(Co-authored with Anar Valiyev) “Urban boosterism” is defined as the active promotion of a city, and it typically involves large-scale urban development schemes, including constructing iconic new buildings, revamping local infrastructure, and creating a new “image” for the city. Long a popular tactic of free market liberals to justify speculative building (that is, in the absence of existing demand), the logic of urban boosterism hinges on freedom of movement of both capital and individuals. Curiously, though, it is increasingly at work in settings less committed to such freedoms. Urban planners in authoritarian countries are increasingly seeking to create new images for their cities and states through grandiose urban development and the hosting of major international spectacles (or “mega-events”), such as World’s Fairs, Olympic Games, or the World Cup. As citizens and their leaders in liberal democracies grow increasingly fatigued by—and intolerant of—the skyrocketing expense of hosting such spectacles, leaders in non-democracies have been quick to pick up the slack and are beginning to win first-tier event bids (like the 2008 Beijing Olympics; the 2014 Sochi Olympics and Russia’s 2018 World Cup; and Qatar’s 2022 World Cup). While urban boosterism in liberal democratic settings is also used to solidify the position of “growth machine” elites, the unprecedented $51 billion price tag for Russia’s Olympic Games in Sochi shows that resource-rich, non-democratic states are positioned to develop such projects on a dramatically larger scale.
The “Sochi syndrome” is a sign of what we can expect as more and more nondemocratic, illiberal states host these events. Taking the cases of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan—all of which rank among the world’s least free countries in the classification system of Freedom House, a U.S. nongovernmental organization—this memo illustrates how these events serve as a convenient platform to consolidate authoritarian systems and to promote state-dominated, elite financial interests. Boosterist agendas in Baku, Astana, and Ashgabat serve two related purposes: (1) distributing financial and political patronage; and (2) promoting a positive image of the state for both international and domestic consumption.