Games."
Yesterday afternoon, as excited crowds began to swirl around the $640 million Olympic stadium, Ali Karimli sipped tea at a café near Fountain Square in central Baku. Despite being one of the highest-profile opposition politicians in the country, Karimli has no office after being evicted from numerous buildings over the years by the authorities. Last year, a mysterious explosion ripped through his party's modest headquarters. He and his colleagues have gone through a revolving door of prison, harassment, and police brutality, and Karimli himself has not been issued a passport in more than a decade.
"It's very dangerous to be a democrat here," Karimli told VICE News.
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Karimli has criticized the exorbitant cost of hosting the European Games, which some have speculated may total nearly $8 billion. Karimli says the event will generate very little revenue for citizens, who draw an average salary of $400 per month. He hopes that the West will look beyond the glitzy veneer of the games and reconsider whether the government of Azerbaijan is a suitable partner.
"Our government is systematically destroying civil society," Karimli said. "We expected that the European sporting community would talk about the poor human rights record of Azerbaijan, but we didn't see anything. I think most Azerbaijanis want to be part of the European family but if you constantly falsify elections, have rampant corruption, monopolize political institutions and arrest all opponents, you cannot declare yourself part of it."
From the very beginning, it was clear that the European Games would not be straightforward. The brainchild of European Olympic Committee chief Patrick Hickey, it was reported that he first approached Belarus to host the event, but the country often referred to as "the last dictatorship in Europe" could not afford the bill. Many Baku residents were also disgruntled over government restrictions that banned the hanging of laundry from balconies, prohibited cars from outside the city, and halted the holding of weddings and funerals for the duration of the event.
Speaking to the audience at the ceremony, Hickey described how sport "has a unique power to effect positive change," with "ethics, fair play and respect."
Dressed with uncharacteristic modesty, Lady Gaga sat at a piano covered with flowers and serenaded athletes with John Lennon's "Imagine." The line about imagining "no need for greed and hunger" was conspicuously absent from her rendition.
Afterward, a young woman in white waded through water that magically appeared on stage until the music became ominous and dark. Jagged rocks sprouted from the ground as one man stood on the top, looking over everyone else, and then proceeded to set fire to everything. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan watched the performance with Aliyev.
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Back in central Baku, 19-year old Necmin Kamilsoy spoke to VICE News about his father, veteran human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev. Admirers refer to Aliyev — who is not related to the ruling family — as "the conscience of Azerbaijan." For more than 20 years, he defended his compatriots against political rights violations, including lodging over 200 cases at the European Court of Human Rights, one of the few institutions with some leverage over Azerbaijan's government.
Intigam Aliyev is currently serving a seven-and-a-half-year prison sentence for alleged illegal entrepreneurship and financial irregularities. His family claims he has been denied treatment for increasingly painful spinal and nerve pains.
"When they started the case against him he was out of the country, so they gave him the chance not to return," Kamilsoy said. "But he came back to fight. The government should realize they cannot break the resistance of the people. There are those who stand strong even in jail."
Asked if he was afraid to speak to journalists, Kamilsoy shrugged and responded, "I live in a country where you can be jailed for a Facebook post."
Follow Andrew Connelly and Jacob Balzani Loov on Twitter: @connellyandrew and @lordcob