This month the attention of the world’s athletic community is on Azerbaijan as my hometown of Baku is hosting the inaugural European Games. In just over two years, Azerbaijan has successfully completed preparations for this historic, first-of-its-kind event for Europe and the biggest one in the nation’s history. And there is much to celebrate. Consider this: Some 50 countries are represented by 6,000 athletes, with a total of 20 sports at the Baku Games. Twelve will offer qualification opportunities for the Rio 2016 Olympics, and the Games will be broadcast in 45 countries in Europe and 98 non-European countries, reaching about 1 billion viewers. This is not only Azerbaijan’s success but also a transformative experience for the entire region.
The massive scale of the Games builds on the spirit of sport as a global unifying force. Perhaps more timely for wider Europe than ever, this unique occasion underscores both the continent’s diversity and the need for unity. Symbolically, that the legacy of Europe’s continental games begins in Azerbaijan highlights a great promise for an even more inclusive European space. The Games also speak volumes about Azerbaijan’s aspirations and commitment to promoting prosperity-based regional cooperation.
European Olympic Committee President Patrick Hickey stated that Azerbaijan was the only country that stepped up to host the first European Games. As Azerbaijan’s 25 years of independent history prove, this is not the first time the nation has led the region through real deeds, not just by words and declarations. In 1998, Baku hosted the first summit of a major international initiative — Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia (TRACECA). In 1994, a major international energy deal “the Contract of the Century” was signed in Baku, and by 2006, the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, one of the largest infrastructure projects in the world and by far the largest in the region, was completed.
Today, Azerbaijan is the engine and the source behind the ambitious Southern Gas Corridor, the only feasible source for new natural gas for European markets. The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway link will dramatically shorten the transit time along the historic Silk Road by connecting the Asian and European railway systems. Moreover, Baku hosts the regular World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, a platform for the exchange of ideas among global religious and cultural leaders.
So, it should not be surprising that Israel is sending its largest-ever team of 142 athletes to the Baku Games, and Azerbaijan will also be the venue for the 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games. Furthermore, despite the protracted and painful Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, Baku is hosting a delegation of Armenian athletes, something that could become a real, practical confidence-building measure.
All of this is happening just as Eastern Europe is experiencing division and instability, and the nearby Middle East is suffocating from extremist ideologies and murderous radicalism. Therefore, Azerbaijan, a predominantly Muslim nation with centuries-old traditions of tolerance and the host of the inaugural European Games, is working hard to turn the challenge of geography into a unique opportunity for promoting diversity and channeling human energy into competitive sports rather than hostility.
Of course, Azerbaijan has its share of critics. In fact, the nation has recently been subjected to an orchestrated, persistent and repetitive campaign of denunciation, which focused solely on negativity and purposefully ignores the nation’s remarkable progress. Singling out Azerbaijan, a progressive, diverse nation is unfair. Against the background of increasing regional security threats, a rise in religious violence, including a terrifying pattern of mass attacks on women and the potential spread of ongoing conflicts, a campaign against Azerbaijan is myopic and highly counterproductive.
Just as any other nation, Azerbaijan is not perfect and has been open to constructive and friendly criticism. It also works to address the challenges it faces. For instance, Azerbaijan’s new system of electronic government services to citizens, ASAN, a major step toward curbing corruption, won enthusiastic popular acclaim domestically and recently won the prestigious U.N. Public Service Award 2015. Even with the uncertainty surrounding oil prices globally, an International Monetary Fund mission just upgraded Azerbaijan’s growth estimate for this year and noted a visible growth in its non-energy sector. As a matter of fact, the Baku Games have already provided a lasting legacy for thousands of young Azerbaijani citizens, who, working along with their international colleagues on delivering this historic event, have acquired invaluable world-class experience and unique skills essential for their future success.
In addition to launching a European sports legacy, the Baku Games offer a positive, optimistic vision in quite turbulent times. History, after all, is not written by pessimists and naysayers, but by visionary pragmatists who prefer to build a future through practical and real accomplishments rather than wordy proclamations.
• Elin Suleymanov is the ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the United States.