Bernie Ecclestone is the epitome of a capitalist, yet in recent times he has been found fraternising with assorted leaders of socialist style authoritarian regimes. The Russian GP is now firmly established on the F1 calendar, and this year will see another part of the former Soviet empire host a Formula One event. Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is at present constructing a track which sweeps around the old city and will see the world’s quickest prototype motor racing machines sweep from there into the new skyscraper-dominated business district.
Yet as TJ13 has documented on a number of occasions, all is not well in “mini-Russia”. The Economist’s recent article entitled “Back in the USSR” charts how the Azerbaijan authorities have been hauled back under Russia’s and Vladimir Putin’s influence. The country is run by a Soviet-style despot underling by the name of Ilham Aliev, and the spectre and rhetoric of Soviet-style dissidence is firmly on the increase.
The Economist records the recent sham trial and brutal treatment of an elderly couple who dared to question Aliev’s record on human rights, and likens the current activities of the Baku regime to those of the Joseph Stalin Soviet era.
Meanwhile the economics behind the façade of Westernisation in Azerbaijan is in fact forcing the country to its knees. The Azerbaijan economy is almost completely dependent on exporting oil and gas, and the current global prices for commodities are having a devastating effect on the country’s finances. The manat has halved in value against the US dollar in less than a year and at present the World Bank and the IMF are discussing a $4billion bailout fund according to El País. Meanwhile the government of Azerbaijan will pay around $40million to Ecclestone and Formula One for the European GP to be held in Baku later this year.
The impact on the citizens of Azerbaijan has been such that old Soviet-style concerns over the availability of staples have resurfaced, with protests over the price of bread having been recently reported by the New York Times. As the decadence of the F1 circus rolls into town, it is highly probable that there will be civil protests against the Aliev regime. However, Ecclestone is no stranger to these circumstances and he knows how to manage the media away from reporting such stories. The F1 press will barely have time to make it out of Canada and into Baku in time for the Thursday F1 press events, never mind wander the streets of Baku looking for a human interest story.
Then again, given the Azerbaijan’s perchance for Soviet-style dissident repression, the boot boys will probably be out rounding up hundreds for imprisonment before a single Formula One employee arrives in the latest satellite state of Putin’s empire.