Friday, in Baku, the first European Games opened. Spectacle and sport, international competition and unity, all of the things the world claims to want when we show our best sides in peace. It is yet another step in Baku’s emergence as a serious and aspiring democracy. It is a sign that decades of reform and growth are producing a profoundly European Azerbaijan, even as war looms with Armenia, who continues an occupation of much of Azerbaijan in violation of international law.
Yet despite this important symbol, some take issue with Baku’s hosting of the Games. (Their number includes Romania’s new president, who is trying to indict his prime minister and former election opponent.) The criticism has been somewhat muted by the high level of execution Azerbaijan and the Games executives have demonstrated; but even muted, it is a sign of a persistent double standard.
There is a bizarre dance in which the West takes part, in which we reward the worst countries with praise for their infrequent signs of decency and ruthlessly criticize those nations struggling to Western norms. China, which even now enjoys a slave population in its laogai and still engages in forced abortions on its populace, is apparently a wonderful place. Armenia, which brutalizes its protesters, has an anointed line of leadership succession, and allies itself with Vladimir Putin, we treat as a model.
Ukraine, which struggled to hold its East and West together while undertaking far-reaching reforms in politics, economics, and law, holding regular, free and fair elections? Little better than a police state! Oh, but we showed them: All it cost them to get our grudging approval was having their country ripped in two, annexed and functionally annexed by Moscow, and having their economy crater. Now we’re back to ignoring them.
Azerbaijan? Azerbaijan holds presidential and parliamentary elections recognized as free and fair; works to liberalize its economy while reforming its government; takes part in pan-European representative bodies despite abuse from fringe MEPs; and works again and again to show that despite having a fifth of its landmass illegally occupied by Armenia, it is improving the lives of its citizens. Despite being wedged between Russia and Iran, it has acted as an American and Western ally through thick and thin. It has risked angering Moscow by opening its oil and natural gas spigots, denting Gazprom’s influence.
All too often, the West treats it as a gulag state — a ridiculous statement to anyone who has been there, but one that fits the easy line of criticism to which the West is prone. In the process, they help endanger a critical ally, wedged in a hostile neighborhood, even as the world erupts.
One would think we had learned our lesson by now. Western interference in Egypt – including a rejection of Mubarak’s suggestion of a peaceful succession – resulted in waves of bloodshed and, ultimately, a military coup. Helping ease out the toothless and defanged Muammar Gaddafi led to the bloody mess that is now Libya and – with Western interference in Syria – helped spark the rise of ISIS. Western interference in Ukraine showed Eastern Ukraine that its vote did not matter in national politics, and gave Vladimir Putin the tiny opening he needed to begin carving up the place.
No state is perfect; a reform movement suggests not just a need for change, but a desire for it. We should applaud and encourage those nations that actually try, rather than focusing on their failings and ignoring their successes.
The European Games continue through the month. The West should join in this opportunity to enjoy time united by peace and shared values, and shelve the constant criticism for a while. In the process, they may find they reap a better harvest than one sown in anger.
Note: This page has been updated since its original publication.
Image Copyright European Games