Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Grumbling About Euro-Games Disruptions in Azerbaijan

Traffic and other restrictions seen as excessive.
By Nurgul Novruz
  • View across the water as "Flame Towers" are lit up in Baku. August 6, 2014. (Photo: Christopher Lee/Getty Images)
    View across the water as "Flame Towers" are lit up in Baku. August 6, 2014. (Photo: Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

Money is no object as the Azerbaijani government puts the finishing touches on the venues for the first ever European Games this month. Large sums of money have been spent on sports arenas and on refurbishing the capital Baku and other host locations.

For local residents, the games have meant a rising number of rules, restrictions and inconveniences, and many are none too happy about it.

As the June 12 start date approaches, buses in the capital Baku have had their routes changed or cancelled altogether, large weddings and funerals have been strongly discouraged, and people living in apartment blocks near the sports arenas have been told not to hang their washing out on their balconies.

The latest ban prohibits cars registered outside Baku from coming into the city. The police say they need to reduce traffic to allow Euro-Games visitors to move around the city unhindered. As an alternative, the authorities have introduced a park-and-ride system, where people can leave their vehicles in new car parks on the city outskirts and travel in on special bus routes.

The ban has been fully in place since the beginning of June, although police have been turning vehicles away for weeks.

Commercial drivers and traders like Salman Abdiyev, who brings produce from his home town Ganja to sell at Baku’s Green Markets, say they have been unable to enter the city for a month.

“I’ve maintained a household of seven by doing this for many years,” he said. “I have regular customers. As soon as I arrive in Sahil on the fringes of Baku, the traffic police stop me and tell me I can’t go any further…. The government is arranging a festival for foreigners but no one is thinking about the lives of local people who can barely make ends meet.”

Commuters like Qarakhan Rustamov, who lives in the satellite town of Khirdalan, are also struggling.

“Now they won’t let me come into town in my car,” he said. “I waste two hours travelling every day, I’m late for work and I get reprimanded by my managers. I used to do the trip in half an hour.”

Rustamov sees no reason why people like him have to lose out because of an influx of visitors.

“I don’t know how to put my anger into words,” he said.

In Baku, yellow lines on the roads mark out “games lanes” reserved for visitors in specially-marked vehicles. Police started issuing fines in earnest from May 29.

Traffic police spokesman Vagif Asadov said that on day one alone, 1,500 drivers were each fined 40 manats (38 US dollars) and got four points on their licenses for crossing the yellow lines.

“These bans, official and unofficial, are violations of the law and of human rights,” said Natiq Jafarli of the opposition movement REAL. “By doing this, the government is going to make its population even more unhappy.”

IWPR has previously reported on the cost of the European Games and the spotlight they have shone on Azerbaijan’s human rights record.

Some suspect that the restrictions are less about easing congestion than keeping local people well out of sight of the glitzy games environment.

“These bans are there to give our visiting guests the impression that we have a good system here,” said Arastun Orujlu, head of the East-West Research Centre.

Some public-sector workers say their wages have been cut to represent “voluntary” donations to the European Games, with some schoolteachers sent on unpaid leave.

“They’ve cut our wages three times since April,” said one teacher from Samukhi district in northwest Azerbaijan. “This is a rural area so our wages are lower anyway. We have to hand over 30 manats from our [monthly pay] of 210 manats. That’s a terrible injustice. But anyone who complains is threatened with dismissal.”

University examinations normally finish in July, but the education ministry said that they should finish by the end of May.

Seymur Kazimov, who teaches journalism at a Baku university, said lecturers were having to cram in weeks’ worth of course work and then rush the students into exams.

“Students in the fourth [final] year are suffering most of all, as they had to finish classes, sit their semester and [annual] state exams, and defend their theses by May 31. “There’s no point talking about educational standards. Education is being sacrificed to the European Games.”

Students were invited to become European Games volunteers, although some said they were offered an easy ride in their exams if they did.

“I was preparing for the exams and battling to get high marks, whereas others on my course who became volunteers were given high marks anyway,” said one annoyed student at Baku’s Oil Academy. “When the rector was recruiting students to become volunteers, he said openly that those who did would get concessionary treatment in the exams.”

Mahizar Ismayilova, a student at Baku State University, said she was happy to serve as a volunteer and got no special treatment in return. “I sat the exams just like everyone else,” she said.

Nurgul Novruz is the pseudonym of an Azerbaijani journalist.