Azerbaijan is pulling out all the stops to host the first pan-European Olympic contest. But rights groups criticize its oppressive government that jails and exiles dissenters. Jacob Resneck reports from Baku.
The oil and gas boom has transformed Azerbaijan's capital city from an industrial trade hub on the Caspian Sea to a modern mini metropolis with steel, glass and colored lights illuminating the rising skyline.
In past decades, this city was largely unknown to foreign visitors except oil executives and expatriate rig workers who helped the country tap into its vast offshore natural gas wealth following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
That changed in 2012 when Azerbaijan hosted the Eurovision Song Contest on the strength on its winning entry the year before, and the country is looking to repeat its success by flying in 6,000 athletes from 50 countries to compete in 20 events.
"We expect a symbiosis of perfect organization, strong competitions and emotional acceptance from the public," Bernhard Schwank, Germany's member in the European Olympic Committee told "Inside the Games," a sports news Website. "We hope that Azerbaijan will leave a special and unique mark on the first edition of the European Games."
The European Games is certainly leaving its mark on Azerbaijan.
President Ilham Aliyev officially spent 1.1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) - though estimates say the cost is nearly 10 times more - on brand new venues, beautification efforts and the transportation and accommodation for the thousands of athletes and their entourages.
The European Games are being billed as a prestigious event that shines a positive light on Azerbaijan
In many ways there are echoes of the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, when lucrative contracts for massive projects were handed to the ruling family's construction firms.
For many local people these large events are worth the price tag as they bring prestige to the country, and that's the way it's being sold to Azerbaijan's public.
But such attention also uncovers uncomfortable truths. When Eurovision was in town three years ago, local activists used the presence of international journalists and rights campaigners to get their message out to a global audience.
This year Baku isn't taking any chances that rights groups or civil society groups will try to spoil the party, says Arzu Geybulla, an Azerbaijani journalist and researcher, who hasn’t visited her home country since April 2014 because of death threats she says were made in retaliation for her critical reporting.
"I would say that the experience during the European Song Contest has made the government a lot more cautious," Geybulla told DW in a phone interview. "It's made them turn against many of the civil society organizations and silence them to make sure they could no longer carry out similar campaigns."
Local critics silenced, foreign critics unwelcome
Over the past year Azerbaijan has systematically rounded up and jailed its most critical journalists, shut down civil society organizations and closed news outlets to ensure there's no dissenting voices on the ground when the athletes and spectators arrive.
Campaigners say as many as 80 political prisoners remain jailed in the country, some detained without trial. "Our local colleagues can't work on this anymore," Rebecca Vincent, the London-based coordinator for Sport the Rights, a campaign set up to pressure Azerbaijan to release political prisoners. "Everybody who was involved in it is now either in jail or exiled."
Amnesty International - whose campaigners were denied entry to Azerbaijan - have been calling for European countries to put pressure on a favorite energy partner to respect basic democratic rights.
"We have not called for a boycott of the games as such," Levan Asatiani, a campaigner specializing on Azerbaijan, said in a phone interview from Tbilisi, Georgia. "We consider the European Games a great opportunity for Azerbaijan to address its human rights record."
About a dozen heads of state - including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko - are to attend Friday's opening ceremonies, not exactly statesmen with the highest democratic credentials.
Western leaders are not traveling to Baku. European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron won't be here to greet their athletic teams, casting a pall over the first pan-European Olympic event.
Already some European sports federations are making their qualms about the democratic deficit public. The German Olympic Sports Confederation earlier this month criticized the situation in Azerbaijan and vowed to bring it up when it sends a 270-strong athletic contingent to compete.
"We support human rights and freedom of the press, and we are going to talk about this in Baku, too," the confederation's chairman, Michael Vasper, told the German newspaper "Frankfurter Allgemeine."
First ever, last-ever games?
With less than 48 hours before the first fireworks the games are already suffering an existential crisis. The Netherlands announced it is pulling out from hosting a second European Games in 2019.
In many ways, the Dutch bid was an austere counterpoint to Azerbaijan's building spree. Less than 60 million euros were earmarked for the games and no new venues would have been constructed.
Dutch Sports Minister Edith Schippers called the cost "a burden on the resources that the authorities have at their disposal."
The European Games' chief booster is putting on a brave face and says a substitute will be found.
Patrick Hickey, president of the European Olympic Committees, told reporters in Baku Thursday that two countries had already approached the EOC about replacing Holland.
"We're not concerned whatsoever, we have plenty of time," Hickey said, without naming the interested cities or countries he says had approached his organization.
The EOC conducts its business in secret; it does not announce the bidders until it has awarded a host country, which critics say invites intrigue and corruption. Azerbaijan - the sole contender for the European Games - was selected in late 2012 through secret balloting that did not disclose who voted for or against its bid.
But Hickey brushed off any criticism of the closed-door machinations saying "we don't want an elaborate bidding process."