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If You Thought Dubai Was a Bad Place for COP, Wait Until It Goes To Azerbaijan

Yes, it’s another petrostate. But that’s just the beginning.

Ilham Aliyev.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images, Library of Congress

When the announcement came that COP29 will be held in Baku in 2024, the immediate reaction in the climate community was “again?!

It wasn’t that Azerbaijan — a nation of about 10 million people, situated on the Caspian Sea at the southern tail of the Caucasus mountains — had hosted the global climate summit before. Actually, it almost didn’t get the 2024 hosting gig at all: COP29 was briefly homeless after Russia vowed to block Bulgaria’s bid (because Bulgaria is part of the European Union) and longtime enemies Azerbaijan and Armenia vowed to block each other’s bids (because of what many have characterized as an ethnic cleansing). Other nations in the region balked at the sheer size of what the COP event has become. At one point, even Australia and Bonn, Germany, were on the table as potential COP29 replacements if the Eastern European bloc couldn’t pull things together.

But, rather amazingly, it did. That means — as countless headlines have blared, and as you’re undoubtedly already aware — that the United Nations summit intended to assess and progress the goal of limiting climate change will be held in an oil and gas-producing state for the third consecutive year. Cue the groans.

That is reason enough for hand-wringing, especially after a record turn-out of fossil fuel lobbyists at the convention this year, not to mention the scandal over the head of ADNOC leading the whole shebang. But if you thought all that was absurd and disturbing, wait until you hear about Azerbaijan.

“It’s stunning to me that they would make Baku the next place for COP,” Ronald Suny, a distinguished professor emeritus of History at the University of Michigan and an expert on the South Caucasian nations who’s written extensively about Azerbaijan, told me.

Yes, Azerbaijan is a petrostate. But more alarmingly, it is also even more repressive and authoritarian than the United Arab Emirates based on the scale developed by Freedom House, a human rights watchdog group. “Azerbaijan is not even a one-party state,” Suny explained. “It’s a one-person or one-family state.”

To make a long and complicated history very short, former First Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan Heydar Aliyev came to power after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1993 and eventually passed his title of head of state onto his onlyson, Ilham Aliyev, in “irregular” elections in 2003. Ilham Aliyev is still president today, and will remain so indefinitely. “There’s no dissent allowed,” Suny said. “There’s absolute control of the media — much stricter than Russia. Anyone who criticizes [the government] is either in jail or in exile. And lots of people are in jail.”

On the one hand, having COP29 in Baku could be viewed as a small positive. “For years, climate change has been a factor…in wars and conflicts,” reads one effusive lead paragraph in The Associated Press. “Now for the first time, it’s part of a peace deal.” True, the attention from the UN helped to spur a prisoner exchange and peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia following renewed bloodshed over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region earlier this fall. It’s also likely that Azerbaijan will be on its best behavior ahead of the UN convention, given that it’s now under a higher-than-usual level of international scrutiny. Giving Baku the convention “is not necessarily a bad thing,” argues Rashmee Roshan Lall, an international affairs columnist, on her blog, “because it shows that COPs reflect the diversity of the world in which we live and seek to preserve.”

But allowing COP29 to happen inAzerbaijan also helps to legitimize and sanitize Ilham Aliyev’s rule. This is why other authoritarian regimes from Russia to Saudi Arabia to Qatar and Dubai have vied to host global events such as the soccer World Cup and the Olympics. Since 2012, Baku has played host to the Eurovision Song Contest, the First European Games, and the Formula 1 Grand Prix, according to Gubad Ibadoghlu, a senior policy analyst at Azerbaijan’s Economic Research Center, writing for the website Crude Accountability. The government in Baku explicitly “tries to whitewash its damaged image in the international arena by ‘paying attention to modernization’ and by creating connections with global leaders in the sphere of sports and culture,” Ibadoghlu said.

Suny sees the same thing happening now with COP. “It could be that Azerbaijan, which has tried and worked very hard to refurbish and beautify its image, will benefit from such an event and will be happy to put on a good face,” he said. And as Ibadoghlu pointed out, Azerbaijan has spent a huge amount of money on this program over the years. “It’s a very rich state and it can divert its resources — because it certainly doesn’t go into the people — to building extraordinary buildings,” Suny added. By allowing COP to be held in a country that viciously cracks down on dissent and free speech, then, the UN is not only turning a blind eye to but actively assisting what is basically a twisted form of greenwashing.

Curiously, estimates indicate that Azerbaijan might not be an oil state for much longer. The nation is expected to deplete its supply and sole source of wealth within the next 25 years — an involuntary phase-out by 2050, if you will. According to a World Bank report published two weeks ago, “urgent action on climate” — including investing in renewable energy, prioritizing energy efficiency, and climate-proofing its agricultural sector — “can help Azerbaijan minimize the risks emerging from the global low-carbon transition and protect the living standards of its people.”

In that sense, at the least, Baku needs COP. Now we have to wait to see what it does with its chance.


Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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