Tag Archives: Azerbaijan

One Europe?

by Rhodri C. Williams

As I type this, the points are rolling in for the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest. Its all a little bit surreal. Having done its best to stave off ‘politicization’ of a 2012 contest handed without strings to autocratic Azerbaijan, the organizers of Eurovision are now finding European politics bashing down the door and tracking muddy footprints down the hallway.

At the other end of Europe, it has been another bloody, divisive day in Eastern Ukraine, which is now described by the Guardian as ‘on the brink of civil war’. As mob rule descended on the Eastern city of Mariupol, one local Russian speaking resident described his view of the casus belli as follows: “This is the Donetsk people’s republic! We will destroy the Kiev junta and the Euro-gays! We will win!”

At this end of Europe, the picture could not be more different, with the Euro-gays sitting rather clearly in the ascendancy as the last minutes of the Eurovision contest roll down. A few minutes back, the astonishing transvestite performer Conchita Wurst of Austria passed the point of no return, taking high points not only from predictable Western countries but also east of the Oder locales like Georgia with rather mixed past records on moving past hetero-normativity.

More sadly, a pair of talented twins who happen to hail from Russia (but probably enjoy fairly little direct responsibility for troop movements on the Ukrainian border) initially drew loud and sustained boos from the crowd every time one of Russia’s few remaining friends in the region tipped them their 10 crony points. By the end the boos seemed to be drowned out by cheers, which indicate a far greater capacity to learn quickly from past mistakes on the part of the Eurovision crowd than the Kremlin regime.

The phenomenon of Conchita Wurst at this moment in European history highlights both the ascendancy of socially liberal values across many parts of Europe and the political division that gapes ever wider between European regimes that can handle individual expression and those that find it threatening. Not that the two never play footsie, mind. Just look at former Eurovision capital Azerbaijan, returned decisively to its draconian ways after the foreign media pulled out and yet all dolled up to assume the chairmanship of Europe’s ever less credible human rights organization, the Council of Europe, in just three days.

And yet, in the afterglow of a Eurovision contest that fell overwhelmingly to an Austrian ‘bearded woman’ who could belt out a power ballad like nobody’s business, the last word is best left to Conchita herself:

Waking in the rubble
Walking over glass
Neighbors say we’re trouble
Well that time has passed

At some point, now or in the future, Moscow will need to decide whether it always wants to be that grumpy neighbor or would rather integrate more meaningfully with a European community it has every claim to be a part of. But Europe would do well in the meantime to be a little more careful about who it welcomes into Conchita’s house.

A happy ending for Eurovision?

by Rhodri C. Williams

I promise that this will be my last ever word on the Eurovision song contest. There are any number of good reasons for me to move on, not least the fact that Eurovision seems to move me to rant, which is honestly not my strongest genre. However, the best possible reason was handed to me on a plate by fresh-faced Emmelie de Forrest, who took all the honors and moved them conveniently from one peaceful Nordic democracy to another one a forty minute commute away.

And there were moments, as Azerbaijan nudged within a few ‘dix points’ of Emmelie’s comely heels, where I saw an alternative, dystopic future – a future in which I would once again be compelled to wander the darkened streets of the blogosphere, bitterly denouncing the capricious demolitions of homes in Baku, casting aspersions upon the political naifs of the European Broadcasting Union, and railing against the hypocrisy of ostensible guardians of democracy such as the Council of Europe, long since tamed by a steady diet of inflated per diems and caviar. Thank you, Emmelie, for sparing us all that.

But before I bow out of the debate about Eurovision and human rights fully, a few observations. First, despite the welcome contrast between Azerbaijan’s structural aversion to human rights (universality notwithstanding, how is one honestly to go about applying them in a dynastic autocracy fueled by oil patronage?) and Sweden’s imperfect but earnest efforts, the human rights did emerge once again as a background issue in this year’s contest.

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Breaking news – Dissident arrests, police abuse and mass evictions in downtown Malmö by Swedish Eurovision hosts

by Rhodri C. Williams

Okay, that was the first completely bogus headline I have ever run in TN. But I bet it got your attention. You were probably skeptical, and rightly so, about connecting the phrases ‘dissident arrests’ and ‘mass evictions’ with adjectives like, well, ‘Swedish’. Unthinkable, right? However, if ‘Eurovision’ seemed similarly ill-placed in such unseemly company, that’s where things get interesting.

In fact, it was only last year that Europe’s annual fiesta of pop-culture self-congratulation was hosted by Azerbaijan, a dynastically ruled pseudo-democracy where strategic location, deep oil reserves and self-interested support for the ‘global war on terror’ have bought the regime a near complete pass on human rights observance. Sound like Gaddafi’s Libya in late 2010? Well, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong there.

A key difference, one might argue, was that Gaddafi’s Libya was not eligible to join prestigious European regional organizations like the Council of Europe, which are meant to ensure mutual respect for human rights standards among their members. However, the performance of the Aliyev regime in Baku appears to indicate that Mr. Gaddafi’s problem was largely geographical.

In fact, last year’s Eurovision contest went boldly forward where no autocracy had gone before, bulldozing a shrill chorus of human rights criticism with Wagnerian pyrotechnics even as entire neighborhoods were razed to improve the view from an arena built with purloined money, protesters were roughed up by police and dumped at the edge of town, and political prisoners continued to rot in jail, unenlightened by Azerbaijan’s spectacular entrance into Europe’s vacuous pop culture scene.

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Can you be internally displaced for twenty years? Housing issues and protracted displacement in Azerbaijan

by Yuliya Aliyeva

Yuliya Aliyeva is a Senior Program Manager at the Caucasus Research Resource Center, Azerbaijan. This blog post is based in part on the publication she co-authored last year for the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement, “‘Can you be an IDP for Twenty Years?’ A Comparative Field Study on the Protection Needs and Attitudes towards Displacement among IDPs and Host Communities in Azerbaijan”.  The report co-author, Tabib Huseynov, is the Caucasus Program Manager for Saferworld.

The ongoing conflict with neighbouring Armenia over Azerbaijan’s predominantly Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh produced one of the largest flows of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) seen during the deterioration process of the former Soviet Union. Today, some 595,000 people—or seven percent of the total population—remain internally displaced in Azerbaijan.[1] While the two states continue their posturing about the future of Nagorno-Karabakh, hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani citizens await durable solutions to their displacement and continue to face major housing and property concerns in particular.

The conflict started in 1988 as Armenians demanded incorporation of Nagorno-Karabakh into Armenia. As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, leaving a huge power vacuum behind, inter-communal clashes escalated into a full-scale undeclared war between newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan. As a result of the fighting, which left some 25,000-30,000 people dead on both sides, Armenian forces gained control over Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts that together make up 13.6 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory. A cease-fire was signed in 1994, which has largely held until today, although the parties have been unable to resolve the political dispute regarding the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.

As IDPs fled the conflict areas, they were temporarily settled throughout Azerbaijan. Some of them settled in administrative buildings, schools, unfinished buildings, dormitories and sanatoriums. Others were placed in IDP camps, railway cars, dugout shelters and other sub-standard emergency shelters in rural areas. The housing conditions for some IDPs have improved over time and are now similar to those enjoyed by the general Azerbaijani population. However, for the majority of IDPs, proper housing is still only a dream.

Today, according to official statistics, 86 percent of IDPs in Azerbaijan live in urban areas (mainly in Baku and Sumgait).[2] According to a recent World Bank study, 42.5 percent of IDPs live in one-room accommodations, compared to only 9.1 percent of non-IDPs.[3] As a result, IDP families have an average of 36 square meters of living space compared to 74 square meters for non-IDP families.[4] That being said, there is some diversity among IDP populations and their housing situations. Overall, the IDPs can be divided into four categories based on housing conditions.

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YouTube human rights channel, Cambodia and an upcoming guest posting by Natalie Bugalski

by Rhodri C. Williams

A bit of a Monday morning mashup today. First, I wanted to get the word out generally about the fact that YouTube has now teamed up with  WITNESS, an organization that has pioneered in the use of video for human rights, and Storyful, a social newsgathering operation, to provide a new human rights channel. According to the announcement run on the YouTube blog, the channel will add value to the raw footage uploaded to the website every day:

The channel, which will also feature content from a slate of human rights organizations already sharing their work on YouTube, aims to shed light on and contextualize under-reported stories, to record otherwise undocumented abuses, and to amplify previously unheard voices. …. Storyful will source and verify the videos, and WITNESS will ensure the channel features a balanced breadth of issues with the context viewers need to understand the rights issue involved.

This is clearly a valuable service from an advocacy perspective. The rush of compelling footage coming out of places like Syria has grabbed the attention of people everywhere and Kony2012 has controversially but undoubtedly shown the power of net-based media to reach out to non-traditional audiences with a human rights message. Hopefully a systematic effort to sort and contextualize raw footage will have a stabilizing effect, allowing video to continue conveying the urgency of human rights crises, but in a manner that allows people to educate themselves rather than simply be shocked. Whether this service can also allow such amateur evidence-gathering to be given a more prominent role in international criminal proceedings will be an interesting question to watch.

As witnessed in recent writings in this blog on both Azerbaijan and Cambodia, forced evictions and use of force against those protesting them have, among other things, made for some eye-grabbing visuals. The new YouTube channel has not failed to miss this, and one of the early ‘in-depth’ topics listed is ‘Cambodia deadly land clashes‘. TN readers with mobile phone cameras who find themselves at the front lines of the tenure security struggle should take note.

Keeping with Cambodia, I also wanted to follow on to last week’s guest-posting by Natalie Bugalski and David Pred on the ‘Boeung Kak Lake 15′ protesters and my subsequent report on the campaign for their release. This week, I wanted to belatedly announce Natalie’s publication of a Discussion Paper on a human rights approach to the development of Cambodia’s land sector. Natalie will also be guest-writing on TN again shortly in order to describe the World Bank’s forthcoming review of its safeguard policies, with a particular look at the involuntary resettlement policy (note that this topic is the focus of a campaign to be pursued by David and Natalie’s newly-founded, Cambodia-based human rights organization Inclusive Development International).

Europe, stop voting now! (The Eurovision contest returns to a democracy)

by Rhodri C. Williams

“Europe stop voting now!” shouted the well-scrubbed hosts of the Baku 2012 Eurovision finals last night after a dizzying round of 26 acts featuring babushkas, boats, bread ovens and backflips. And with that, the first truly free and fair exercise of democracy on Azerbaijani soil was completed. Too bad it was not a real election, but the results for Azerbaijan’s politics remain somewhat unpredictable.

The worst case scenario will be a return to repression as usual, but with the additional alibi of having ascended to the ranks of Eurovision-hosting countries. The rest of Europe, in other words, is free to resume voting periodically in meaningful elections, while Baku will continue to exercise its own discretion in the matter. On the other hand, the fact that the honors fell in this case to Sweden’s Loreen may help to ensure that the contest does not simply move on, allowing a free hand to the Azerbaijani authorities to crack down in its wake.

The Swedes are one of the few countries in ‘old Europe’ to still take the contest seriously; this is their fifth win, placing them second behind Ireland in overall trophies. When we opened the window at midnight yesterday, the air veritably shook with lusty Viking voices “going up-up-up-up-up”. The Swedes also have a sense of fair play and a streak of impatience with countries that fail to live up to Nordic standards of democracy and rule of law, particularly where they are forced to cohabit the same European institutional spaces with them. Local reactions to the skeletons in Baku’s human rights closet were late in coming but strong. Last Thursday, for instance, the foreign policy spokesman of one of Sweden’s ruling coalition parties called for EU sanctions against Azerbaijan of a similar nature to those applied against other post-Soviet failed democracies like Belarus.

However, the latter piece raised at least two Swedish negative points on this issue. First the author explicitly noted that cooperation between an affiliate of Swedish telecoms giant Telia-Sonera and the regime in Baku is likely to make it easier for the latter to track down dissidents. Second, and implicitly, the relatively low level authorship of the piece emphasized the near-silence on this topic from the actual Foreign Minister, the ordinarily loquacious Carl Bildt, who could only be troubled to give recent mention to Eurovision 2012 as something of a distraction from regional security issues in his prolific blog (though he had expressed hopes the contest would improve the country’s human rights record a year ago – while at the same time praising Telia-Sonera’s investments there).

Nevertheless, on Friday night, the Swedish public television’s evening news was refreshingly well-informed about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan – and even stumbled onto a demo where grim-faced plain-clothed heavies didn’t let the rolling cameras crimp their style as they hustled protesters into waiting minivans (see minute 43 and onward of the broadcast). The Swedish reporter also took the time to visit a squalid home for IDPs from Nagorno-Karabakh (she swoons visibly while pronouncing “27 families to a single toilet”) just minutes away from the ‘crystal hall’ built for the contest, as she notes, by the President’s own shell company. She also reports on disappointment in Baku over the passive approach of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and risks to activists (who have been ostentatiously filmed by the police) once the contest is over.

The segment ends with the former Swedish ambassador to Azerbaijan, Hans Gunnar Aden, who gives a candid take on the caviar diplomacy recently described by the European Stability Initiative (ESI), stating that the country is sliding toward dictatorship while demonstrating a marked ability to “deceive – or bribe” Western observers such as those in the Council of Europe. In other words, awareness of Azerbaijan’s appalling human rights record and its successful campaign of obscuring these abuses in order to retain membership in prestigious European institutions has sunk in here in Sweden. Of perhaps the most practical use to Azerbaijan’s dangerously exposed democracy activists is the fact that the new Queen of Eurovision, Loreen, took the trouble to meet them personally and will no doubt remain interested in their fate. As reported by the BBC last week:

The Swedish singer Loreen, one of the favourites to win this year’s Eurovision, has already had a meeting with local human rights activists, much to the annoyance of the Azeri authorities.

The return of Eurovision to a country that consciously seeks to live up to European standards on human rights and democracy rather than to undermine them will make for a refreshing change. However, last night’s jamboree in Baku has both helped to legitimize an undemocratic European regime and to tarnish the reputations of both the Council of Europe and the European Broadcasting Union. Having won the battle for Eurovision last night, Sweden must now consider how it can contribute to winning the war for the assertion of core European values in countries that aspire to European membership.

Few signs of Spring in Baku (and less in Strasbourg) in the leadup to a tainted Eurovision final

by Rhodri C. Williams

As much as I am a big believer in maintaining a healthy firewall between work and life, the human rights branch can sorely test one’s ability to compartmentalize. As a result, I face a dilemma next Saturday. On one hand, my kids are now old enough to genuinely share in my (not unlimited) fascination with the annual sanitized bacchanalia that is Eurovision. So my private-me would love to break out the popcorn, pile onto the couch with the family and squirm through this year’s crop of ethno-retro-monstro-disco with an untroubled conscience.

Inconveniently, however, my public-me has long since foreclosed this option. Unlike earlier contests, this year’s final in Azerbaijan is tainted not only by the unapologetic disdain for human rights and democracy displayed by its hosts, but also by the self-defeating failure of the European institutions responsible for safeguarding these values to attach even the frailest of strings to the massive PR coup of holding the contest. Free but unwilling to lob criticism from the safety of Brussels, Strasbourg (home to the Council of Europe or CoE, to which Azerbaijan has made binding human rights commitments) and Geneva (in the case of the European Broadcasting Union or EBU, which sponsors the event), these organizations have displayed nothing like the courage of ordinary Azerbaijani activists and journalists who face blackmail, police beatings and hard time for expressing dissent.

In an age in which European leaders are all too willing to disown previously indispensable autocracies in the Middle East, how to explain this blindness to their own backyard? Will presumptive president-for-life Ilham Alijev become for the Council of Europe and the EBU what Saif al-Islam Ghaddafi ended up being for the LSE? And what legitimate claim will the rhetoric of ‘European values’ have on the loyalties of ordinary Azerbaijanis when and if the substance of those values actually prevail? These questions have been raised in a very pointed and concrete manner during recent weeks by a number of international and local organizations.

Beginning with the international advocates, my former Bosnia colleagues at the European Stability Initiative (ESI) today released a blockbuster report on the systematic campaign of ‘caviar diplomacy’ designed to win and retain “the stamp of legitimacy conferred by Council of Europe membership”. The ESI alleges that by offering annual gifts of caviar and flash trips to Baku, the Aliyev regime secured the loyalty of key members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (composed of national parliamentarians from CoE member states), as well as the organization’s secretariat. In return, Baku received “ever more anodyne, even complimentary” reports on its blatantly rigged elections and deteriorating human rights record.

In the words of ESI, the Aliyev regime succeeded in only five years in neutering Europe’s oldest human rights organization:

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